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Phillis Wheatley: The Enslaved Poet Who Met with George Washington AND the King of England

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
March 28, 2023 3:00 am

Phillis Wheatley: The Enslaved Poet Who Met with George Washington AND the King of England

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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March 28, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Phillis Wheatley, the first published black poet, has the remarkable distinction of being invited to meet with both King George III and George Washington. Lesli Johnson of the American Village tells her story.

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The definition of an anagram is a word or phrase or written work that can be formed by rearranging the letters of another. And one good example is on being brought from Africa to America, written in 1768. Here to read this poem and tell the story of the remarkable woman behind the hand that wrote it, Phyllis Wheatley, is Leslie Johnson.

Take it away, Leslie. Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land, taught my benighted soul to understand that there is a God, that there is a savior too. Once I redemption, neither sought nor knew. Some view our sable race with scornful eye.

Their color is a diabolic dye. Remember Christians, Negroes, black as cane, may be refined and join the angelic train. There was another gentleman, a scholar who actually, he was a fan of anagrams and he went back and reevaluated that poem and got a completely different message from the one that seemingly is presented to you upon first reading it.

Because sometimes depending on who the person is that reads it, you may get different messages. Same can be said of you and me. Hail, brethren in Christ, have ye forgotten God's word? Scriptures teach us that bondage is wrong. His own greedy kin sold Joseph into slavery.

Is there no balm in Gilead? God made us all. Aren't African men born to be free? So am I. Ye commit so brute a crime on us, but we can change thy attitude, America.

Manument our race. I thank the Lord. In a lot of her poetry, there are lots of different secret hidden messages. I mean, she's, she wasn't a fool. No matter what other people thought, she was not stupid. She knew where she was.

She knew what she was writing. So what was Phyllis Wheatley's life like? Her actual birthday is not known because in Africa, as I understand it, they, they calculate birth and date a little bit differently in their cultural traditions.

So we don't know that. We know that she has a family. Of course, she had a mother and father at some specific point.

She might have even had siblings, but it is unknown. All we know for sure is that somewhere around the year of 1761, she was kidnapped and traveled the distance of maybe five months. These conditions of any slave being brought aboard, they usually were going to be at the bottom of the ship and they were usually packed together in chains.

They were given very little to eat, very little clothing, usually kept in the dark, usually never let up, typically. So actually the schooner that brought her probably wouldn't have been able to be brought up. So actually the schooner that brought her probably would have had hundreds of slaves and they're probably at least a third of that cargo would have died. I say cargo, I mean people, but people were treated as such, nothing more than cargo. When she arrived in Boston, she was very sick. Actually the ship captain at the time thought she was going to die.

And so he stopped off. They were actually bound for the West Indies. The schooner that she was aboard was supposed to go to the West Indies, but he had lost stock of his slaves and decided, I'm going to go off to Boston.

This will be close and it's on the way and I'll sell what I can. And so the slaves were made to board these scaffolds where people could come and inspect them, pinch them, push them a little bit, make them walk around to see if they would be able to perform everyday tasks or activities depending on the labor. As most of us know, in Boston, Massachusetts is a great big seaport. It's not a plantation. So what people would want slaves for would be a little bit different than say the colonies of Georgia or Virginia.

But still, hard labor is hard labor. The captain didn't really probably think anyone was going to be interested in Phyllis at the time because she was really small and frail and dirty and on the brink of death. In fact, actually she she might have most likely suffered breathing afflictions for the rest of her life due to the conditions of the ship that were forced on her.

I imagine maybe something close to asthma. But anyway, while she was up there, of course, you know, she's only about seven or eight years old by this particular point. Her age was calculated based on how many teeth that she had at the time. They weren't actually really sure of her age.

Yeah. So she was just standing up there, you know, scared little kid. You've just been taken away from your home.

You don't know where you are. And then this well-looking lady and gentleman just come up to where she is and look down at her and kind of decide, OK, we're going to take this one home. And that was the the couple, John and Susanna Wheatley. John Wheatley, Susanna's husband, was a very wealthy tailor and a merchant of sorts. So he was actually a fairly prominent figure, a pretty wealthy gentleman. There's not a documentation that they had other slaves beyond Phyllis.

It's possible that they did, but there's not as much documentation on that. But John wanted to get his wife a slave just to have mostly as a companion. So they wanted this kid and paid very little for her.

I don't imagine a few a few pounds, not very much. They took her home and they named her Phyllis. Phyllis was the name actually of the schooner that brought her to Boston. So that's what she gets her name. What her name was before, we will never know.

So they brought her home and most of her tasks were delineated to household chores, sweeping the floor, dusting things off books, helping Mrs. Wheatley with whatever was necessary. The Wheatleys had five children. Three of them died. The ones that survived were one son and one daughter. They were twins.

Mary was the daughter and Nathaniel was the son. And one day they just happened to, or as we, it's not really entirely reported, but one day I think they happened to just find that she had an aptitude, Phyllis, for learning. It just caught her, you know, sometimes looking at books, trying to understand things. Narrative that goes by is that she, one day they walked in on her and she was trying to copy some, she had a piece of coal in her hand and it was a book and she was trying to copy the letters and try to make it look the same way. And they found that fascinating. And so the daughter, specifically Mary, was like, well, we should see if we can teach her how to read and write that, you know, that, that could be something.

John was also on board for that. So she began learning how to, it only took about, about 16 months time she could read and write and speak English quite well, very adept at it, and began learning other subjects, astronomy, literature, geography, even Greek and Latin, which was actually very uncommon for a young lady to learn. So for a young African American female slave, that was pretty much unheard of or probably considered impossible. When we come back, more of this story of race on Our American Story. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history, from war to innovation, culture, and faith are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life, and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses. Go to to learn more. Buying a home can be an anxiety inducing endeavor.

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No purchase necessary. And we continue with our American stories and our story on Phyllis Wheatley with Leslie Johnson at the American village in Montevallo, Alabama. When we last left off, Leslie was telling us about how Phyllis came to America as a young sickly slave and ended up in Boston where she quickly surprised her owners with her ability to pick up literature and the English language. So surprising was it that they encouraged her in her pursuits. Something virtually unheard of during that time.

Let's pick up where we last left off. Here again is Leslie. Around 14 years old or about 14 is when she published her first poem which was anonymously put into a Rhode Island paper. Nobody ever figured out it's her at that particular point in time. She learned how to read Greek and Latin. I think she could speak some too. Probably more than I would give her credit about. She probably could speak pretty well based on if you could pick up like English in under 14 months.

I don't know who knows how much she could do. But she also really liked the works of Roman poets Ovid and Virgil. One of them is called Niobe in Distress for her Children Slain by Apollo. It's a very long poem.

It's good. But anyway that wasn't her original poem but when she was 12 she translated it from Greek to Latin and then to English just to throw that out there. So the years continue to roll by and we find ourselves as I said Phyllis arrived in the country in 1761. So she arrived just before the series of taxes began to come from England. So she was there when the Stamp Act came around 1765 and colonists everyone's upset about all of these varying taxes that are going on.

What's changing about this country? And of course going down the road the shot heard around the world and eventually the Boston Massacre. Well Boston Massacre occurs. She is completely distraught by this. She even wrote a short poem about the five individuals that died which again she published anonymously. No one knew about it. And she began to think about I think her place in the world.

What is that supposed to be? And being encouraged to write by her master she continued to watching all these fantastic changes occur. And she began learning the Bible, learning to read the Bible at a very young age too.

Really absorbing the things that she read even as young as 12 years old. The Wheatleys were very specific about that. They even actually I believe that the Wheatleys were Methodists and whenever they attended church they took her with them and she sat with them. That sometimes allowed people to look at her and look at the Wheatleys a little bit differently in certain respects but that did happen too. I bring that up because another prominent figure of the time was Reverend George Whitfield, a great English Evangelical preacher.

He was quite prominent in the day. Everyone was listening to his speeches and he was a favorite actually of Mrs. Wheatley and he was engaged in a speaking tour that was going on across America but he died quite suddenly. When he did Mrs. Wheatley was quite distraught and Phyllis, while it's not recorded that she was able to attend one of his revival meetings, she was privy to his speeches which were recorded and she resonated with a lot of things that he said. When he died she decided to write a poem about him, a wonderful poem actually.

It was actually published as a broadside in varying places which included Boston, Newport, New York, and Philadelphia. As such also at the time she sent a poem to a countess living in Huntington in England by the name of Selena Hastings. She also sent the poem in her condolences as it were because Miss Hastings was intending to make Reverend Whitfield a chaplain in one of her many churches. He prayed that grace in every heart might dwell. He longed to see America excel. He charged its youth that every grace divine should with full luster and their conduct shine. That savior which his soul did first receive the greatest gift that even a God can give.

He freely offered to the numerous throng that on his lips with listening pleasure hung. Take him ye wretched for your only good. Take him ye starving sinners for your food.

Ye thirsty come to this life-giving stream. Ye preachers, take him for your joyful theme. Take him my dear Americans, he said, be your complaints on his kind bosom laid. Take him ye Africans, he longs for you.

Impartial savior is his title due. Washed in the fountain of redeeming blood, you shall be sons and kings and priests to God. Great countess, we Americans revere thy name and mingle in thy grief sincere. The poem gets there. Her poem gets published in London. Just it happened.

Mrs. Wheatley found out she was ecstatic. Oh my goodness, this is amazing. You need to have more. I know you've written more. I know you've written more. And by this particular point too, Phyllis had actually always, the Wheatleys, like many people of prominent stature, would tend to bring other people to their home and host for different occasions. Phyllis was also seen kind of as part of that, as an entertainment, as it were. She would read and write for varying guests. And so she decided that more of her works needed to be published. And so decided to try to get a number of subscribers within the city in order to push her book.

Phyllis had already written hundreds of poems by this particular point, so putting together a book would not have been hard for her. But it is extremely difficult in this particular time for anyone, even a gentleman. A gentleman of the time would still have a hard time getting any work of his published, let alone an African female slave.

So she was unsuccessful the first time for a couple of reasons. It's just before we're about to declare a war with Great Britain. So the colonies are beginning to divide themselves into two distinct factions. You are either a patriot, a supporter of a cause of the independence and the separation of the colonies from Great Britain, or you are a British loyal supporter, a Tory. The Wheatleys were Tories, something that was not uncommon, actually, at this particular time. There were a lot of them. So a loyalist paper is one, the many unpopular loyalist papers is what Susanna Wheatley was leaning towards when she tried to get these subscribers. So a lot of people didn't want to have anything to do with that.

The other reason, and the one that probably makes the most sense because it is true, is because no one would actually believe that a slave was capable of writing a volume of poetry. Husband, though, John Wheatley said, well, we're going to have a meeting. I'm going to gather together 18 of the most prominent men in Boston, several of which who were ministers. That included Reverend Samuel Cooper, James Bowdoin, the governor of Massachusetts at the time, many very large families who came to this meeting.

The purpose of the meeting was to determine whether or not she had written this poetry. Just imagine that, you know, you're 18 years old, you've written all this poetry, you had a poem published in London because someone decided that's something. And now the 18 figures that you probably are fairly familiar with, at least half of them, Boston again, while being a large city, you know who's in charge of everything here. So, you know, half of them are ministers. Some of them are poets. They may not necessarily be published, but several of the ministers were poets. Half of them are loyalists.

The other half are British patriots. All of them have come together to find out whether or not you are capable of writing something and whether or not this is a lie. Notwithstanding also it was illegal at the time or extremely frowned upon to be educating slaves in general. So this is about your entire future being placed on the line. This is unprecedented.

No one's ever done this before. Then she had to face this question of whether a young black woman could write the poetry that she claimed to write. By the way, this would be a claim that August Wilson would have to make the prominent African-American playwright in this country who wrote the play Fences and so many others. He was questioned about his writing capabilities in the Pittsburgh public schools and he left school. They didn't believe he could have written so well. Phyllis Whitley's story continues here on Our American Story.

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No purchase necessary. And we return to our American stories and our final portion on the story of Phyllis Wheatley with Leslie Johnson at the American Village in Montevallo, Alabama. When we last left off, Phyllis Wheatley was set to publish her first book of poetry but had to be put in front of a panel of Bostonian elites who would determine whether or not she actually penned her own work. Let's return to the story.

Here again is Leslie Johnson. There had been other African American poets before Phyllis Wheatley, but none of them had any published work and none of them were sought after usually to determine whether or not they had the intelligence and the aptitude for any kind of writing. So I imagine she thought that her future was being placed in the hands of these gentlemen in their decision. You know, if they decided that that was wrong, that she didn't, then she could still be left in the confines of the situation she presently was in, even if it was a little bit better than most slaves at this time. But if they decided that she had, that could open up doors that didn't exist before. And not just for her, but for perhaps maybe other people after her, other African Americans.

We'll never know what actually happened. No one documented what happened on this historic attestation, this whole meeting that happened. But when it was all over, she was given a public attestation which said, We whose names are underwritten do assure the world that the poems specified in the following page were, as we verily believe, written by Phyllis, a young negro girl who was but a few years since brought an uncultivated barbarian from Africa and has ever since been, and now is, under the disadvantage of serving as a slave in a family in this town. She has been examined by some of the best judges and is thought qualified to write them.

That document was signed by every gentleman who was present at that meeting. The book was called Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. And it was, again, this great triumph. No one had ever done this before. It's the first African American poet to ever have a published work ever. The publisher of the book actually went on to say that her work consisted of one of the greatest instances of pure unassisted genius the world had ever seen. And he pointed out that she was, in fact, a native of Africa and had not left it until she was nearly eight years old with zero training in English, did not know English, couldn't speak English, couldn't read or write to this.

And this is before or close to the age of 20. So as a result, she was given leave by her mistress, Susanna, to go to England so that she could oversee the book's publication. She was also helped by that same countess, Selena Hastings, I talked about a little bit earlier, because she's one of the people who helped facilitate this. She's very well received by the English in England by this particular point, even though it had not been the sticking point yet, because the war for independence is about to happen.

English people, they didn't care very much for slavery. There were many more abolitionists at that particular point who were already looking towards that. So when she arrived, not only were they just impressed with her intelligence and her demure, her entire countenance, she was also considered as a child a very genial, precocious child.

And they even, at the time, while she was there, criticized the Wheatleys for that she was still a slave after this accomplishment. But while she was there, she met a lot of prominent gentry, the Earl of Dartmouth at the time, and Brook Watson, another supporter of hers who would later become the mayor of London. Benjamin Franklin actually had been in London around that time, and he actually called upon her. He heard about Phyllis Wheatley and was like, let me go, you know, he came and he ended up writing a letter to another friend of his, like I visited the young mistress of Phyllis Wheatley and tried to, you know, find out what I could do for her.

I don't believe I could do anything, but maybe you can. But he found her to be quite intelligent and enjoyed her company for the brief amount of time. She was even invited to meet King George III and the royal family, also something that was very unusual.

People don't just meet the king. Unfortunately, she was not able to meet King George or the royal family because by this particular point, Susanna Wheatley had fallen ill. Of what the illness was is not recorded. So they had to make the journey back home. As we all know, really any boat trip that anyone takes is going to take a bit of time.

And I imagine from Boston to England, that was at least three or four months of your time on ship. So she goes back home before Christmas. Susanna Wheatley's health is not approved by this point. At some point, she is summoned by both John and Susanna Wheatley, and they call her over and meet her in the parlor, sit her down in between them. And it was their desire to free her, which they did. They did shortly after she returned home from England. Whether or not they freed her because of the publication of the book, the criticism they may have received from the English, or because they wanted to, we don't really know. I like to think that it's because they wanted her to have a better life of her own, but I also understand the conventions of the time, and that may not necessarily be true.

And if we are thinking about social standing and status, you might be more concerned with your reputation than such things. Again, she was treated very well by all accounts. And according to what I've also read though, they were very fond of her. I think that Mrs. Wheatley even considered her closer to a child that she helped raise as much as a slave, so they were able to free her. That was around, yeah, the fall of 1773. In the spring of 1774, two things happened. Susanna Wheatley died, and the British landed in Boston. Also around this time, she also had found out that George Washington had been made Commander-in-Chief of a Continental Army at this point, and she was a very big George Washington fan.

I guess she's not alone. There's a lot of people who are George Washington fans out there. So she wrote a poem about him actually and carried correspondence with George Washington a few times.

Before eventually getting correspondence back, he was actually apologetic that he was not able to speak with her sooner. powers, Columbia's fury found. And so may you, whoever dares disgrace the land of freedom's heaven-defended race. Fixed are the eyes of nations on the scales, for then their hopes Columbia's arm prevails. A non-Bretania droops the pensive head, while round increase the rising hills of dead. Ah, cruel blindness to Columbia State, lament thy thirst of boundless power too late. Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side.

Thy every action let the goddess guide. A crown, a mansion, a throne that shine. With gold unfading, Washington be thine. But anyway, after the British came in 1774, John Wheatley fled.

Again, he was a loyalist. So by this point, the Wheatley children are out of the house. Mary Wheatley is married to someone else. So Phyllis was sent to live with her for a period of time. She left Boston because of this. She doesn't return for three or four years. By the time she comes back, about 1776 or so, the world had sort of moved on without her. While she did, of course, receive a specific amount of compensation for her first volume of poetry, she didn't get all of it. And she had one more submission on into the Boston Evening Post. And not too long after that, December 5th, 1784, she died.

There is no recorded cause of her death, I imagine, just due to dwindling funds, being poor, living in filth, which is a truly unhappy ending to what was a very amazing person who, in my opinion, was probably born way too early to be truly appreciated for the kind of stir that she made. Someone has to be first. It happened to be her. I think actually Henry Louis Gates Jr. spoke very, he said it very eloquently. She was too black for her white contemporaries and not black enough for her future contemporaries. So stuck in a rock and a hard place. But I think about a teenager, a teenager who did something no one else ever did.

The story of the first published African-American poet here on Our American Stories. You know what's coming up? Swimsuit season. And here's something everyone hates about it. Yes, that annoying shaving and waxing regrowth that haunts you.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-04-01 23:39:46 / 2023-04-01 23:52:10 / 12

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