Phillis Wheatley: Grace and Genius Videos


When this frail little girl set foot in Boston on July 11, 1761, Phillis Wheatley became the only name we know among the untold millions who suffered the horrors of the Middle Passage whose arrival was documented. A Wheatley family member wrote “She soon gave indications of uncommon intelligence and was frequently seen endeavoring to make letters upon the wall with a piece of chalk or charcoal.”

Soon she was writing poetry:

“Imagination! Who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God…”

On the night of March 5, 1770 Phillis witnessed the chaotic aftermath of the Boston Massacre when British soldiers opened fire on a furious crowd leaving five Bostonians dead. Her poem “On the Affray in King Street” appeared the following week in the Boston Evening Post.


In 1772 Phillis’s owner Susanna Wheatley had the poet assemble her best poems to publish in a book. At the request of her patron the countess of Huntingdon, Phillis sat for a portrait as part of the marketing campaign for the book. It is the only image we have of Phillis Wheatley. Wheatley family members described it as a “striking representation.”

The portrait was revolutionary: a mass-produced image of an African-born woman participating in high culture. The image that introduced Phillis Wheatley to the world presented a thoughtful, dignified, highly educated woman engaged in the creative act of writing poetry.

Phillis sailed to London in May 1773 to arrange publication of her book and returned in July. On October 18, 1773 Phillis wrote: “Since my return to America my Master has, at the desire of my friends in England, given me my freedom. I am now upon my own footing and whatever I get by this is entirely mine.”

Phillis expected the shipment of her books to arrive soon from London on The Dartmouth with Captain Hall. The Dartmouth anchored in Boston harbor on November 28, 1773. But Phillis was not able to retrieve her books. That night the town of Boston placed the ship under twenty-four-hour armed guard to make sure no merchandise was removed. Phillis Wheatley’s books were held on the ship along with some nefarious cargo—114 chests of East India Tea.


On October 26, 1775 Phillis Wheatley wrote the most consequential poem of her career. Her latest inspiration was a tribute to the new “Generalissimo of the armies of North America,” His Excellency George Washington. Phillis Wheatley’s poem impressed Washington so much that he arranged to have the poem published in the Virginia Gazette on March 20, 1776.

Then Washington took a startling and unprecedented step. The General composed a personal message to Phillis Wheatley, thanking her and offering a startling proposal: “If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near Head Quarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favoured by the Muses, and to whom Nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations.” It was the only occasion when George Washington ever gave a black person the unusual distinction of an invitation to pay him a social visit.

Washington biographer Ron Chernow writes: “Washington appears to have received Phillis Wheatley at his Cambridge headquarters in March with a ‘very courteous reception.’”

Her poem to Washington offered something new, an allegorical innovation credited to Phillis Wheatley. She appropriated the Greek-influenced name “Columbia” (Land of Columbus), then commonly used to refer to the British colonies in America. Wheatley reimagined the name Columbia to give it an entirely new and richer meaning. The poet saw Columbia as a vivid visual character, a woman endowed with mythical celestial qualities. In her artistic vision, Columbia became a Goddess with Divine Authority, a powerful warrior wrapped in heavenly light who came to lead the fight for freedom. With this novel touch, Phillis Wheatley gave us the first personification of America as a nation.


She survived the Middle Passage as a child and was purchased as a slave in 1761. By the time she turned twenty Phillis Wheatley became the most famous person of African descent in the world. By the strength of her talent and intelligence, she forced her contemporaries to acknowledge her humanity and confront the inequity of her status as a slave.

· Phillis Wheatley was a Middle Passage survivor.

· Phillis Wheatley arrived in this country as a slave, unable to read, write or speak a word of English to become the first African American and only the second woman to publish a book in America.

· By her own literary skill, creativity and natural intelligence in the face of virulent white supremacy, she forced those around her to acknowledge her humanity.

· Phillis Wheatley was regarded as a genius in her time and despite persistent efforts to discredit the intellectual abilities of people of African descent, genius remains part of her legacy.

· Phillis Wheatley was an eloquent advocate for freedom and a passionate supporter of the patriot’s cause.

· Her portrait of Lady Columbia re-imagined as a goddess of liberty gave us the first personification of the American spirit.

· Phillis Wheatley knew and corresponded with at least five of our Founding Fathers, all of whom praised her work.

· When she returned to Boston from London where she was free, Phillis Wheatley became the first person of African descent to claim an African-American identity.

· The first shipment of her books arrived from London on the same ship as the hated tea made infamous by the Boston Tea Party, forever linking Phillis Wheatley to one of the most iconic moments in American history.

· Phillis Wheatley can now be considered among the founder Mothers and Fathers of our nation and unofficial “Poet Laureate” of the American Revolution.