Themes and Highlights from the Book

Phillis Wheatley statue at the Boston Women's Memorial, Commonwealth Avenue Mall, Boston.

Phillis Wheatley statue at the Boston Women’s Memorial, Commonwealth Avenue Mall, Boston.

1. Phillis Wheatley was a Middle Passage survivor. When the traumatized little girl set foot in Boston on July 11, 1761 she became the only one among untold millions who suffered the horrors of the Middle Passage whose arrival was documented. We know the name of the slave ship that brought her and the date and place of arrival in America.

2. Phillis Wheatley discussed her faith in a recorded interview that was transcribed verbatim. Phillis was eighteen when she sat with someone identified as “a New York Gentleman” who interviewed her about her religious beliefs. Phillis responded thoughtfully to a series of penetrating questions and her words were duly written down in a document recently discovered by Wheatley biographer Vincent Carretta. This extraordinary dialogue allows us to eavesdrop on a rather intimate conversation in real time as Phillis shared her thoughts. We hear the unique voice of Phillis Wheatley in her own syntax and speech patterns transported through the mists of time, and immediately we recognize a woman of intelligence, complexity and depth.

3. What was Phillis Wheatley really like? We have detailed descriptions of her character and personality from Wheatley family member Margaretta Matilda Oddell and others who knew her. The 1773 portrait featured in her book was acknowledged by contemporaries as stunningly accurate.

4. The apocryphal examination of Phillis Wheatley by 18 prominent Boston men (the famous “Wheatley Court”) never happened. There is no evidence to support the scenario that Phillis underwent a rigorous quizzing by a panel of experts. Such an examination would have been unnecessary because most of the men who signed the “Attestation” knew Phillis personally and had ample evidence of her abilities. It would have been highly improbable that these esteemed Boston leaders would consent to get together in the same room because, in those turbulent times, many of them were bitter political enemies.

5. Phillis Wheatley’s London experience changed her life. Her October 18, 1773 letter offers a detailed itinerary of her London travels. She describes how she was entertained by London’s most elite citizens who escorted her to London’s hottest tourist spots and named the esteemed London Gentry she met, including Lord Dartmouth, and the American representative Benjamin Franklin. Phillis raved about her time in London, observing that it “fills me with astonishment.”

6. An analysis: How Phillis Wheatley earned her freedom. For almost the entire time she was in London, Phillis was on her own, enjoying a defacto freedom. Wheatley established relationships with leading abolitionists including John Thornton, John Newton and a young William Wilberforce. Her most significant contact in London was Granville Sharp, the legal expert responsible for the Somerset ruling of 1772 establishing that slavery was illegal in England. Although we do not know the time or the circumstances of Phillis Wheatley’s actual liberation, she did report in her letter of October 18, 1773 that her master had granted her freedom.

7. A new revelation: The first shipment of Phillis Wheatley’s books arrived from London on one of the Boston Tea Party ships. Snatch’d From Afric’s Fancy’d Happy Seat presents evidence that Phillis Wheatley’s books arrived from London on the same ship as the hated tea. This revelation forever links Phillis Wheatley to one of the most iconic moments in American history.

8. Introducing a Wheatley innovation: the poetic image of “Lady Columbia.” In her 1775 tribute to General Washington, Phillis Wheatley gave us our first popular symbol of America. The poet imagined America as a goddess in a flowing robe. The heavenly figure of Lady Columbia became a popular symbol which lasted until the mid-twentieth century. It was perhaps Phillis Wheatley’s most enduring gift to the American Spirit.

9. New evidence suggests that the reported meeting between Phillis Wheatley and George Washington actually took place. The only account of an extraordinary March 1776 encounter between Phillis Wheatley and General Washington came from a journalist in 1850. Evidence points to an informant who was in a position to know, the man who then owned the house where the meeting took place—the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

10. Phillis Wheatley was the first public figure to embrace her identity as an African-American. Throughout her short poetic career, Phillis Wheatley declared her African heritage proudly, appearing in her poems as “your vent’rous Afric,” and “an Ethiop,” charming readers with “heavn’nly tidings from the Afric muse.” Her fateful decision to return to Boston from London, where she was legally free, showed that Phillis Wheatley saw her future as an African-American poet.

11. Phillis Wheatley was an eloquent supporter of the patriot cause and should be given serious consideration as “Poet Laureate” of the American Revolution. Phillis Wheatley wrote about the Stamp Act Riots, the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party and the Siege of Boston as the spirit of revolution spread through the colonies. Her patriotic poems celebrate her vision for a new America as a nation born in freedom.