Phillis Wheatley was born in 1753 in West Africa. She was brought to America around age seven or eight and was sold to Susanna Wheatley to serve as a domestic servant. Despite her position as a slave, Wheatley was taught to read and write by Susanna and her family and studied the Bible, geography and history, among other subjects. Her love for learning and innate intelligence led her to start writing poetry.
She published her first internationally and nationally acclaimed poem at age 17 in honor of prominent evangelist George Whitefield and went on to be the first African American to have a book of poetry published. Her works demonstrated mastery of a form that many at the time considered only possible by geniuses, making a powerful argument for equality. Wheatley’s life is a powerful example of courage, leadership and honorable character.
Here are three lessons we can learn from her.
1. Push limits. When Wheatley first tried to publish her works, she faced opposition from the colonists for being a slave. She and the Wheatleys ended up submitting her works to an English Countess and abolitionist supporter who connected her to a bookseller and many renowned leaders of the time, including Benjamin Franklin.
Wheatley’s persistence and dedication led to her being recognized and befriended by some of the greatest leaders of the day, including Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson, John Hancock and even George Washington himself. Her life reminds us to not be limited by traditional barriers and to be unafraid to go against the status quo.
2. Take a stand. In her poem, “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” Wheatley directly speaks of the cruelties of slavery. In lines 26 through 29, she writes, “What pangs excruciating must molest, / What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast? / Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d / That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d.” She then concludes the thought in lines 30 through 31 by saying, “Such, such my case. And can I then but pray / Others may never feel tyrannic sway?”
Wheatley’s experiences as a slave inspired her to want to help others who were suffering. Her passion informed her writing and allowed her to be internationally recognized by prominent abolitionists and government leaders of the day. Her example inspires us to use our talents to take a stand for what we believe in, help others and strive to make a difference in the world.
3. Respect those who disagree with us. Despite the opposition she faced, Wheatley always wrote about her opposers with kindness and respect. In her “Letter to Reverend Samson Occom,” Wheatley shares her desire for slavery to end. She writes, “God grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time, and get him honour upon all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help forward tile Calamities of their fellow Creatures.” She continues, “This I desire not for their Hurt, but to convince them of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically, opposite.”
Instead of attacking supporters of slavery, Wheatley prayed for them and desired that they would see biblical truth. She reminds us of the importance of speaking kindly about those who believe differently than we do. Her character reminds us of the importance of honoring others and showing Christ’s love, even when we are wronged or looked down upon.
Wheatley’s life is an example to us of how to lead boldly. Her stand against slavery through her poetry shows us how to passionately pursue what’s right, while honoring and respecting those who disagree with us.