Phillis Wheatley was an African American poet, the first of her kind to publish a poetry book. She came to America in 1761 aboard the slave ship The Phillis. Within a few years of her arrival, she learnt to read and write in English. In her teens, her interest in poetry developed and that is when she started writing her heroic couplets.
Her poetry, titled ‘On being brought from Africa to America’ mainly addresses issues to do with Christianity. Her defenders have termed her poems as politically subversive and individually expressive. Her poems are modelled on the European American ones of her generation, a thing that has earned her criticism. Many feel that she should have written on anti-slavery and the political, social and cultural needs of the African American people.
Many reasons contribute to her choice of topic. The main is that she was treading on uncharted territory. The established literary traditions of that time did not write on African American issues. Another issue was acceptability for her work. An African American poet was unheard of, and her work had to be authenticated before it could go to press. She believed that choosing to write on the fore-mentioned issues would have led to her work not being published.
Wheatley will be remembered more for her contribution to African American literature than for her poetry. She created interest in what African American artists had to offer. Her poetry showed that ‘Negros’ had the capacity to convey their opinions and feelings in an acceptable way. She was a sociological symbol of ‘African genius.’ Her endeavors opened doors for other African American writers to showcase their talents. Abolitionists also used her work to show that African Americans were humans capable of thought and intellect.