Phillis Wheatley's Poems on various subjects, religious and moral , which
came out in London in 1773, was the first book ever published by a black woman.
Wheatley was not the poet's real name but that of her owner, who bought her
in 1761 “for a trifle” from a Boston slave-market when the girl was about seven.
Her master and mistress taught her to read when they found her trying to make
letters on the wall. She went on to learn Latin, and started to write poetry
at about thirteen. She quickly became known as a child prodigy, and was visited
by many “individuals of high standing” in Boston .
Her book of poems was published when she was 19, and the same year she was
brought to London , where she was lionized. The poems attracted a long list
of subscribers – that is, people prepared to help pay for the publication of
a book by ordering a copy in advance. The black writer Ignatius Sancho admired
her work, but attacked her owners and subscribers for allowing her to remain
in slavery: “These great folks all know and perhaps admired – nay, praised
Genius in bondage – and then …passed by – not one good Samaritan amongst them.”
Phillis Wheatley was finally freed on her mistress's death in 1774, but was
left with no money and seems to have made a living selling copies of her book
from door to door. She married a free black man, John Peters, in 1778, but
the couple continued to be in debt and two of their three children died. Phillis
Wheatley died in poverty in 1784.