Phillis Wheatley was the first African-American poet and first African-American woman to publish her writing. Born in Gambia, she was sold into slavery at the age of 7 or 8 and transported to North America. She was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston, who taught her to read and write, and encouraged her poetry when they saw her talent.
Wheatley was emancipated after the death of her master John Wheatley. She married soon after; she and her husband lost two children as infants. After he was imprisoned for debt in 1784, Wheatley fell into poverty and died of illness, quickly followed by the death of her surviving infant son.
Historians have commented on her reluctance to write about slavery. Perhaps it was because she had conflicting feelings about the institution. Critics have said that she praises slavery because it brought her to Christianity. But, in another poem she wrote that slavery was a cruel fate.
Many white colonists found it difficult to believe that an African slave was writing excellent poetry. Wheatley had to defend her authorship of her poetry in court in 1772. She was examined by a group of Boston luminaries, including John Erving, Reverend Charles Chauncey, John Hancock, Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts, and his lieutenant governor Andrew Oliver. They concluded she had written the poems ascribed to her and signed an attestation.
Publishers in Boston had declined to publish her book of poetry, but her work was of great interest in London. There Selina, Countess of Huntingdon and the Earl of Dartmouth acted as patrons to help Wheatley gain publication. The publication of "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral" brought her fame, both in England and the Thirteen Colonies; figures such as George Washington praised her work.