Phillis Wheatley was the first published African American poet. Her writings have helped African American to be more universally recognised. Born in Gambia, West Africa she was made a slave at age seven. She was Purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston, who taught her to read and write, and helped encourage her poetry. Her 1773 publication of Wheatley's “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” brought her fame, with figures such as George Washington praising her work. After its release she was emancipated by her owners but chose to stay with them until the death of her former master and the breakup of his family. She appeared before General George Washington at a poetry reading in March, 1776. She was a strong supporter of American independence, reflected in both the poems and plays she wrote during the Revolutionary War. She married a free black grocer, John Peters, their two children died as infants. In 1784 whilst again pregnant he abandoned her. Thereafter she struggled to support herself but finished a second volume of poetry but interest in it was not to be found then.
Phillis Wheatley died from complications of childbirth at the age of 31. Her newborn infant died several hours later. By then she was living in poverty.
Interestingly and as a further reminder of the hardships of those colonial times, many white Americans of the time found it hard to believe that an African woman could write poetry. Wheatley had to defend her literary ability 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 which was published in the preface to her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral published in Aldgate, London in 1773. As a further hurdle the book was published in London because publishers in Boston had refused to publish the text.