Phillis Wheatley (1753 – December 5, 1784), was the first African American female writer to be published in the United States. Her book Poems on Various Subjects was published in 1773, two years before the American Revolutionary War began, and is seen as one of the first examples of African American literature. Her book was published in London because publishers in Boston had refused to publish the text.

Born in what is modern day Senegal or Gambia, she was captured and sold into slavery at the age of 5 or 6, Wheatley was brought to America in ca. 1760 where John and Susannah Wheatley of Boston, Massachusetts purchased her. The family of merchants made sure that the intellectually gifted girl received a good education, including study of Latin, Greek, mythology and history. She quickly mastered the English language and published her first poem in 1767 at age 13 in the Newport Mercury.

Her poetry was praised by many of the leading figures of the American Revolution, including George Washington, who referred to her "great poetical Genius" and personally thanked her for a poem she wrote in his honor. This praise was not universal. For example, Thomas Jefferson was among the harshest critics of her poetry.

Because many white people found it hard to believe that a black woman could be so intelligent as to write poetry, in 1772 Wheatley had to defend her literary ability in court. She was examined by a group of Boston luminaries who concluded that she had in fact written the poems ascribed to her.

After the death of John and Susannah Wheatley, Phillis married a free black grocer named John Peters. After her husband left her, she did domestic work as a servant. Neither hard work nor artistic ability were to bring her prosperity, and she died young at age 31 in poverty, her third child only a few hours after her. A second volume of poetry she was working on remained lost.

Phillis Wheatley
Selected writings by Phillis Wheatley

On being brought from Africa to America