Grade Levels: 10 - 12
Purpose of the Lesson: To use primary source material as an aid in the discussion of Phillis Wheatley’s life and the significance of her work. The students should build a familiarity with the navigation of online documents as well as an appreciation of the earliest contributions of African-Americans to the intellectual history of the United States.
The African girl later to be named Phillis Wheatley was most likely born in Senegal sometime in 1753. She was abducted in the Senegal / Gambia area and arrived in Boston on the 11th of July 1761. She landed, reputedly, wearing only a piece of carpet around her waist, was frail of health, and purchased at eight years-old by John Wheatley, a merchant, for his wife Sussanah. They borrowed her first name from the ship she arrived on and gave her their last. Phillis proved to be a quick study, rapidly acquiring English as a second language and quickly progressing through a classical education under the guidance of the Wheatleys' daughter. She developed a love of poetry and an ardent faith in Christianity. The style of her work reflects the influence of Alexander Pope in its use of heroic couplets. The imagery found in the poem is often taken from classical mythology and Judeo/Christian belief. Phillis Wheatley often used an epistolary mode in her composition, adopting the form of letters or addresses to particular people in order to frame her verse.
Author: John McCormack, Hammond School (Columbia, SC)