May 8th: Saul Bass & Phillis Wheatley

Today, Google has posted a Doodle honoring graphic artist Saul Bass, best known for animated title sequences on the front end of such films as Psycho, Goodfellas, and Big.

Here on Speaking Up, we’ll take a closer look at an artist in a completely different medium and era: Phillis Wheatley, the first American poet of African descent ever published.

Phillis Wheatley is thought, according to some accounts, to have been born on this date in Senegal or Gambia, in approximately 1753. She was transported to Boston as a slave when she was only 7 years old, with her first name reflecting the title of the ship on which she traveled.

A portrait of Phillis Wheatley, dated 1773, the only surviving work of enslaved artist Scipio Moorhead.

A portrait of Phillis Wheatley, dated 1773, the only surviving work of enslaved artist Scipio Moorhead.

Phillis Wheatley’s education was extraordinary (and anomalous) for either a slave or a woman at the time; the Wheatley family tutored her in reading and writing, and she showed tremendous aptitude in both Greek and Latin. Based on this extensive literary education, Wheatley began to compose and publish her own poems. Her poetry combined themes from theology and the classics, and often addressed concerns of the American Colonial rebellion.

Accompanying the family on overseas travel provided Wheatley with the opportunity to have audiences with members of high society, and in fact her first book of poetry was published in London on such a trip. Prior to its publication, Wheatley was essentially “interrogated” by a group of Boston leaders and intellectuals, including John Hancock, who determined that she, a slave, was in fact capable of producing her poetry. A letter to this effect served as a preface to the published volume.

Wheatley’s story comes to an unfortunate, but perhaps not surprising, end: after her master, John Wheatley, died in 1778, Phillis was emancipated. She, her husband, and their children struggled to survive financially, and the loss of access to high society patrons made it impossible for Phillis to continue to publish her work. In dire financial straits, Wheatley worked as a maid, but died by the time she was 31, having already lost two infants, and a third’s death came soon after her own.

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