From a young age Phillis Wheatley showed uncommon intelligence and curiosity for learning. Mary Wheatley, the 18 year old daughter of John and Susanna Wheatley, took Phillis as a student and taught her how to read and write, soon she was fluently reading the Bible. During the colonial period Congregationalist and Anglicans considered the conversion of slaves as a spiritual obligation. In the north of the country slaves were taught to read and memorize passages of the Bible, however writing was discouraged. In the rest of the country, specially in the south, any kind of literacy was considered a threat to the slave system.

Phillis writing poetry

Phillis Wheatley writing poetry.

The Wheatleys were a progressive family and did not see anything immoral in educating a slave. Mary was not intimidated by Phillis’ intelligence, contrarily she taught her everything she knew and encouraged her to write poetry. Phillis was exempted from heavy house work to give her time to enrich her knowledge. She was not regarded as a servant but as a companion. She learned Latin and translated one of Ovid’s tales. She studied Greek classics such as Homer, Plato and Socrates and Latin classics such as Horace, Cicero and Ovid as well as English poets Alexander Pope and John Milton. But most importantly she was influenced by religion and the Bible. During her writing career her religious upbringing was hard to ignore, as all her writing was influenced by it.

Susanna and Mary felt very proud of Phillis and at every opportunity they would show her talents to visiting friends. Some of those friends were notorious citizens such as Mather Byles, Minister of the Congregational Church of Boston and Samsom Occom, a Mohican Indian and Presbyterian minister, who supported Phillis’ education by lending her books. One of the first letters written by Phillis when she was twelve was to Sammson Occom, despite their age difference this communication led to a long friendship.  Phillis also kept constant communication with Obour Tanner, a slave from the Tanner family in Newport. It is believed that Phillis and Obour came from Africa in the same slave ship. Obour was educated by the Tanner family and could also read and write.

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