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May 13, 2020 41 min

Phillis Wheatley’s real name is lost to history. The young girl was named for the slave ship that carried her to the United States from West Africa. Purchased as a house slave in Boston, Phillis defied all the odds to become a prolific poet celebrated around the world and the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry in the United States. Eventually, she used her considerable talents to convince the people who owned her to return her freedom to her. 

The story of Phillis’s complicated journey is followed by a conversation with world renowned poet Nikki Giovanni, who talks to Jo about the origins of African American poetry and the evolving narrative about Phillis Wheatley’s place in history.

Main Sources

  • Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley, published by Archibald Bell in London in 1773
  • Various publications mentioned throughout the episode which published Phillis Wheatley’s poems and letters during her life.
  • Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage - by Vincent Carretta
  • The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers - by Henry Louis Gates
  • The Poetry Foundation (
  • The Phillis Wheatley Historical Society (
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