Students, to you ’tis given to scan the heights
Above, to traverse the ethereal space,
And mark the systems of revolving worlds
Although her poetry was once an international sensation, today Phyllis Wheatley is remembered more for her extraordinary life than her work.
Born on the western coast of Africa in the mid-1700s and kidnapped by slave-traders, she was purchased by Bostonian John Wheatley as a servant for his wife. Her name was derived from those of her owners and the ship that transported her to America, the Phillis. Observing her quick mind (she learned English in only a few months), the Wheatleys defied custom by teaching the young slave to read and write. Soon she was reading English, Greek and Latin classics and the Bible and composing poetry.
Six years after her arrival in America, Phyllis Wheatley’s first poem was published; after another six years her book, the first published by a slave, made its debut. Her work brought her freedom, acclaim and renown. As a freewoman, she traveled in the US and abroad and met noted figures of the day including John Hancock and George Washington.
These bright-eyed kids attend a school located in a tough corner of Brooklyn and named in Phyllis Wheatley’s honor. Caught on a class trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they display the energy and imagination “to scan the heights” — and more than a bit of youthful, joyful hamminess.