Phillis Wheatley: Leaders are Made, not Born

It is my firm belief that leaders are made. When you’re born, your brain is a clean slate, ready to be filled with new knowledge and experiences. That’s why linguists encourage parents who wish for a bilingual child to start early, so that by the time they’re six or seven they speak two or more languages. A baby is eager to accept multiple languages so they can understand the world around them. A baby is not born with the ability to lead, but just like they can learn Spanish or French, a child can learn to be a leader.

An example of learned leadership comes from African poet Phillis Wheatley. Born in Gambia, she was sold into slavery at the age of eight, and soon began to work for the Wheatleys. It was there that she learned to read and write, and began to study subjects like Latin and geography. Soon after that she began to write poetry, and published her first poetry book in 1767, when she was about 16. Her poetry began to gain notoriety, a rare and unusual scenario back in 18th century New England.

In 1773 she published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the first ever book written by a black woman in the United States. It was also this book that gained Wheatley her emancipation. Despite being a black woman in the 18th century, she was respected and listened to. She was a staunch abolitionist and her writing was admired by both enslavers and abolitionists, despite their obvious differences.

Wheatley’s writing not only brought her into the public spotlight, but emphasized to a country of slaveholders that Africans, who for decades were characterized as below the intelligence of the white man, were not only capable of creative and logical thought, but were human beings with emotions, dreams, ideas, and talents. Through the terrible conditions of slavery, Phillis Wheatley not only persevered, but blazed a path for African-American art and literature in the United States. Phillis Wheatley was a leader in a time where women were thought of as nothing but house makers and caretakers, and any efforts they made to step into the public eye were dashed by their male counterparts or laughed off.

Her story proves why leaders are made, not born. Leadership does not come with your DNA, it comes when you experience difficult things and are able to overcome them, when you can put yourself aside and do what is best for those around you in times of need. In Wheatley’s case, she put her private life, and possibly even her personal safety, aside in order to give the people of the United States something they needed: an example of the talents and intelligence of Africans, at a time where they were seen as nothing more than mindless work mules or violent beasts.

Phillis Wheatley was no doubt a hero to African women and men alike, and although today she’s faded into obscurity, she is still a hero to me.  

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