Phillis Wheatley Poems
Wheatley’s Progressive Thinking in Her Works
The 18th Century presented many challenges to African Americans, even those who were free from the horrors of slavery. Many African Americans struggled to find a public voice that the general (white) population would be willing to listen to. Phillis Wheatley was given a rare opportunity for an African American. Despite being kidnapped from Africa to be sold at a young age, she was well educated and became a popular poet, even among the white population. Even so, Wheatley could not be too radical or she would lose her audience; however, upon a close reading of many of her works, and specifically To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth Wheatley includes many subtle references to the evils racial inequality and she alludes to many progressive ideas, such as abolitionism and racial equality.
Wheatley’s forthright purpose in writing To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth is to praise the Earl. The poem seems to be exclusively about the Earl and America’s newfound freedom and greatness; however, Wheatley’s To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth subtlety conveys a progressive racial view. In the poem, Wheatley uses carefully chosen language that highlights the inequality in the newly freed America. Wheatley’s word choice implies that only white Americans benefitted from the American Revolution; African Americans, meanwhile, remained just as oppressed as they were before the Revolution. In To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth, Wheatley writes, “Fair Freedom rose” (2). Wheatley uses the multiple meanings of “fair” (just and light-skinned), and by doing so, she emphasizes that America’s new freedom is exclusively for fair-skinned white Americans. African Americans were mostly excluded from America’s freedom and Wheatley points this out without saying it too radically. Further, Wheatley writes, “in thine hand with pleasure we behold/ The silken reins” (7-8). Wheatley chooses to use the word “silk,” a naturally white substance, to allude to white Americans. “Reins” refers to the actual power held by the government, but also to the homophonous “reigns,” which refers to a monarch’s superiority and power. For Wheatley, white Americans had a monopoly of the government and used their power selfishly like a corrupt monarch. African Americans gained very little from the American Revolution and Wheatley alludes to this in her writing. Wheatley continues discussing the idea of light and dark in further lines. She writes, “Thus from the splendors of morning light/ The owl in sadness seeks the caves of night” (13-14). Again, the idea of light, referring to light-skinned people, is associated with good things like “splendors,” while dark, referring to African Americans, is associated with bad things, like sadness. White people are blessed with goodness and opportunity while African Americans suffer and face oppression. Wheatley’s use of metaphors emphasizes the differences in societal views and ideals regarding different races.
Wheatley also compares the English tyranny to that of slave owners. She writes, “No longer shall thou dread the iron chain/ Which wanton Tyranny, with lawless hand,/ Has made, and with it meant t’enslave the land” (17-19). The iron chain provides intense imagery that directly connects the British Empire to slave owners. This “Tyranny” is especially bad; Wheatley’s decision to capitalize “Tyranny” emphasizes the importance she places on the word. Tyranny is not something small. It is incredibly powerful and evil, yet it is also something African Americans must face despite effects of the American Revolution. Writing to the Earl of Dartmouth, Wheatley means that white people will no longer face oppression. The “lawless hand” still exists because African Americans are still enslaved by the iron chain of tyranny. By evoking images of slavery, such as the iron chain, Wheatley shows that tyranny, although no longer faced by white Americans, is still continuing in the newly freed land. Later in the poem, Wheatley also brings up the horrors of the slave trade. Wheatley’s description of the slave trade is the only connotatively negative part of the otherwise positive poem. Her poem provides a platform for her to criticize the slave trade, but she must be careful to offend her predominantly white audience. She uses her words to criticize the practice of slavery under the guise of explaining why she loves freedom and America. Her word choice is connotatively negative and emphasizes the evils of the slave trade amidst her praise of the Earl.
Wheatley’s description of the slave trade highlights the evils of the practice. Wheatley uses powerful imagery to paint a vivid picture of the day she was taken from her homeland to be sold in the colonies. Wheatley describes that day, writing, “I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate/ Was snatched from Afric’s fancied happy seat:/ What pangs excruciating must molest,/ What sorrows labor in my parent’s breast!/ Steeled was that soul, and by no misery moved,/ That a father seized his babe beloved” (24-29). Words such as “cruel,” “molest,” “steeled,” and “seized” paint a horrifying picture of the slave trade. Wheatley’s use of connotatively negative words constructs a graphic depiction of a deplorable event. Wheatley highlights the awful plight of African Americans who want nothing more than basic freedoms through her ability to sneak this negative image into her otherwise positive poem by saying that her nightmarish childhood story is the reason she appreciates freedom so much. Wheatley continues writing about the evils of the slave trade further in the stanza. Wheatley concludes the stanza, writing, “Such, such my case. And can I then but pray/ Others may never feel tyrannical sway?” (30-31). These lines relate back to the “iron chains” and “Tyranny” mentioned in lines 17 and 18. There seems to be no hope for the slaves and all that can be done is pray. Wheatley continues to speak of the ongoing struggle of African Americans who gained nothing when America was freed. Wheatley concludes the poem by returning to her praise of the Earl.
Her poem appears to completely praise the Earl, with the occasional aside that explains why Wheatley feels a certain way. Within this praise however, Wheatley placed carefully chosen language to construct a negative mental image of the slave trade. A casual reader would likely not realize Wheatley’s subtle message, but upon a close reading of the text, one can see how Wheatley’s word choice and use of imagery transmit a different message within her poem intended to praise the Earl of Dartmouth. African Americans faced many challenges in the 18th Century, even after America gained its independence from Great Britain. Even free African Americans struggled against blatant and systematic racism. One of the many challenges faced by African Americans was overcoming the hardships of getting their voice heard. Education was rare in the African American community and even the educated Phyllis Wheatley, a popular poet, would have had to have been careful about what she said. Writing too radically or too progressively would cost Wheatley her audience. Wheatley, however, masterfully used many literary elements, such as metaphors, imagery, and double entendres, to subtly place her progressive views in her seemingly politically moderate writing. Many of Wheatley’s writings contain some sort of abolitionist view, but this view is presented very clearly, upon a close reading of the text, in the poem To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth. The poems purpose seems to be to praise the Earl for aiding America’s quest for independence and to praise the new freedom America has earned; however, Wheatley’s To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth subtly conveys a progressive view on race.
On Imagination: the Message of Spiritual Liberation
Phillis Wheatley is one of the most influential poets in American history, notably for paving the way from African American poets as well as female poets. Her rare, and arguably liberated, upbringing allowed her to relay her messages of freedom, reform, and religion to a wide audience of intellectuals. Though her messages appear, at times, to be sardonic, she uses her knowledge of Greek mythology, African American social issues, and political undertones in order to express her uninhibited cry for freedom. Phillis Wheatley’s On Imagination uses the metaphysical plane as a way to spiritually transcend the bonds of slavery and create a realm where all of humankind, more specifically slaves, have the ability to be free from the oppressive nature of the physical world through the guise of imagination.
Wheatley uses height, audio cues, and light in order to describe the powerful exodus of slaves toward metaphorical freedom and to exemplify the notion that the escape is spiritual rather than bodily. Wheatley describes the blissful escape as a heavenly plane, one that is high above the earthly world. She writes that one must be, “Soaring through the air to find the bright abode/ Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God” (223), in order to eclipse the earth and reach something that is beyond mere existence. Additionally, Wheatley emphasizes words such as bright, gold, and light in order to focuses concretely on visual images that make the empyreal plane transcend all the negative attributions of the dull physical world. According to these notions, imagination is perfection because it surpasses all the turmoil of the mortal plane and thus cannot be controlled or stopped. Imagination, to her and the other slaves, is the exact opposite of their outlook on life because it cannot be contained and it is the one thing they are able to have agency over. By questioning, in regards to imagination, “Who can sing thy force?” (223), Wheatley creates a parallel between Imagination and god, as in the Christian faith hymns and spirituals are create a strong connection between the higher being and the individual. In this poem, it is evident that Imagination is not a communal god, one who asserts and accesses power through the collective recognition from man but Imagination is a god that cannot be described, worshiped, or quantified by any means. Wheatley uses nouns such as flying, illumination, freedom to describe imagination because these words are indescribable themselves. The significance of light, sound, and heights suggests that imagination has the power to bring an individual to a higher plane of life and illuminate their existence in the same way that god would. These specific points of reference further indicate the accessibility of these far away lands and conceptualizes freedom, of the mind, for all people.
Fancy and Imagination are separate but equal forces that are tangible modes of escape and are readily accessible to all who believe and adhere to their power. By focusing on power as the key to escape, Wheatley was able to give slaves something they so desperately desired. She writes, “Such is thy pow’r, nor are thine orders vain/ O thou the leader of the mental train” (223). By constructing deities that are both powerful and created by a black woman, slaves were able to identify with the belief rather than reject the idea of a free man’s paradise that was preached by white men. The imagery of a train, is vital to American narratives as it, most notably, represents a pathway to a better life and more specifically a path towards freedom. Imagination seems to have a muse like power, inspiring artists to continuously work, while Fancy appears to represent a being that acts and transports people out of the harsh world. Fancy may be a figure of Wheatley’s imagination or she may be the physical embodiment of this powerful deity, as she herself is inspiring the souls of slaves. Wheatley concedes, “But I reluctant leave the pleasing views/ Which Fancy dresses to delight the Muse” (223). By painting Phillis Wheatley, as the inspirer, she thus becomes a Christ-like figure, or one who sacrifices, in this case the freedom of the heavenly plain, in order to generate awe in others despite the physical restrictions of political, social, and economic oppression.
On Imagination captivates the audience by examining the true nature of oppression and more specifically the white oppressors that limit the freedom of slaves. Like all poignant narratives, Wheatley creates a dichotomy of good and evil that is rooted in racial inequalities. Fancy is equality embodied, as she opens her arms and welcomes all of mankind, while Winter represents the ideals of white oppressors. Wheatley explains, “Though Winter frowns to Fancy’s raptur’d eyes/ The fields may flourish, and gay scenes arise” (223). Winter is stoic, dark, and the catalyst of death while spring, or in this case Fancy, represents life and change. Wheatley pits these two forces against one another though it is clear that there is no true winner, because just like spring will always emerge from the desolation of winter, there is always a certainty that there will be darkness again.
On Imagination is a poem that focuses on notions of spiritual liberation though the message is rooted in Wheatley’s patented politically charged ideology surrounding inequality and religion. Phillis Wheatley captures the audience with her notoriously mythological narrative on the construction of an entire world beyond all of humanity, where freedom is a luxury affordable to all who are willing to believe. Wheatley appeases her, prominently white audience, by displaying imagination as a valuable escape but beneath all the metaphors she is exhibiting radical views on racial liberation and is vying for human rights.
What Makes Phillis Wheatley Truly an Inspiring Writer of the People
Phillis Wheatley as a Writer of the People In a time where African American, as well as female, writers would have been greatly oppressed, Phillis Wheatley stood out as an anomaly in the late 18th century. Her work stood as a median between the white oppressors and the black oppressed, bravely covering the topic of politics that others had yet dared to write about. Through her poems, To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty and On Being Brought from Africa to America, Wheatley showcases herself as that median through the use of rhythm and subtle tone shifts, telling her stories in a way that allowed for her to get the information available to the public as well as appeal to all different kinds of people in the social hierarchy that she was an integral part of at the time.
One of the most striking things about Wheatley is often what she chose to write about. She thought of herself as a writer of the people, and it is continuously evident in her poetry that she thought poetry was the greatest median through which to express herself and her ideas. She was a writer in the times before strife between Britain at America had really come to a head. One might think that as a slave, she would not have backed the British government due to her circumstantial lesser status in society brought about by the slave trade. Wheatley actually took the opposite approach in her work, praising people like General George Washington or King George. Her poem, To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, is a primary example of such praise. She speaks directly to those who were above her in status: “Midst the remembrance of thy favours past, The meanest peasants most admire the last May George, beloved by all the nations round, Live with heav’ns choicest constant blessings crown’d!” (Wheatley, pg16, lines 8-11) Her word choice, “beloved by” and “blessings crown’d” are indicative of the idea that King George and all he does for his country, and subsequently the Americas, are the best decisions that could be made. While her poem focuses on King George, it also addresses God, asking him to “direct and guard [King George] from on high” (Wheatley, pg16, line 12). To speak of both in such a lofted manner shows great praise for what they stand for. Not only that, but Wheatley refers to King George as only “George”, excluding his formal title and emphasizing a comfort and familiarity with the name and the idea of him, even though he is a king and far above her social status (Wheatley, pg16, line 10). She uses poetry as a method to level her status and to an extent the status of all African Americans.
A large part of the reason Wheatley could use poetry as an outlet for political conversation was because she was educated. She has been taught to be on a level of education as the white oppressors around her, but still continue to be thought of as a lesser person in rank in society. Poetry leveled the playing field. Addressing King George, as well as speaking highly to the practice of Christianity, is befitting to the white people who called themselves her superiors. It validates her writing because had she chosen to be any more radical her likelihood for getting published would have plummeted incredibly fast. The one line that stands out in the poem, showing she may not be as compliant as her readers of the time would have thought, is the first line of the poem: “Your subjects hope, dread sire—” (Wheatley, pg16, line 1). While the entire poem is in iambic pentameter, as is common with Wheatley’s poetry, this line stands out in iambic trimeter. She is calling attention, in a subtle way, that the king is maybe not as good as the rest of her poem may seem. She does believe in him and what he is doing, as well as the idea that it is the will of God who will stand over him and his decisions, but this particular line exudes foreboding. The use of the word “dread”, which is not normally used in the context of pleasant things, doesn’t paint the king in a wonderful light to being with. The caesura at the end of the line also leaves the words very open, as if Wheatley was giving her readers a pause to think before launching into the thick of her poem.
Rhythm also plays a key part in the way that Wheatley presents her poetry. William Butler Yeats, early/mid nineteenth century Irish poet, wrote an article on symbolism that narrowed down some ideas of rhythm: “The purpose of rhythm, it has always seemed to me, is to prolong the moment of contemplation, the moment when we are both asleep and awake, which is the one moment of creation, by hushing us with an alluring monotony, while it holds us waking by variety, to keep us in that state of perhaps real trance, in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded in symbols.” (Yeats) This, it seems, is what Wheatley does with the change between the first line of To the Kings Most Excellent Majesty and the rest of the poem. She beautifully changes the rhythm and tone hinting at the need to take her religious ode to King George a little less seriously than one might originally. She did believe in the power of King George and the subsequent power of Christianity, but she was also still aware of her place in society, a slave with barely any rights, and the reason that she got to where she was, was through education and good fortune in the way of her masters. To take what Yeats says a little further, his analysis of rhythm in poetry, that it can symbolize “the moment when we are both asleep and awake”, is on par with racism in Wheatley’s time. The people reading her poetry had the option to be either asleep or awake, blind to her message or pick up on the subtleties.
Wheatley’s poem On Being Brought from Africa to America highlights the dualities that she ever so slightly places in her poetry. She begins with talking of being brought from a “Pagan land” (Wheatley, pg17, line 1). This phrasing grants power to America, that a black woman would renounce where she came from and openly admit that she had better opportunities in the new land. However, by the end of the poem, she is reminding her white readers that colored people are just as equally human beings, that negroes can “be refin’d and join th’ angelic train” (Wheatley, pg17, line 8). This is a good example of Wheatley seeing herself as being a median. She believes that as a good Christian, she is equal to the white people who enslaved her as they will all end up in the same place after death. Yet on the other side, she is still greatly praising them, wanting to be like them, because she is indebted as they gave her the chance opportunity of education and a somewhat better life.
In many ways, Phillis Wheatley was a brilliant woman and poet. She understood her place, was grateful for what she had, but also pushed back to try and change the social order in which she lived. Due to this, her situation could only ever be described as incredibly complex. Had she shunned that hierarchy and taken a deliberate and outright stand, she never would have gotten her work published, let alone any part of her voice heard. For her, it made writing the most important job and one that she was eager to master and successfully and stealthily deliver to the world. She presented herself as a woman of the people, someone who could look at both sides of the coin and see the things that worked as well as the many things that needed to change. In the end, she was incredibly successful and shed light on both sides of a world where it could be ok for her to be thankful for the people that gave her the opportunities that she was allotted while still pinpointing the ways in which society would need to have changed.
Citations: Yeats, William Butler. Ideas of Good and Evil. London; A.H. Bullen, 1903.
The Public Consciousness in Wheatley’s Works
“I was a kind of bastard of the West… I might search in them in vain for any reflection of myself… At the time I saw that I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use… I would have to appropriate those white centuries, I would have to make them mine… I would have to accept my special attitude, my special place in this scheme – otherwise I would have no place in any scheme… The American Negro has always had to hide from himself as the price of his public progress: I hated and feared white people. This did not mean that I loved black people; on the contrary, I despised them.”
James Baldwin, from Autobiographical Notes
Though her legacy remains an open question, both Phillis Wheatley’s supporters and detractors agree that her moment of notoriety was achieved under a highly unique set of circumstances. Wheatley’s acceptance into public discourse validated her status as a “person of interest” – an honorary title usually conferred upon landowning white men. Her new status stood in direct opposition to the legal and popular classification of enslaved persons as property, and her undeniable intelligence and mastery of high poetic forms (as well as the public’s appreciation of it) made it difficult to defend the idea that people from Africa were subhuman and incapable of emotion or rationality.
The criticism of Phillis Wheatley’s work by her contemporaries is almost universally racist, and therefore does not merit a great deal of discussion. Thomas Jefferson’s critique, however, was so vitriolic that it deserves some mention: “Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among blacks is misery enough God knows, but no poetry. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whatley’s [sic] but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.” However, Jefferson follows this statement with his own critique: “The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem” (Robinson, 42-3, Gates 5-6, Nott 27). This suggestion of religious influence is no doubt an insult, as Jefferson was a staunch rationalist, and the “published under her name” comment suggests that even the approval of a hearing and eighteen of his peers was not enough to allow Jefferson to acknowledge Wheatley’s obvious talent. It is worth noting, however, that Jefferson’s critique was published many years after Wheatley’s death. That she was still able to arouse such a passionate response is evidence of her work’s enormous political and popular influence.
It was only in the mid-to-late twentieth century that scholars began to seriously examine Wheatley’s body of work, though as Mary McAleer Balkun has noted, most criticism focuses not on what she actually accomplished, but what she could have accomplished under different circumstances (121). Wheatley occupies an uncomfortable space in the history of Black America. While she is unquestionably acknowledged as a pioneer as the first well-known poet of color in American history, her reputation is stymied by the lack of concern that many critics display towards not only Wheatley herself, but other Africans who suffered the bonds of slavery. Wheatley’s usage of the heroic couplet – the highly cultured style used by great English poets such as John Milton and Alexander Pope – has been criticized by critics such as Leroi Jones, who labeled her poems as “ludicrous departures from the huge black voices that splintered southern nights” (105-06). James Weldon Johnson goes so far as to accuse Wheatley of being “smug” and unconcerned. “One looks in vain for some vague outburst or even complaint against the bondage of her people, for some agonizing cry about her native land” (Robinson, 113).
It is completely understandable that many contemporary readers can find little to identify with in Wheatley’s heavily-constructed poetics, particularly upon the first reading of a poem such as “On Being Brought From Africa to America:”
“‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.”
Wheatley’s apparent ambivalence about “call[ing] a new black nation into being” with an authentic “African song” can feel alienating even to modern white readers who consider themselves “socially conscious” (Robinson, 8). Her use of heroic couplets has been criticized as being too derivative of European neoclassical poetry, and her language, with passages such as “‘Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land,” seem as though the speaker is almost thankful for being kidnapped and sold into slavery. And yet there is little hostility found in the critical literature towards Wheatley herself; rather, she is commonly seen as an unfortunate product of her environment. While Terrence Collins dismisses her unprecedented popularity as “almost always an exception, a guest, a showpiece novelty,” he nevertheless feels that Wheatley’s attitude was a product of the slave mentality, and that her embrace of European literary form is, as it was for Baldwin, a form of self-hatred induced by a lifetime of being treated as a disposable piece of property. Some critics are less empathetic, however, noting that Wheatley’s status as a house slave purchased to be a companion to Mrs. Wheatley and her daughter Mary gave her the privilege of education and the leisure time necessary to compose poetry. While these facts are indisputable, the question remains whether this privilege caused Wheatley to abandon her race and assimilate completely into white society.
Wheatley’s implied isolation from the experience of “authentic slavery” is understandable, considering the conditions under which she lived. Kidnapped from Senegal at the age of eight, she arrived on American soil aboard the slave ship Phillis. According to Wheatley biographer Margaretta Matilda Odell, when the young girl was sold to the Wheatley family, she was so frail and sickened from her experience aboard the “coffin ship” that she was not fit for any labor save the simplest housework. As her position in the Wheatley home was to serve as a companion, she was given a standard education alongside Mary Wheatley, with the intent that she become “refined” and “cultivated.” This “cultivation” required young Phillis to be isolated entirely from the other slaves in the Wheatley household (Robinson, 148). Under these circumstances, it is easy to understand how Wheatley’s poetic interests would be so far separated from the “southern nights” Johnson mentioned. An anonymous review of Wheatley’s book in 1834 ventured that “it must, of course, be remembered under what circumstances she commenced her career, how little encouragement she had from the example of those of her own color in those days, how incomplete at the best were the tardy sources of info and discipline which were furnished her…after all, [she was] a mere child…a slave!” (Robinson, 67) Archibald Bell, the publisher of Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, praised her output as “one of the greatest instances of pure, unassisted genius that the world ever produced” (Robinson, 28). Henry Louis Gates, Jr. even goes so far as to suggest that the public trial Wheatley endured to prove the authorship of her poems is echoed in the criticisms she continues to endure from twentieth-century literary critics. In addition to overcoming hurdles imposed by her race and her status as a piece of property without human dignity, Wheatley was also forced to confront the limitations imposed by her sex. Past critics such as William J. Sterling praised Wheatley for excelling not only in light of her status as a captured African, but also as a female, claiming that her work had a sophistication “known to few females of that day, and not common even now” (Robinson, 65). While the oppressions employed against women and people of color “in general” are not comparable, and no oppression deserves to be “ranked”, it is not hard to imagine that contemporary critics might find it easier to dismiss Phillis Wheatley as a “weak” adolecesent girl in the face of Anglo-American hegemony.
Wheatley’s critics, however, often fail to take into account the complicated layering of her poetry. One must consider, for example, the letter Phillis Wheatley wrote to Reverend Samson Occom in the spring of 1774:
“[F]or in every human Breast God has implanted a Principle, which we call the love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance…God grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time, and get him honour upon all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help forward the Calamities of their fellow Creatures. This I do not desire for their Hurt, but to convince them of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically opposite…I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher to determine” (Gates, 72-73).
The letter was first published in the Conneticut Gazette, and was later reprinted in several New England papers. The letter was thus highly circulated among the same public which would have been the most avid readers of Wheatley’s poems. However, this correspondence appears to have been either largely unavailable – or perhaps unimportant – to reviewers of Wheatley’s work until recently (Robinson, 228). This is highly unfortunate, since reading Wheatley’s poetry with this letter in mind (and especially the sarcastic comment, “I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher”) calls into question the common assumption of ambivalence in her verses on Africa and Africans.
Wheatley’s comments here, in fact, perfectly outline the three basic arguments that she employs in her poems: first, that Christians who accept slavery are hypocrites, second, that African people can become Christians and thus are no less human or enlightened than whites, and finally, that a reader who is unable or unwilling to acknowledge the truth of these statements is both intellectually and morally flawed. It is essential to understand her rhetorical devices as exactly that: carefully constructed, and intended to produce a powerful response in the reader without the reader realizing that manipulation is taking place. Though she has been criticized for not including enough of “herself” in her work, Wheatley was a truly public poet; her verses were not constructed for the author, but rather for the audience.
Michael Warner emphasizes the importance of belonging (or at least the appearance of belonging) in the creation of a public:
“[a] space of circulation [that is] taken to be a social entity, but that in order for this to happen all discourse or performance addressed to a public must characterize the world in which it attempts to circulate, and it must attempt to realize that world through address. There is no speech or performance addressed to a public that does not try to specify in advance, in countless highly condensed ways, the lifeworld of its circulation…through the pragmatics of its speech genres, idioms, stylistic markers, address, temporality, mise en scene, citation field, interlocutory protocols, lexicon, and so on…Then it goes out in search of confirmation such a public exists…It cannot work by frankly declaring its subjunctive-creative project. Its success depends on the recognition of participants and their further circulatory activity, and people do not commonly recognize themselves as virtual projections” (422, emphasis mine).
That Wheatley wrote “of whites and for whites,” then, can be considered a highly deliberate move, and not simply an attempt to confirm her validity as an author through the mastery of complex verse (though it is that, too). The influence of her Calvinist indoctrination on her worldview cannot be denied, and her religious experience had influenced her poetic methods, as well. Her manner of addressing the reader, in which the reader must actively participate in the psychological underpinnings of a poem, is most likely influenced by her own experience of sermons and preaching, which were typical of the day: the hearer’s experience of a sermon was both a linguistic and a spiritual event. By “active participation,” it is implied that Wheatley constructed her verses in an effort to provoke a specific set of responses in the reader. A second examination of “On Being Brought From Africa to America” reveals how deliberately Wheatley guides the reader from an initial position of confidence to a confrontation of his or her own moral hypocracy. At the conclusion of the poem, the reader must accept the authority of the black female author. When Wheatley writes, “‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,” she is not – as a casual reader might initially assume – expressing gratitude for the “mercy” of the traders who kidnapped her and sold her into bondage. Rather, by attributing her removal from Africa to “mercy,” by which she means the will of God, she removes the agency of the slave traders and their institution, identifying herself as having been directly chosen by God. By aligning herself with God, she implictly casts those who refuse to accept the authority of her address against him (Balkun, 124). This sentiment also appears in “To the University of Cambridge, in New-England,” but is even more explicit: “Father of mercy, ’twas thy gracious hand/Brought me in safety from those dark abodes.” Much like the spirituals of plantation slaves, which utlized familiar Judeo-Christian stories and themes as allegories for their own enslavement, Wheatley’s lines appear to be representations of shared Christian values, a theme that readers could identify to without being explicitly subversive. Russell J. Reising describes Wheatley as “employing an intricate rhetorical negotiation that rendered her verse ‘virtually unreadable for a public with certain racial, political, theological and cultural assumptions’ and at the same time ’eminently readable…within the discursive practices of her culture’” (Nott, 22). Wheatley’s reference to Africa’s “Egyptian gloom” demonstrates the cleverness with which she utilized this tactic. Egypt is obviously located in Africa, but the “gloom” mentioned is an allusion to the Exodus, a metaphor commonly used by both slaves and colonial settlers as a representation of the journey to the “promised land.”
It can be said, then, that rather than considering Wheatley’s poems to be ambivalent, they are by contrast almost exclusively concerned with the sociopolitical attitudes of her audience. The majority of the works in Poems on Various Subjects were written for specific individuals (usually elegies) or about notable events in the community. Wheatley was one of only three Americans who were able to publish anything while in bondage – the very publishing of her book was an active revolt (Nott, 23). Her first published poem was a broadside printed in 1770 titled, “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the late Reverend, and pious George Whitefield, Chaplain to the Right Honourable the Countess of Huntingdon.” Within months of its original distribution in the Massachusetts Spy, the work was republished in Newport, four times again in Boston, once in New York, and once in Philadelphia (Robinson, 225). Her work began to circulate even more widely as revolutionary fervor began to take over Boston and individual rights and freedoms became the primary topics of discussion in the public sphere.
According to Terry Eagleton, the public sphere is “a network of rational discourse whose formation and operation aimed at the acquisition of political power through the control of an emerging public opinion…[a] distinct discursive space, one of rational judgment and enlightened critique…poised between the state and civil society” (Nott, 25). The public sphere of 18th century Boston was composed primarily of an emerging middle class. Most were merchants who owned slaves or were involved in the slave trade. In order to establish a place within the public sphere, one had to be a “person of interest”; that is, someone who owned property and was therefore interested in the social, legal and economic factors that would affect the community. Wheatley’s book gave her access to this network, and therefore made her a “person of interest.” Her particpation in spite of her status as property called into question the validity of a system that relied on human trafficing. According to Warner, a public “knows itself by knowing where and when it is assembled in common visibility and common action…the kind of public that comes into being only in relation to texts and their circulation” (413). The frequent printing of her work in the Boston Gazette speaks to Wheatley’s large constituency of patriotic and revolutionary readers (Nott, 30): the very same men who were dedicated to the reverence of “freedom.”
Wheatley was aware of the composition of her primary audience: they were men in positions of power, such as the men who had verified her book. She had personally composed poems for some of these men; still others she had encountered socially once she became a public figure (Balkun, 29). Benjamin Franklin wrote about a visit he paid to the young poetess in a letter from 1773: Mr. Wheatley, Franklin wrote, had clearly been displeased because Franklin had inquired after Phillis before asking about her owner (Robinson, 25). George Washington hesitated to publish the poem he recieved from Wheatley, “not knowing whether it might not be considered rather as a mark of my own vanity, than as a compliment to her.” In a personal letter, he thanked her for the “elegant lines” that he felt he was “undeserving” of. He closes the letter by writing, “with great respect, your obedient humble servant” (Robinson, 35-36). While a standard closing for letters at that time, the amount of cordiality with which Washington addressed Wheatley – not to mention the irony of a man who was already legendary well before his death identifying himself as the “obedient humble servant” of a black female slave – speaks volumes about the amount of influence and regard she held within the community.
Wheatley was such an important symbol of African dignity that her detractors often implied that she was merely a front for the abolitionist movement. One of the most common arguments for African “inferiority” was that no African text had been produced that was as great as those that had been written by other cultures. Wheatley’s elegant and popular poetry was an undeniable refutation of this charge and proof of the African people’s mental equality. Indeed, in a response to Thomas Jefferson’s attack on Wheatley, Gilbert Imlay asked, “what white person upon this continent has written more beautiful lines?” (Robinson, 47)
Baldwin, James. Collected Essays. Library of America: New York, 1998, p. 6-7
Balkun, Mary McAleer. “Phillis Wheatley’s Construction of Otherness and the Rhetoric of Performed Ideology.” African American Review, Volume 36, Number 1. 2002, p. 121-134.
Brawley, Benjamin. “Phillis Wheatley.” In The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States, 3rd ed., p. 15-37. New York: AMS Press, 1971.
Collins, Terence. “Phillis Wheatley: The Dark Side of Poetry.” PHYLON 36, no. 1 (March 1975): 78-88.
Gates, Henry Louis. The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2003.
Jones, Leroi. “The Myth of a Negro Literature.” Home. William B. Morrow: New York, 1966. 105-06
Matson, R. Lynn. “Phillis Wheatley-Soul Sister?” PHYLON 33, no. 3 (fall 1972): 222-30.
Nott, Walt. “From ‘Uncultivated Barbarian’ to ‘Poetical Genius’: The Public Presence of Phillis Wheatley.” Melus, Volume 18, Number 3 (Fall 1993).
Warner, Michael. “Publics and Counterpublics (abbreviated version).” Quarterly Journal of Speech, Volume 88, Number 4 (November 2002). 413-425.
Wheatley, Phillis. Complete Writings. Penguin: New York, 2001.
The Satiric Discourse of Wheatley’s Poetry
In early African-American literature, there is a consistent theme of gaining freedom through assimilation that as an idea slowly wilts and becomes militant as it continues to be ineffective in the black struggle for freedom and equality. Phillis Wheatley is the first canonical African-American female poet and she is able to write in this time period because her poetry is the opposite of critical. Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” demonstrates not just the conformity enforced upon early slaves, but also the immediacy of the indoctrination of slaves to white European religious philosophies and poetic rhetoric.
Wheatley wholeheartedly embraces the idea of Christianity in its basest understanding in that she uses the rhetoric of the bible to argue why she should be equal, and that is because she and other African descendants also “may be refin’d,” (Wheatley). Modernly it is an atheist habit to formulate philosophical and scientific argument against the basis of a Judeo-Christian god, this stems from the religious indoctrination perpetrated onto the masses in the early stages of America. This is exemplified by Jupiter Hammon, Olaudah Equiano, Phillis Wheatley, even the Reverend Martin Luther King Junior. To argue against the societal restrictions and oppressions undergone by a specific populace, one must reveal the hypocrisy within Christianity from which the oppressor draws their morality. By appealing to this base desire of self-righteousness, the overlord must cease to be the oppressor or admit that they are villainous. Whilst simultaneously using Christianity’s specificities to criticize immoral behavior, the indoctrination of slaves was still a dangerous and definitive stain on the personality of those forced. Jupiter Hammon wrote to Phillis Wheatley in his poem “An Address to Phillis Wheatley,” God’s tender mercy brought thee here; Tossed o’er the raging main; In Christian faith thou hast a share, Worth all the gold of Spain. It is indicative that the value of Christianity to these people is a mechanism for adding value to a life that is insufficiently vibrant or full of exceptional things. This is dangerous because they believe in what is essentially a fairy-tail to the point in which they depend on the afterlife to apply meaning to their “humble” lives and become complaisant to the horrors that they have and their ancestors will endure.
The indoctrination of Africans and African-Americans into Christianity was a tool for control and it is akin to Moloch’s plan of using the master’s weapons against them for Wheatley to purposefully advocate her freedom based solely on the principles spoon fed to her by slavers and ministers. As a student of classical literature Wheatley was well acquainted with both Milton and Pope, and thus can be expected to view Christianity critically in regards to its application of oppression. “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” she demonstratively declares herself as a shining example of Christianity, not as a boast, but as a criticism of those that would oppress her and thus sully their own holiness. This poem as well as a criticism works nicely as a satire to expose the fear within the community of slavers and subjugators in which she writes her work. For example Wheatley writes “Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,/ May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train,” this indicates that she is reminding Christians that they had given their holy tradition to blacks as a means to keep them satisfied in the face of harsh torment, and then it basks in the fact that their shared faith creates a sense of familial bondage between the two races that is by nature permanent.
Wheatley uses satire to force acknowledgement of equality in the eyes of God by her keepers, and thus establishes a means to the reclamation of independence for future leaders invoking the same arguments, such as Olaudah and reverend King. In a nutshell, Wheatley markets herself to a predominantly white audience conditioned by the fact that she is conservative and Christian and thus malleable and inherently in service against her own best wishes. Wheatley uses this platform both to shelter herself from those whom would judge her, as well as to attach a European style and motif to her work. It appears that Wheatley imitates the styles of Milton-esque writers to further appeal to white Christian audiences whom regard themselves as devout Christian’s and appeal to their desires to feel better about their own degrees of faith. This allows her the most possible freedom she can attain within her position as she is able to continue her education and publication with little ramification outside of literary criticism.
While Wheatley’s work stays subtly critical it is important to remember that black women are still scrutinized far more than their white and/or male counterparts. Participation in the canon of early American literature for an African American woman is monumental in the development of this country, and to consider her a satirist as well acknowledges the necessity of education for true equality in modern American society.
A Voice Against Slavery
Religion, specifically Christianity, gives Phillis Wheatley an avenue with which to connect and influence her readers. Wheatley appears to embrace Christianity without offering criticism or highlighting hypocrisies. However, a deeper reading of her poetry suggests that she uses her newfound religion to deliver a message on the injustices of slavery. Within “On Being Brought from Africa to America”, Phillis Wheatley strives to utilize Christianity with an emphasis on redemption, so that there is a hidden implication of equality and the notion that all slaves are capable of being saved.
The first four lines of Wheatley’s poem, “On Being Brought from Africa to America”, confirm the ideals of Christianity:
’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Within these lines, she admits that she was once a pagan, but God removed her of this sin and lead her to the path of redemption. Instead of beginning with a condemnation of slavery she calls it “mercy brought me from my Pagan land” (Wheatley, “On Being Brought from Africa to America”, line 1). Further she implies that her finding of a God and savior has allowed her once stained soul to be redeemed (lines 2-4). This simple confirmation of the Christian belief system would have made this poem extremely well received during the time in which it was written.
Wheatley credits slavery as having a positive impact on her life because it brought her to Christianity. While her Christian faith was authentic, it was also a safe subject for a slave poet in a dominantly white society. Expressing gratitude for her enslavement may be unexpected to most readers. However, it was the only way that Wheatley could relate to her audience at the time and portray her message without being condemned. She uses the phrase “mercy brought me” (line 1) and the title “On Being Brought” in order to downplay the violence of being kidnapped and forced into slavery. This is could also be read as denying power to those people that captured her. She does not submit herself to them, but gives all the credit to God.
Wheatley’s rational for condemning her former beliefs most probably developed from her fragile position in American society. In order for her poetry to be well acknowledged, it would have had to appeal to a white Christian society. Her audience would have been quite interested in the idea of a black woman renouncing her pagan ways in favor of Christianity. If the poem had noticeably focused on equality between slaves and whites it would have never been dispersed throughout the white society. The non-confrontational tone that Wheatley uses along with the idea that slaves can become Christians, inertly leads the reader to conclude that slavery is wrong both in a moral and religious sense.
In the last four lines of “On Being Brought from Africa to America”, Wheatley subtly establishes the notion of equality between all races:
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’angelic train.
In the seventh line of the poem, Wheatley writes “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain” (“On Being Brought from Africa to America”, line 7). The biblical reference to Cain is used to draw a parallel between the racist idea that African Americans are slaves because they are cursed making slavery just, and that Christianity is a religion of redemption and harmony, thus slavery should not exist. The belief that slaves were the descendants of cursed biblical people is used by Wheatley to convey that even if these people were cursed, it does not justify enslaving the African American race.
The last two lines of the poem state that, “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain/May be refin’d, and join th’angelic train” (lines 7-8). Wheatley is essentially saying that even if African Americans represent the curse of Cain because of their black skin, this should not prevent them from accepting God and being saved. She is stating that any person of any skin color can become a Christian and go to heaven. She is arguing against slavery in a way hidden from the passive reader. At first glance, it may appear that Wheatley is simply suggesting that blacks can become Christians and go to heave. However, a deeper reading shows how she is hinting that blacks and whites are equal and will go to heaven together. She uses Christianity as a tool here to emphasize equality among races.
Wheatley articulates her consciousness of black struggles in a white-dominated society in this poem. William Van Deburg states in his book, Slavery and Race in American Popular Culture, although she believed that God has rescued her from paganism, “She criticized whites for their shallow understanding of spiritual equality” (56). By putting the line “Their colour is a diabolic die” (line 6) in quotation marks, Wheatley suggests that while others attach negative associations to blackness, she would not. If whites were truly Christians and practiced these beliefs they would not judge people by their color. For Christianity is the belief that all can be redeemed and saved.
Wheatley’s use of the word “sable” (line 5) can be read has having a double meaning. If interpreted as the color of grief, it suggests that she and her entire race are in mourning. However, sable could be viewed as a reference to valuable and desirable animal fur indicating her disgust for the negative value placed on the blackness of skin. By asking the whites to “Remember” (line 7), she effectively cautions them for forgetting the real Christian truth behind one of the main religious arguments supporting slavery, the biblical story of Cain. Wheatley was reminding her white readers about the religious hypocrisy in regards to her blackness, and if that blackness is presumably Cain’s mark then true Christians should defend and not abuse Africans.
Phillis Wheatley’s poetry leads the way for the abolitionist movement decades later. Her writings of the injustice of slavery are mild, but are not devoid of racial consciousness and personal declarations for reform. She uses religion of Christianity throughout her works to relate to her audience, but also to advocate racial equality. She shows that one does not have to be arrogant and demanding to get their message across to others. She uses a more aesthetic way to influence and impact readers for generations.
Van Deburg, William. Slavery and Race in American Popular Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.
Wheatley, Phillis. “Poems:Phillis Wheatley.” January 1998. Renaissance Editions. 24
February 2009 <http://www.uoregon.edu/~rbear/wheatley.html>.
Poetic Elements Creating a Genius Manipulation
In “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North America,” Phillis Wheatley, through her convincing use of pathos and masterful manipulation of poetic elements, implores Earl William Legge to sympathize with her efforts to further the reaches of freedom and human civility in colonial America, while also attempting to dispel and discourage future instances of tyranny. While admittedly difficult to implore favor so kindly from a race that took away almost all notions of Wheatley’s culture and heritage, regardless she sacrifices her pride in an attempt to rescue future generations of African Americans.
Few events in the history of the United States can even begin to compare to the horrific and unforgiving nature of slavery, and Wheatley takes full advantage of this undeniable fact when relating the harrowing details of her removal from Africa. By saying, “I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate/ Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancied happy seat:/ What pangs excruciating must molest,/ What sorrows labor in my parent’s breast?” (Norton 404, Ln. 24-27), Wheatley expertly utilizes pathos in an effort to sway Earl William’s support in favor of her anti-slavery initiative. By emphasizing the cruelty of her predicament and the effects it had on her parents, Wheatley appeals to the Earl’s emotion, a tactic often effective in an attempt to convince an audience of one’s cause. Hoping to instill a sense of regret and sympathy in the Earl, Wheatley uses her own emotions as tools for the construction of a monument to the tragic plight of Africans such as her self. This great range of raw emotion expressed by Wheatley is also quite surprising, considering the fact that the conventions of writing at the time were often quite reserved and formal, with neoclassical works such as this being especially restrictive in terms of emotional expression.
Wheatley also cleverly uses poetic elements, namely rhythm, rhyme scheme, and meter, in order to both concisely and subliminally further her anti-slavery agenda. Throughout the majority of the piece, Wheatley utilizes a steady, regular AABB rhyme scheme in conjunction with the calm, invariable meter of iambic pentameter, mirroring the beatific nature of flattery she uses in her attempt to win over Earl William’s valuable favor. However, in the poem’s third stanza, the typically steadfast rhyme scheme of the poem is derailed, replaced by a AAABB pattern. When Wheatley declares, “No more, America, in mournful strain/ Of wrongs, and grievance unredress’d complain,/ No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,/ Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand/ Had made, and with it meant t’ enslave the land,” (Norton 404, Ln. 15-19), her powerful yet subtle change in rhyme scheme signifies a transition in poetic subject matter, as she goes on in the fourth stanza to describe the dreadful and emotional events of her removal from Africa. By utilizing this dynamic change in rhyme scheme, Wheatley relates that alarming incident, subliminally highlighting it in the mind of the Earl so that it may impact him more deeply and perhaps stir in him some empathy for those that have suffered.
Furthermore, the reversion to a deceptively simple AABB rhyme scheme when Wheatley tells her story of injustice serves as an grand understatement to the magnitude of her predicament. By relating such a horrific event with such basic delivery, Wheatley is in actuality once again highlighting its injustice by revealing that the act of removing Africans from their homeland has become so commonplace. Furthermore, the incongruous combination of a normal delivery and a horrific represents the removed, callous disposition of those that orchestrated the horror’s of Wheatley and her people’s past. By utilizing these three poetic devices in conjunction, while also shifting the rhyme scheme in a key point within the poem, Wheatley constructs a powerful and effective argument in favor of freedom and against tyranny.
Wheatley’s argument as proposed to Earl William of Dartmouth in this poem is one rooted in deep desperation, as shown by the uncharacteristic overflow of emotion she conveys when describing the fate she is trying to save so many other Africans from. In a heroic beseeching of Earl William, Wheatley sacrifices her pride in order to save the potential of these future African Americans. Through her convincing use of pathos and masterful manipulation of poetic elements, Wheately is able to effectively construct a powerful and dynamic position that aims to further the reaches of freedom and human civility in colonial America, while also attempting to dispel and discourage future instances of tyranny.
A Theme Of Equality In Phillis Wheatley’s On Being Brought From Africa To America
Wheatley begins her eight-line block form poem with “‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land’”, meaning how much of a blessing it is for her to be brought from Africa through the Almighty God’s compassion. Her use of imagery relates directly to her experience as a slave where her skin was as “black as Cain”, representing how belittled this woman’s race is. The poem creates an imagery of light and dark, being thankful to be introduced to Christianity in the realization that everything works in her favor. The recognition is proven in line 2 mentioning her “benighted soul” is saved from sin and evil, signifying there is a God who watches over her struggles of darkness and ignorance, and his force is more powerful than humans. The darkness of not knowing God as a personal savior is not permanent; if all race is equal in Heaven then they should be equal on earth as well.
America, the land of the free, non-pagan, able to erase darkness, is being compared to Africa. Africa is Wheatley’s pagan land, where people are living in houses made of mud, hospitals are far away, and children must walk long distances to fetch water for their households. If needs are not met such as being a teacher or a farmer, food is expensive, making it hard to get by. HIV/AIDS occurs prominently because sex is used as an activity due to not having electricity or other forms of entertainment along with further ignorance filled in every direction. She speaks little of the journey from Africa, but it is not as important as she sees it as her gateway or beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Throughout Wheatley’s poem, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” there are many representations of physical and spiritual darkness. When the speaker is in Africa, or pagan land as she refers, her soul is not cleansed. It appears as Wheatley grew older; she remains hidden from religion until the mercy comes on her to come to America.
With eagerness to be creative Wheatley learns how to read and write, breaking barriers as a female poet. Coming to America is like an “American Dream” so for Wheatley, writing stands as a form of fulfillment to feel free than an obligation as a slave. If bystanders witness this situation, they will note that though “. . . Negros, black as Cain” is mentioned, Cain is protected by God just as the darkness of the slavers who pretend not to know the Lord. They too are protected regardless of their wrong doings. Though it is, devastating slavery acts as a restoration to help her beliefs after being taken away from Africa on someone else’s will.
There was a reason the speaker never speaks ill of the slavery system. She understands that she is placed there for a reason at the right place and right time. Phillis Wheatley wishes for redemption throughout the poem where America is understood to be the place for deliverance but just like everything else in life, there are obstacles that happen to be as discrimination. Blacks portray behavior like Cain, the first murderer in Christian belief who slew his brother Abel and was “marked.” The Whites believe that African Americans are children of the curse Cain and not of God, which in turn offers the belief to treat them less than what they are. The message “. . . be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train” impacts our decision as Christians when Wheatley argues, black people can be refined just as much as any other race and join the angelic train with them. The angelic train is a metaphor for Heaven where believers will gather once everyone would treat each other as equal Christians. It’s like rooting for the best football team, wanting to see everyone prosper. Beyond asking for equality, the speaker’s message gets to readers that before God, everyone is welcome.
There is a lot of negativity present when “Some view our sable race with scornful eye,” indirectly calling slaves black or animals. The orientation of “‘Their color is a diabolic die’”, means covered with wickedness. This event brings along racism, human beings called a diabolic die or staying around for the benefit of the other race. It is anti-Christian to consider God’s creation of race evil. There are still other Christians who do not follow the principles of life of how to treat each other following God’s word but Phillis Wheatley is living proof of changes, where mercy and conversion can refine the souls of faithless people. Darkness is being insinuated without using the word dark specifically, portraying black as evil or without spiritual understanding.
Essential loyalty to Negroes and power is an address with subtle emphasis on religion, gratitude, and understanding. If the white man does not expect blacks to be, anti-white, then the oppression or degrading towards people black as Cain needs to end. The speaker is not resentful of her experiences though there is no mention of forgiveness. Society wants the black race to be non-existent, but as a reader reads through “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” it leaves them to understand or feel the emotions a slave knows directly, leaving everything behind and having to start a new life over.
Imagine being taken away from family and friends! Wheatley has been isolated for so long that she is numb to what is about to take place for her future, relieved by flowing praises and blessings. The most important thing is, while leaving Africa, though she does not know much about Christianity, Phillis Wheatley did not question the intentions of God. However, after developing a closer relationship with God, she realizes that God has been always by her side even when she did not see him, and her continual faith allows her to keep strong and adapt to new surroundings.
Most importantly, the color of someone’s skin should not be a factor to prevent them in fulfilling what life throws at them. As the known quote reveals, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” because someone is always in a position worse than expected. Even though Wheatley and other Africans who were brought as slaves, endures excessive labor and pain, she still believes that everyone can be assembled as one. Wheatley displays confidence and strength she has in herself, despite the treatment and struggle. Phillis Wheatley expects every person whatever their race, origin or religion, to be accepted and have a fair chance in the land of opportunities.
- Wheatley, Phillis. “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Robert S. Levine, shorter 9th ed., Vol.1, W. W Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 422.
Phillis Wheatley And Rita Dove: Prophets Of Social Change
It can easily be argued that all efforts of creative writings from African Americans are forms of protest. To understand what a protest in literature is. By definition the practice within African American literature of setting things right or to remedy wrongdoing. Protest literature contains many approaches, from the earliest literary efforts to modern times. These include expressing clearly the unfortunate situations of enslaved persons, challenging larger Caucasian communities to change their ways towards those persons, and providing specific points for the nature of the problems presented. In so many words, the intention of protest literature was and still is to show inequalities among races as well as social and economic groups in America and to encourage a change in the society that causes such inequalities. For Phillis Wheatley one of the things that motivated her African American protest poetry began with her slavery. But for Rita Dove, she dealt with issues of inequality and repression. Although she showed protest in her poetry less openly than Phillis Wheatley. Both of them knew they could bring imagination to the poet’s side of things and change society. The question was how would they do that? By using their protest literature, they focused on such issues as race, religion, and politics and worked hard to correct them.
Phillis Wheatley was born in Senegal/Gambia around 1753. At the age of 8, she was kidnapped and brought to Boston on a slave ship. Upon her arrival, John Wheatley purchased the young girl as a servant for his wife, Susanna. Under the family’s instructions, Phillis was taken under Susanna’s wing. Phillis’ fast intelligence was impressive, and as a result, Susanna and her two children taught Phillis how to read and encouraged her literary pursuits within the household. One of her favorite books to read was the Bible which is noted from her writings. With her new-found knowledge, she proceeded to write poetry about race, politics, and religion.
Rita Dove was born in 1952, in Akron Ohio. She developed a love for literature at an early age in a home that encouraged reading. She was honored as a Presidential Scholar, being ranked as one of the top 100 high school students in the nation, and as a National Merit Scholar attended Ohio’s Miami University, graduating in 1973. She subsequently studied abroad in Germany before returning to the states and earning her M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. After graduating Rita tackled a wide variety of themes in her works. In them, she tries to show the universal nature of being human, and with that tries to overcome the differences that divide people’s race, politics, and religion.
For Phillis, the poem ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’ was one of her most well-known poems about race.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
‘Their colour is a diabolic die.’
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain.
This poem is about being brought to America on a slave ship, and phrases like ‘sable race’ and ‘diabolic die,’ exposes some of the racial issues in America during the seventeenth century that Phillis was a witness to. Phillis also makes it known how she feels about the inequality between the black and white races in the poem. The poem implies that African Americans are seen as no better than animals ‘a sable’ and only to be treated as merchandise and nothing else. Being made a slave was one thing, but having whites call blacks a diabolic dye, suggesting that black people are black because they’re evil was something that affected Phillis enough to speak on it through her poem. She was only able to speak of it in her poem at the time because in the seventeenth-century blacks were seen but rarely heard. She continued to work on her poetry and for equality greatly. In 1775, she wrote a poem called ‘To His Excellency, George Washington’ where she praised his heroism and supported the Revolutionary War. In 1776, George Washington invited her to the White House for a private reading to thank her in person for the poem she had written.
For Rita, the book ‘The Yellow House on the Corner’ was one of her best-known books filled with race themes. As a black poet, Rita is extremely aware of black history and how it has played a part in this world. So much so, that one out of five sections in ‘The Yellow House on the Corner’ is devoted entirely to poems about slavery and freedom. Rita shows both willingness and the ability to bring the race to the conscious mind for her readers. She managed to do this through her illustrations bringing forth the psychological horrors of slavery. Within this book, she has proven to be very skilled at graphically recreating idioms of the eighteenth and nineteenth-century breathing life back into the era. The poem that I came across in her book is called ‘Rosa’.
How she sat there,
the time right inside a place
so wrong it was ready.
That trim name with
its dream of a bench
to rest on. Her sensible coat.
Doing nothing was doing:
the clean flame of her gaze
carved by a camera flash.
Even though this poem does not speak directly about racism itself, it reminds readers of racial segregation and the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s in the south. There wasn’t a need for Rita to speak directly about race in this poem because Rosa Parks is so famously known for her important role within the racial struggle of African-Americans that she doesn’t need to. Rita does not write many poems about race today, perhaps she is wary of what she perceives as a trap set by race for the black writer.
Phillis Wheatley’s poems and letters in the book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), encouraged hope and inspired political change in America. Phillis used poetry to imagine a fateful yet failed connection between the movements to end slavery. Her poems about political aspects documented major incidents of the American struggle for independence. The names of the colonial leaders who signed the attestation that appeared in some copies of Poems on Various Subjects to authenticate and support her work: Thomas Hutchinson, governor of Massachusetts; John Hancock; Andrew Oliver, lieutenant governor; James Bowdoin; and Reverend Mather Byles. Another fervent Wheatley supporter was Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
As for Rita Dove, ‘Parsley’ the last poem found in her book Museum; is a great political poem for today’s generation. (Rampersad p.55) It explains how Rita’s overall aim was to describe the violence and inequality against humanity in the Dominican Republic. In the poem dictator Rafael Trujillo, the ‘El General’, ordered his army to kill approximately 20,000 Haitian immigrants simply because of their skin color and the fact that they could not pronounce the ‘r’ in the Spanish word for ‘parsley’ which is ‘Perejil’. Rita has successfully used several literary techniques in this work: a play on words, imagery, and symbolism. Imagery and symbolism helped her to better explain and reinforce what her point was behind the poem comprehensively.
Religion has played a big part in Phillis Wheatley’s poetry over the years. Referring back to the poem ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’ Wheatley spoke knowledgeably about religion. Her conversion to Christianity corresponds with her journey from Africa to America, and it becomes a source that feeds her belief that everyone is equal spiritually. She encouraged Christians to truly look at and follow their fundamental truth for Christianity. In addition to that, the use of Christian imagery allowed her to discuss racial inequality in her hope to defuse untruths about racial differences; she used the Christian promise of salvation as an argument for equality in life.
In ‘The Yellow House on The Corner’ mentioned above it seemed to have been flowing with the use of biblical imagery. Her wisdom as a poet is evident in her writing style which makes use of biblical citations in some of the titles. ‘Teach Us to Number Our Day,’ is one that happens to be a title referenced from the book of Psalms 90:12; it’s a quotation from one of Moses’s prayers. (Dublin 2019) The mentioning of the prayer makes the poem out to be that of hope amongst the adversity. She chose to use faith as something that created a mood of hope and guidance for people to make the best of all situations despite the circumstances. Looking at her life growing up, black people in the community were greatly discriminated against and not allowed to rise above particular limits in society. The message in the poem was simply this, encourage others in life that all things are possible.
It’s really hard not to admire these two women. These are women who dared to stand up for not only their rights but for the rights of African Americans all over. My admiration for these two women may be heightened because they too are also African-American women. Knowing these women now, I see them as brave and heroic human beings. Even though the above poems didn’t focus primarily on racism, religion, or politics, Phillis Wheatley and Rita Dove directly addressed the prejudices against African Americans and how keeping faith in God can help anyone overcome that prejudice.
- Shmoop Editorial Team. ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America Theme of Race.’ Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web.
- Poetry Sunday: ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America,’ by Phillis Wheatley Written by: Rebecca Foust, February 3, 2019.
- Coombs, Norman. The Black Experience in America. 1993. Web.
- Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. 1996. Web.
- Phillis Wheatley Historical Society. 2019. Web. www.phillis-wheatley.org. 15 Nov. 2019.
- Shmoop Editorial Team. ‘Rosa Poem Text.’ Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 18 Nov. 2019.
- Arnold Rampersad. ‘The Poems of Rita Dove.’ Callaloo, no. 26, 1986, pp. 52–60. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2931043.
- Phillis Wheatley Biography. Biography.com Editors. https://www.biography.com/writer/phillis-wheatley. 15 Nov. 2019. Web
- Shmoop Editorial Team. ‘Rosa Theme of Race.’ Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 19 Nov. 2019
- ‘Phillis Wheatley – Other literary forms’ Poets and Poetry in America Ed. Rosemary M. Canfield Reisman. eNotes.com, Inc. 2011 eNotes.com 20 Nov 2019
- Phillis Wheatley 1753-1784. Poetry Foundation. 20 Nov 2019 https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/phillis-wheatley. Web.
- Rita Dove, ‘Parsley’ from Museum (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1983). https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43355/parsley. Web
- Brian Dublin. ‘Teach Us To Number Our Days’. American Poetry. 12, Apr. 2019. https://www.studentwritingcenter.us/american-poetry-2/teach-us-to-number-our-days.html
Analysis Of Phillis Wheatley’s Message In The Poem On Being Brought From Africa To America
Religion, especially Christianity, offers an outlet for Phillis Wheatley to communicate with and influence her audience. Religion was a subject that Wheatley could easily relate to with her audience considering the vast differences between herself and her audience. She was a former slave, a reformed savage saved by god, and they were (her audience aka white Christians of America) elite, superior to Phillis Wheatley in every way. Despite Wheatley’s prominent differences between herself and her audience, she readily embraced and accepted their religion — Christianity — without imparting criticism or emphasizing the hypocrisies within Christianity. Nevertheless, Wheatley’s newfound religion did not deter her from addressing the injustices of slavery within her poem. In “On Being Brought from Africa to America”, Wheatley seeks to promote Christianity whilst, at the same time, accentuating redemption, so as to covertly insinuate the significance of equality and the belief that all African Americans are capable of being saved.
The opening four line of Wheatley’s poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” affirms the principles of Christianity: “’Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land, Taught my benighted soul to understand that there’s a god, there’s a savior too: Once I redemption neither sought nor knew” (Wheatley). Within these lines, she is accrediting god’s removal of her from her pagan homeland — Africa — a blessing, and a free act of compassion from god himself. Wheatley’s grateful outlook is a modest recognition of the virtues of a Christian county like America. Rather than opening with a firm reproach of slavery, she calls it “mercy brought me from my pagan land” (Wheatley). In addition, she suggests that her discovery of god and savior was what allowed the redemption of her soul. The white society during this time period would have, without a doubt, appreciated and valued her poetry considering Wheatley was openly praising and promoting Christian values. Wheatley merits slavery as having a positive influence on her life because it led to her discovering Christianity; her Christian faith was pure and genuine, yet her faith was the only safe topic Wheatley could broach to interact with her audience. Wheatley using the subject of her faith and religion to relate with her audience allowed her to subtly use a play of the Christian words and language to portray the message she wished to get across without being denounced by white Americans. She utilizes the line “mercy brought me” and the title “On Being Brought” (Wheatley) in order to significantly deemphasize the violence nature in which she was stolen from her home, endured horrendous conditions in her journey to America, and the inhumane manner in which she was sold into slavery. On another note, Wheatley’s choice of words could be interpreted as refuting the power to the whites that captured and enslaved her; she does not yield herself to them but administers all the credit to god.
In the last four lines of “On Being Brought from Africa to America”, Wheatley installs the idea of equality between all races: “Some view our sable race with scornful eye, “their colour is a diabolic die.” Remember Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train” (Wheatley). The biblical reference of Cain in Wheatley’s poem is utilized to depict a parallel between the racist notion that African Americans are predisposed to being slaves because they are cursed, therefore slavery is justifiable, and that Christianity is a religion of redemption and forgiveness, thus there is no justification for slavery existing. The belief that slaves were the descendants of cursed biblical people is used by Wheatley to emphasize the fact that even if there was a prospect of these people being cursed, it should not result in or be deemed appropriate to enslave the African American race.
Wheatley enunciates her awareness of black struggles in a white-dominated society in this poem. While she believed that god rescued her from sin and perdition by leading her away from her pagan land, she condemned whites for their superficial understanding of spiritual equality. In the line “Their colour diabolic die”, Wheatley indicates that while others affix unfavorable associations to blackness, she would not. Her view was that if the whites were truly Christian at heart, they would not judge others by their color, nor deem an entire race of people as evil because they were born black.
Wheatley has crafted an image of Christianity being the sole force of which she can attribute to her redemption and the eventual redemption of the African American race. Throughout her poem she applied religion and Christianity to relate to her audience but to also incessantly urge for racial equality. Though her writing of the injustices of slavery through her poem is mild, Wheatley is not entirely devoid of racial consciousness and covertly attempts to declare for reform with the use of Christian ideologies to portray the immorality and unchristian way the whites treated African Americans. Wheatley continuously reminded the white Christians about their religious hypocrisy; they were “Christians” that followed certain beliefs, and they did not accept that god viewed everyone as equals, including the African American race whom they had already deemed were beneath them in every aspect. Wheatley was able to put herself in a position to advocate for the African American race by assimilating herself in the religion that played an important role for the white society at that time.