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.
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