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.
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