Phillis Wheatley Exposed
Phillis Wheatley was the first published African American poet and a revolutionary of her time. She is credited with starting the movement of African American Literature and praised as “the most famous African on the face of the earth, the Oprah Winfrey of her time (Gates, 33).” Phillis’ poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” is full of civil rights activism and points of racial equality and has become subject to quite a few perspectives and comprehensions.
When analyzing an author’s work, it is very important to get to know the writer and their respective history and background. Phillis Wheatley became a slave at the early age of eleven after being born in and growing up in Gambia, Africa. “Wheatley grew up in a fixed and prejudiced position in the white social order; she was the alien, the dependent, the talking chattel (Gates, 213).” She was purchased by the Whatley family of Boston, Massachusetts, who gave Wheatley the rare opportunity of learning to read and write. Her situation was unusual; she was not quite part of the white Wheatley family, nor did she quite share the place and experiences of other slaves. They helped her in her studies and also encouraged her poetic advancement during a time when the most elite white class thought it impossible for an African slave to express themselves in a poetic or even educated manner (Gates, 213). Wheatley challenged the European and American views of the nature of Africans with such tremendousness that they would never be viewed the same again.
Phillis Wheatley was tutored by the Wheatley’s daughter, Mary, in English, Latin, history, geography, religion, and the Bible. Phillis’ popularity as a poet both in the United States and England ultimately brought her freedom from slavery on October 18, 1773. She appeared before General Washington in March, 1776 for her poetry and was a strong supporter of independence during the Revolutionary War. The War, however, had a few negative effects on Wheatley’s exposure. “The American Revolution intervened in Phillis Wheatley’s career, and the effect was not completely positive. The people of Boston — and of America and England — bought books on other topics rather than the volume of Phillis Wheatley poems (Lewis, 1).”
The white sponsors of these writings, namely Phillis Wheatley’s master, John Wheatley, realized that people would not believe that a slave woman actually wrote these poems and would not be satisfied until proven otherwise. For this reason, prefatory materials were prepared and authenticity was accredited by means of the signing off on her work by several honorables and religious figures. These prefatory pieces also attested to the hardships Phillis had to overcome and highlight how much of an accomplishment it was to even be literate considering her situation. This started a trend that most African writers after Wheatley followed. Despite these hardships, Phillis Wheatley defied the odds and became an established and widely recognized poet.
In 1767, the Newport Mercury published Phillis Wheatley’s first poem, a tale of two men who nearly drowned at sea, and of their steady faith in God. Her elegy for the evangelist George Whitefield, brought more attention to Phillis Wheatley. This attention included visits by a number of Boston’s notables, including political figures and poets. She published more poems each year from 1771-1773, and a collection of her poems was published in London in 1773. The whites of this time period were perhaps so shocked by this creativity due to the fact that they had overlooked the strong oral traditions of Africans. They had no exposure to any African literature until the contemporary writers such as Phillis Wheatley and the contributors who followed in her footsteps. Wheatley went on to write many poems which have been well renowned, and a few that will be engraved into the roots of African American literature permanently.
One of Wheatley’s most famous works is “On Being Brought to America from Africa.” “In just eight lines, Wheatley describes her attitude towards her condition of enslavement – both coming from Africa to America, and the culture that considers her race so negatively (Lewis, 2).”Wheatley starts off the poem by actually showing thanks for the cards she was dealt due to her path leading her to 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 (219).”She is implying that slavery actually provided some positive in the form of opportunity. Through her capture and enslavement, Wheatley was exposed to what she believed to be the ultimate truth and seemed to credit her situation for leading her to it. Phillis was a genuinely faithful Christian woman and this helped her greatly because the topic was unquestionably safe to write about. However, some misinterpreted the way that she showed gratitude for the situation she was placed in and for this Wheatley was not looked upon too kindly by many African readers.
Using the phrase “mercy brought me” has been associated to several motives. For one, it doesn’t directly put down the slave trade, which could have proved dangerous for Wheatley. It has also been interpreted that she is putting herself above the kidnappers, saying that it was God’s path for her and the only way she would find mercy. She credits “mercy” with her voyage, but also with her education in Christianity. Both were actually at the hands of human beings. In turning both to God, she reminds her audience that there is a force more powerful than they are; a force that has acted directly in her life. Also, Wheatley uses the word pagan as opposed to heathen. This may be due to the fact that the word heathen also implies that one is irreligious, uncultured, or uncivilized. Also, Wheatley emphasizes the word “once” using the emphatic irregularity of braking iambic pentameter.
Benighted is a word that should be examined closely. Its actual definition is to be overtaken by darkness or night; in a state of intellectual, moral, or social darkness; unenlightened. Wheatley may be saying that before she was exposed to the Christian truth, her physical appearance (being African) paralleled her ignorant and heretic ways. This may be accredited to the fact that she was forced into an unbelievably difficult and inhumane situation. It is quite evident throughout history that the lesser the quality of present life for a certain group of people, the more emphasis and focus there will be on the afterlife, whatever that may include. People who live in such low conditions tend to focus energy into introverted expressions, namely strong religious beliefs. Religion played a major role in the lives of African slaves; it was a safe haven for the mind to retreat to when the atrocities of life seemed unbearable.
The next lines read “Some view our sable race with scornful eye; / ‘Their color is a diabolic die’” (Gates, 220). By separating herself and the audience from “view our sable race with scornful eye” Phillis Wheatley is indirectly calling out and insulting those who do- that is, who are racially discriminate. She also seems to be taking up the argumentative voice that if someone sat by and let something happen, they were in turn partially responsible. This part of the poem may also argue that even though Africa is painted as a sanctuary of sin and paganism from which the western influence of Christianity was responsible for redeeming, Africans and their “diabolic die” color are very much so included in God’s plan.
“Sable” as a self-description of her color is a very interesting choice of words. Sable is very valuable and desirable, suggesting that she is proud of her heritage and is not associating them with immoral or paganistic ways, even though the themes had been tied together. This characterization contrasts sharply to the “diabolic die” of the next line. Some interpret the phrase “Diabolic die” to represent a single die, a small dot of black in a large white space. It may also be a subtle reference to another side of the “triangle” trade which was referencing the slave trade. The triangle, involving three continents, consisted of the European capital, African labor, and American land and resources combined to supply a European market (Thomas, Simon and Schuster, 908). The third, and final, leg of the triangular trade involved the return to Europe with the produce from the slave-labor plantations: cotton, sugar, tobacco, molasses and rum (Lovejoy, 643).At about that same time, the Quaker leader John Woolman is boycotting dyes in order to protest slavery. Others also say the words in quotes would be from some who would deny the African race capable of purification or Christianity; the mark of Cain being interpreted as the dark skin of Africa.
The last lines in Wheatley’s piece read “Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain, / May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train (Gates, 220).” Wheatley is pointing out Also in the last sentence, she says “remember” which is implying that the audience has already agreed to her point and she is simply reiterating. With such an imperative tone, Wheatley takes a superior stance, daring to tell, even scold Christians about what they should already know. This would have been interpreted as an amazingly bold statement for a slave woman during her time. This may also be interpreted as a representation of the tone that a preacher or minister may take- someone with moral authority.
Phillis Wheatley was a very influential part of the civil rights movement, providing a positive role model for Africans and Women throughout the entire world. “Wherever these debates lead us, it is important to remember the task that Wheatley had before her when she undertook a career as a black woman poet in a white man’s country (Gates, 215).” Although we may never interpret all of Wheatley’s poetry exactly the way she intended, she has proven countless points and excited progressive thinking. She overcame odds, disproved prejudiced feelings and associations, and sparked the intuition of countless others who would follow headstrong in her footsteps.