On Being Brought from Africa to America
On Being Brought from Africa to America
Phillis Wheatley's poem "On Being Brought from Africa to America" appeared in her 1773 volume Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the first full-length published work by an African American author. In the poem, she gives thanks for having been brought to America, where she was raised to be a Christian. Wheatley was hailed as a genius, celebrated in Europe and America just as the American Revolution broke out in the colonies. Though a slave when the book was published in England, she was set free based on its success. She had been publishing poems and letters in American newspapers on both religious matters and current topics. She was thus part of the emerging dialogue of the new republic, and her poems to leading public figures in neoclassical couplets, the English version of the heroic meters of the ancient Greek poet Homer, were hailed as masterpieces. Some readers, looking for protests against slavery in her work, have been disenchanted upon instead finding poems like "On Being Brought from Africa to America" to reveal a meek acceptance of her slave fate.
One critical problem has been an incomplete collection of Wheatley's work. In consideration of all her poems and letters, evidence is now available for her own antislavery views. Phillis Wheatley: Complete Writings (2001), which includes "On Being Brought from Africa to America," finally gives readers a chance to form their own opinions, as they may consider this poem against the whole body of Wheatley's poems and letters. In context, it seems she felt that slavery was immoral and that God would deliver her race in time.
The African slave who would be named Phillis Wheatley and who would gain fame as a Boston poet during the American Revolution arrived in America on a slave ship on July 11, 1761. She was seven or eight years old, did not speak English, and was wrapped in a dirty carpet. She was bought by Susanna Wheatley, the wife of a Boston merchant, and given a name composed from the name of the slave ship, "Phillis," and her master's last name. It is supposed that she was a native of Senegal or nearby, since the ship took slaves from the west coast of Africa. Because she was physically frail, she did light housework in the Wheatley household and was a favorite companion to Susanna. She did not mingle with the other servants but with Boston society, and the Wheatley daughter tutored her in English, Latin, and the Bible. Phillis was known as a prodigy, devouring the literary classics and the poetry of the day. She was baptized a Christian and began publishing her own poetry in her early teens.
Wheatley's mistress encouraged her writing and helped her publish her first pieces in newspapers and pamphlets. She had written her first poem by 1765 and was published in 1767, when she was thirteen or fourteen, in the Newport Mercury. These were pre-Revolutionary days, and Wheatley imbibed the excitement of the era, recording the Boston Massacre in a 1770 poem. That same year, an elegy that she wrote upon the death of the Methodist preacher George Whitefield made her famous both in America and in England.
Wheatley's growing fame led Susanna Wheatley to advertise for a subscription to publish a whole book of her poems. This failed due to doubt that a slave could write poetry. Thus, John Wheatley collected a council of prominent and learned men from Boston to testify to Phillis Wheatley's authenticity. The eighteen judges signed a document, which Phillis took to London with her, accompanied by the Wheatley son, Nathaniel, as proof of who she was. In 1773 her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (which includes "On Being Brought from Africa
to America") was published by Archibald Bell of London. It was dedicated to the Countess of Huntingdon, a known abolitionist, and it made Phillis a sensation all over Europe. She returned to America riding on that success and was set free by the Wheatleys—a mixed blessing, since it meant she had to support herself.
She was planning a second volume of poems, dedicated to Benjamin Franklin, when the Revolutionary War broke out. The Wheatleys had to flee Boston when the British occupied the city. Phillis lived for a time with the married Wheatley daughter in Providence, but then she married a free black man from Boston, John Peters, in 1778. He deserted Phillis after their third child was born. The first two children died in infancy, and the third died along with Wheatley herself in December 1784 in poverty in a Boston boardinghouse. She had not been able to publish her second volume of poems, and it is thought that Peters sold the manuscript for cash. Some of her poems and letters are lost, but several of the unpublished poems survived and were later found.
A sensation in her own day, Wheatley was all but forgotten until scrutinized under the lens of African American studies in the twentieth century. Today, a handful of her poems are widely anthologized, but her place in American letters and black studies is still debated. Recent critics looking at the whole body of her work have favorably established the literary quality of her poems and her unique historical achievement.
'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.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye. 5
"Their color is a diabolic dye."
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refined, and join the angelic train.
In line 1 of "On Being Brought from Africa to America," as she does throughout her poems and letters, Wheatley praises the mercy of God for singling her out for redemption. So many in the world do not know God or Christ. How is it that she was saved?
Although she was captured and violently brought across the ocean from the west shores of Africa in a slave boat, a frail and naked child of seven or eight, and nearly dead by the time she arrived in Boston, Wheatley actually hails God's kindness for his delivering her from a heathen land. Here Wheatley seems to agree with the point of view of her captors that Africa is pagan and ignorant of truth and that she was better off leaving there (though in a poem to the Earl of Dartmouth she laments that she was abducted from her sorrowing parents). Here she mentions nothing about having been free in Africa while now being enslaved in America. In fact, the whole thrust of the poem is to prove the paradox that in being enslaved, she was set free in a spiritual sense.
Line 2 explains why she considers coming to America to have been good fortune. She was in a sinful and ignorant state, not knowing God or Christ. Many readers today are offended by this line as making Africans sound too dull or brainwashed by religion to realize the severity of their plight in America. It is also pointed out that Wheatley perhaps did not complain of slavery because she was a pampered house servant.
The image of night is used here primarily in a Christian sense to convey ignorance or sin, but it might also suggest skin color, as some readers feel. It seems most likely that Wheatley refers to the sinful quality of any person who has not seen the light of God. From this perspective, Africans were living in darkness. She was instructed in Evangelical Christianity from her arrival and was a devout practicing Christian. Indeed, the idea of anyone, black or white, being in a state of ignorance if not knowing Christ is prominent in her poems and letters. A soul in darkness to Wheatley means someone unconverted. In her poems on atheism and deism she addresses anyone who does not accept Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as a lost soul. Calling herself such a lost soul here indicates her understanding of what she was before being saved by her religion.
Line 3 further explains what coming into the light means: knowing God and Savior. William Robinson, in Phillis Wheatley and Her Writings, brings up the story that Wheatley remembered of her African mother pouring out water in a sunrise ritual. Susanna Wheatley, her mistress, became a second mother to her, and Wheatley adopted her mistress's religion as her own, thus winning praise in the Boston of her day as being both an intelligent and spiritual being. The definition of pagan, as used in line 1, is thus challenged by Wheatley in a sense, as the poem celebrates that the term does not denote a permanent category if a pagan individual can be saved. Wheatley proudly offers herself as proof of that miracle.
Importantly, she mentions that the act of understanding God and Savior comes from the soul. It is not mere doctrine or profession that saves. By making religion a matter between God and the individual soul, an Evangelical belief, she removes the discussion from social opinion or reference. At the same time, she touches on the prejudice many Christians had that heathens had no souls. She wants to inform her readers of the opposite fact—and yet the wording of her confession of faith became proof to later readers that she had sold out, like an Uncle Tom, to her captors' religious propaganda.
Line 4 goes on to further illustrate how ignorant Wheatley was before coming to America: she did not even know enough to seek the redemption of her soul. She did not know that she was in a sinful state. This line is meaningful to an Evangelical Christian because one's soul needs to be in a state of grace, or sanctified by Christ, upon leaving the earth. If it is not, one cannot enter eternal bliss in heaven. Thus, she explains the dire situation: she was in danger of losing her soul and salvation. The difficulties she may have encountered in America are nothing to her, compared to possibly having remained unsaved. In this, she asserts her religion as her priority in life; but, as many commentators have pointed out, it does not necessarily follow that she condones slavery, for there is evidence that she did not, in such poems as the one to Dartmouth and in the letter to Samson Occom.
The first four lines of the poem could be interpreted as a justification for enslaving Africans, or as a condoning of such a practice, since the enslaved would at least then have a chance at true religion. This has been a typical reading, especially since the advent of African American criticism and postcolonial criticism. This view sees the slave girl as completely brainwashed by the colonial captors and made to confess her inferiority in order to be accepted. She is grateful for being made a slave, so she can receive the dubious benefits of the civilization into which she has been transplanted. Following fuller scholarly investigation into her complete works, however, many agree that this interpretation is oversimplified and does not do full justice to her awareness of injustice.
The last four lines take a surprising turn; suddenly, the reader is made to think. The opening sentiments would have been easily appreciated by Wheatley's contemporary white audience, but the last four lines exhorted them to reflect on their assumptions about the black race. The poet quickly and ably turns into a moral teacher, explaining as to her backward American friends the meaning of their own religion.
Line 5 boldly brings out the fact of racial prejudice in America. The darker races are looked down upon. Wheatley admits this, and in one move, the balance of the poem seems shattered. She separates herself from the audience of white readers as a black person, calling attention to the difference. She thus makes clear that she has praised God rather than the people or country of America for her good fortune. One may wonder, then, why she would be glad to be in such a country that rejects her people.
Line 6, in quotations, gives a typical jeer of a white person about black people. The line leads the reader to reflect that Wheatley was not as naive, or as shielded from prejudice, as some have thought. She notes that the black skin color is thought to represent a connection to the devil. The inclusion of the white prejudice in the poem is very effective, for it creates two effects. First, the reader can imagine how it feels to hear a comment like that. Secondly, it describes the deepest Christian indictment of her race: blacks are too sinful to be saved or to be bothered with. While it is true that her very ability to write such a poem defended her race against Jefferson's charge that black people were not intelligent enough to create poetry, an even worse charge for Wheatley would have been the association of the black race with unredeemable evil—the charge that the black race had no souls to save.
Line 7 is one of the difficult lines in the poem. She addresses Christians, which in her day would have included most important people in America, in government, education, and the clergy. Some were deists, like Benjamin Franklin, who believed in God but not a divine savior. Wheatley, however, is asking Christians to judge her and her poetry, for she is indeed one of them, if they adhere to the doctrines of their own religion, which preaches Christ's universal message of brotherhood and salvation.
Why, then, does she seem to destroy her argument and admit that the African race is black like Cain, the first murderer in the Bible? This comparison would seem to reinforce the stereotype of evil that she seems anxious to erase. If she had left out the reference to Cain, the poem would simply be asserting that black people, too, can be saved. On the other hand, by bringing up Cain, she confronts the popular European idea that the black race sprang from Cain, who murdered his brother Abel and was punished by having a mark put on him as an outcast. This racial myth and the mention of slavery in the Bible led Europeans to consider it no crime to enslave blacks, for they were apparently a marked and evil race.
Wheatley perhaps included the reference to Cain for dramatic effect, to lead into the Christian doctrine of forgiveness, emphasized in line 8. No one is excluded from the Savior's tender mercy—not the worst people whites can think of—not Cain, not blacks. Wheatley may also be using the rhetorical device of bringing up the opponent's worst criticism in order to defuse it. Just as she included a typical racial sneer, she includes the myth of blacks springing from Cain. Judging from a full reading of her poems, it does not seem likely that she herself ever accepted such a charge against her race. There are poems in which she idealizes the African climate as Eden, and she constantly identifies herself in her poems as the Afric muse. She is not ashamed of her origins; only of her past ignorance of Christ. In the last line of this poem, she asserts that the black race may, like any other branch of humanity, be saved and rise to a heavenly fate.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Colonized people living under an imposed culture can have two identities. Look at the poems and letters of Phillis Wheatley, and find evidence of her two voices, African and American. Does she feel a conflict about these two aspects of herself, or has she found an integrated identity? Write an essay and give evidence for your findings from the poems and letters and the history known about her life.
- Read more of Wheatley's poems and write a paper comparing her work to some of the poems of her eighteenth-century model, Alexander Pope. How does Wheatley use a similar moral voice, form, and message to address responsible people in society, thus representing the proper vocation of a classical poet to teach public morals? Give a class presentation on the topic.
- Read Wheatley's poems and letters and compare her concerns, in an essay, to those of other African American authors of any period. How do her concerns differ or converge with other black authors? Do you think that the judgment in the 1970s by black educators that Wheatley does not teach values that are good for African American students has merit today?
- The Quakers were among the first to champion the abolition of slavery. Give a report on the history of Quaker involvement in the antislavery movement. What were their beliefs about slavery?
- Research the history of slavery in America and why it was an important topic for the founders in their planning for the country. What difficulties did they face in considering the abolition of the institution in the formation of the new government? Form two groups and hold a debate on the topic.
Wheatley explains her humble origins in "On Being Brought from Africa to America" and then promptly turns around to exhort her audience to accept African equality in the realm of spiritual matters, and by implication, in intellectual matters (the poem being in the form of neoclassical couplets). She admits that people are scornful of her race and that she came from a pagan background. The black race itself was thought to stem from the murderer and outcast Cain, of the Bible. Indeed, at the time, blacks were thought to be spiritually evil and thus incapable of salvation because of their skin color. This objection is denied in lines 7 and 8. Skin color, Wheatley asserts, has nothing to do with evil or salvation. The last two lines refer to the equality inherent in Christian doctrine in regard to salvation, for Christ accepted everyone. Through the argument that she and others of her race can be saved, Wheatley slyly establishes that blacks are equal to whites.
Death and Christian Faith
Religion was the main interest of Wheatley's life, inseparable from her poetry and its themes. Over a third of her poems in the 1773 volume were elegies, or consolations for the death of a loved one. She wrote them for people she knew and for prominent figures, such as for George Whitefield, the Methodist minister, the elegy that made her famous. The elegy usually has several parts, such as praising the dead, picturing them in heaven, and consoling the mourner with religious meditations. Although most of her religious themes are conventional exhortations against sin and for accepting salvation, there is a refined and beautiful inspiration to her verse that was popular with her audience. It is easy to see the calming influence she must have had on the people who sought her out for her soothing thoughts on the deaths of children, wives, ministers, and public figures, praising their virtues and their happy state in heaven.
In "On Being Brought from Africa to America," Wheatley identifies herself first and foremost as a Christian, rather than as African or American, and asserts everyone's equality in God's sight. The poem uses the principles of Protestant meditation, which include contemplating various Christian themes like one's own death or salvation. Wheatley, however, applies the doctrine of salvation in an unusual way for most of her readers; she broadens it into a political or sociological discussion as well. That is, she applies the doctrine to the black race. She meditates on her specific case of conversion in the first half of the poem and considers her conversion as a general example for her whole race in the second half.
Wheatley was in the midst of the historic American Revolution in the Boston of the 1770s. She wrote and published verses to George Washington, the general of the Revolutionary army, saying that he was sure to win with virtue on his side. Washington was pleased and replied to her. Benjamin Franklin visited her. She belonged to a revolutionary family and their circle, and although she had English friends, when the Revolution began, she was on the side of the colonists, reflecting, of course, on the hope of future liberty for her fellow slaves as well.
Those who have contended that Wheatley had no thoughts on slavery have been corrected by such poems as the one to the Earl of Dartmouth, the British secretary of state for North America. Therein, she implores him to right America's wrongs and be a just administrator. She adds that in case he wonders why she loves freedom, it is because she was kidnapped from her native Africa and thinks of the suffering of her parents. This is why she can never love tyranny.
In "On Being Brought from Africa to America," Wheatley asserts religious freedom as an issue of primary importance. In fact, the discussions of religious and political freedom go hand in hand in the poem. The excuse for her race being enslaved is that it is thought to be evil and without a chance for salvation; by asserting that the black race is as competent for and deserving of salvation as any other, the justification for slavery is refuted, for it cannot be right to treat other divine souls as property. In fact, Wheatley's poems and their religious nature were used by abolitionists as proof that Africans were spiritual human beings and should not be treated as cattle.
Wheatley wrote in neoclassical couplets of iambic pentameter, following the example of the most popular English poet of the times, Alexander Pope. The pair of ten-syllable rhymes—the heroic couplet—was thought to be the closest English equivalent to classical meter. Such couplets were usually closed and full sentences, with parallel structure for both halves.
Neoclassical was a term applied to eighteenth-century literature of the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, in Europe. This same spirit in literature and philosophy gave rise to the revolutionary ideas of government through human reason, as popularized in the Declaration of Independence. Just as the American founders looked to classical democracy for models of government, American poets attempted to copy the themes and spirit of the classical authors of Greece and Rome. Phillis Wheatley read quite a lot of classical literature, mostly in translation (such as Pope's translations of Homer), but she also read some Latin herself. Her poems have the familiar invocations to the muses (the goddesses of inspiration), references to Greek and Roman gods and stories, like the tragedy of Niobe, and place names like Olympus and Parnassus.
This style of poetry hardly appeals today because poets adhering to it strove to be objective and used elaborate and decorous language thought to be elevated. The resulting verse sounds pompous and inauthentic to the modern ear, one of the problems that Wheatley has among modern audiences. This could explain why "On Being Brought from Africa to America," also written in neoclassical rhyming couplets but concerning a personal topic, is now her most popular. The power of the poem of heroic couplets is that it builds upon its effect, with each couplet completing a thought, creating the building blocks of a streamlined argument. By writing the poem in couplets, Wheatley helps the reader assimilate one idea at a time. The opening thought is thus easily accepted by a white or possibly hostile audience: that she is glad she came to America to find true religion. This idea sums up a gratitude whites might have expected, or demanded, from a Christian slave. The more thoughtful assertions come later, when she claims her race's equality. Irony is also common in neoclassical poetry, with the building up and then breaking down of expectations, and this occurs in lines 7 and 8.
Puritan Funeral Elegy
With almost a third of her poetry written as elegies on the deaths of various people, Wheatley was probably influenced by the Puritan funeral elegy of colonial America, explains Gregory Rigsby in the College Language Association Journal. While Wheatley included some traditional elements of the elegy, or praise for the dead, in "On Being Brought from Africa to America," she primarily combines sermon and meditation techniques in the poem. Many of her elegies meditate on the soul in heaven, as she does briefly here in line 8. Wheatley was a member of the Old South Congregational Church of Boston. The typical funeral sermon delivered by this sect relied on portraits of the deceased and exhortations not to grieve, as well as meditations on salvation. Lines 1 to 4 here represent such a typical meditation, rejoicing in being saved from a life of sin. Generally in her work, Wheatley devotes more attention to the soul's rising heavenward and to consoling and exhorting those left behind than writers of conventional elegies have. As such, though she inherited the Puritan sense of original sin and resignation in death, she focuses on the element of comfort for the bereaved. Her poems thus typically move dramatically in the same direction, from an extreme point of sadness (here, the darkness of the lost soul and the outcast, Cain) to the certainty of the saved joining the angelic host (regardless of the color of their skin). "On Being Brought from Africa to America" finally changes from a meditation to a sermon when Wheatley addresses an audience in her exhortation in the last two lines.
Slavery in America
The European colonization of the Americas inspired a desire for cheap labor for the development of the land. The enslavement of Africans in the American colonies grew steadily from the early seventeenth century until by 1860 there were about four million slaves in the United States. Slavery did not become illegal after the Revolution as many had hoped; it was not fully abolished in the United States until the end of the Civil War in 1865.
Africans were brought over on slave ships, as was Wheatley, having been kidnapped or sold by other Africans, and were used for field labor or as household workers. Later generations of slaves were born into captivity. Most of the slaves were held on the southern plantations, but blacks were house servants in the North, and most wealthy families were expected to have them. The prosperous Wheatley family of Boston had several slaves, but the poet was treated from the beginning as a companion to the family and above the other servants.
The Puritan attitude toward slaves was somewhat liberal, as slaves were considered part of the family and were often educated so that they could be converted to Christianity. In the South, masters frequently forbade slaves to learn to read or gather in groups to worship or convert other slaves, as literacy and Christianity were potent equalizing forces. Later rebellions in the South were often fostered by black Christian ministers, a tradition that was epitomized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s civil rights movement. Slaves felt that Christianity validated their equality with their masters. The masters, on the other hand, claimed that the Bible recorded and condoned the practice of slavery.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1770s: Wheatley is the first recognized African American poet. She is a curiosity and a popular phenomenon, in London and Boston alike, and is sought out or commented on by all the great people of the day. Nevertheless, she dies in poverty.
Today: Oprah Winfrey is the first African American television correspondent; she becomes a global media figure, actress, and philanthropist. Unlike Wheatley, her success continues to increase, and she is one of the richest people in America.
- 1770s: Both Britain and America make promises to enlist black troops for the war. Washington refuses to use black soldiers, however, until he sees the British recruiting close to 10,000 with the promise of freedom. Most black soldiers on both sides die; few gain the freedom they expected.
Today: Since the Vietnam War, military service represents one of the equalizing opportunities for blacks to gain education, status, and benefits. An example is the precedent of General Colin Powell, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War (a post equal to Washington's during the Revolution). During the war in Iraq, black recruitment falls off, in part due to the many more civil career options open to young blacks.
- 1770s: Thomas Jefferson pronounces the poetry of Phillis Wheatley imitative and states that Africans are unable to produce art.
Today: African American women are regularly winners of the highest literary prizes; for instance, Toni Morrison won the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature, and Suzan-Lori Parks won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
- 1770s: Most African Americans are enslaved and uneducated. Wheatley is unusual in being literate and able to participate in white society.
Today: African Americans are educated and hold political office, even becoming serious contenders for the office of president of the United States.
Wheatley was bought as a starving child and transformed into a prodigy in a few short years of training. She did light housework because of her frailty and often visited and conversed in the social circles of Boston, the pride of her masters. She was the first African American to publish a full book, although other slave authors, such as Lucy Terry and Jupiter Hammon, had printed individual poems before her.
The American Revolution
Against the unlikely backdrop of the institution of slavery, ideas of liberty were taking hold in colonial America, circulating for many years in intellectual circles before war with Britain actually broke out. This was the legacy of philosophers such as John Locke who argued against absolute monarchy, saying that government should be a social contract with the people; if the people are not being served, they have a right to rebel. These ideas of freedom and the natural rights of human beings were so potent that they were seized by all minorities and ethnic groups in the ensuing years and applied to their own cases. Even before the Revolution, black slaves in Massachusetts were making legal petitions for their freedom on the basis of their natural rights. These documents are often anthologized along with the Declaration of Independence as proof, as Wheatley herself said to the Native American preacher Samson Occom, that freedom is an innate right.
Wheatley lived in the middle of the passionate controversies of the times, herself a celebrated cause and mover of events. The Wheatley home was not far from Revolutionary scenes such as the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party. While she had Loyalist friends and British patrons, Wheatley sympathized with the rebels, not only because her owners were of that persuasion, but also because many slaves believed that they would gain their freedom with the cause of the Revolution.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., claims in The Trials of Phillis Wheatley that Boston contained about a thousand African Americans out of a population of 15,520. Only eighteen of the African Americans were free. This condition ironically coexisted with strong antislavery sentiment among the Christian Evangelical and Whig populations of the city, such as the Wheatleys, who themselves were slaveholders. In fact, the Wheatleys introduced Phillis to their circle of Evangelical antislavery friends. John Hancock, one of Wheatley's examiners in her trial of literacy and one of the founders of the United States, was also a slaveholder, as were Washington and Jefferson.
There were public debates on slavery, as well as on other liberal ideas, and Wheatley was no doubt present at many of these discussions, as references to them show up in her poems and letters, addressed to such notable revolutionaries as George Washington, the Countess of Huntingdon, the Earl of Dartmouth, English antislavery advocates, the Reverend Samuel Cooper, and James Bowdoin. Her praise of these people and what they stood for was printed in the newspapers, making her voice part of the public forum in America.
The question of slavery weighed heavily on the revolutionaries, for it ran counter to the principles of government that they were fighting for. The justification was given that the participants in a republican government must possess the faculty of reason, and it was widely believed that Africans were not fully human or in possession of adequate reason. Proof consisted in their inability to understand mathematics or philosophy or to produce art. Into this arena Phillis Wheatley appeared with her proposal to publish her book of poems, at the encouragement of her mistress, Susanna Wheatley. She was about twenty years old, black, and a woman.
The collection was such an astonishing testimony to the intelligence of her race that John Wheatley had to assemble a group of eighteen prominent citizens of Boston to attest to the poet's competency. They signed their names to a document, and on that basis Wheatley was able to publish in London, though not in Boston. She was so celebrated and famous in her day that she was entertained in London by nobility and moved among intellectuals with respect. Her published book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), might have propelled her to greater prominence, but the Revolutionary War interrupted her momentum, and Wheatley, set free by her master, suddenly had to support herself. It is supremely ironic and tragic that she died in poverty and neglect in the city of Boston; yet she left as her legacy the proof of what she asserts in her poems, that she was a free spirit who could speak with authority and equality, regardless of origins or social constraints.
From the 1770s, when Phillis Wheatley first began to publish her poems, until the present day, criticism has been heated over whether she was a genius or an imitator, a cultural heroine or a pathetic victim, a woman of letters or an item of curiosity. The early reviews, often written by people who had met her, refer to her as a genius. William Robinson provides the diverse early
assessments in his edited volume Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley. Wheatley's English publisher, Archibald Bell, for instance, advertised that Wheatley was "one of the greatest instances of pure, unassisted Genius, that the world ever produced." Benjamin Rush, a prominent abolitionist, holds that Wheatley's "singular genius and accomplishments are such as not only do honor to her sex, but to human nature." Abolitionists like Rush used Wheatley as proof for the argument of black humanity, an issue then debated by philosophers. According to Robinson, the Gentleman's Magazine of London and the London Monthly Review disagreed on the quality of the poems but agreed on the ingeniousness of the author, pointing out the shame that she was a slave in a freedom-loving city like Boston. From the start, critics have had difficulty disentangling the racial and literary issues.
Thomas Jefferson's scorn (reported by Robinson), however, famously articulates the common low opinion of African capability: "Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Whately, but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism." On the other hand, Gilbert Imlay, a writer and diplomat, disagreed with Jefferson, holding Wheatley's genius to be superior to Jefferson's. As cited by Robinson, he wonders, "What white person upon this continent has written more beautiful lines?"
A resurgence of interest in Wheatley during the 1960s and 1970s, with the rise of African American studies, led again to mixed opinions, this time among black readers. Eleanor Smith, in her 1974 article in the Journal of Negro Education, pronounces Wheatley too white in her values to be of any use to black people. Carole A. Parks, writing in Black World that same year, describes a Mississippi poetry festival where Wheatley's poetry was read in a way that made her "Blacker." Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers (2003), contends that Wheatley's reputation as a whitewashed black poet rests almost entirely on interpretations of "On Being Brought from Africa to America," which he calls "the most reviled poem in African-American literature." The reception became such because the poem does not explicitly challenge slavery and almost seems to subtly approve of it, in that it brought about the poet's Christianity.
Recently, critics like James Levernier have tried to provide a more balanced view of Wheatley's achievement by studying her style within its historical context. Levernier considers Wheatley predominantly in view of her unique position as a black poet in Revolutionary white America. This position called for a strategy by which she cleverly empowered herself with moral authority through irony, the critic claims in a Style article. The debate continues, and it has become more informed, as based on the complete collections of Wheatley's writings and on more scholarly investigations of her background.
Andersen holds a PhD in literature and teaches literature and writing. In the following essay on "On Being Brought from Africa to America," she focuses on Phillis Wheatley's self-styled personaand its relation to American history, as well as to popular perceptions of the poet herself.
Though lauded in her own day for overcoming the then unimaginable boundaries of race, slavery, and gender, by the twentieth century Wheatley was vilified, primarily for her poem "On Being Brought from Africa to America." Both black and white critics have wrestled with placing her properly in either American studies or African American studies. If allowances have finally been made for her difficult position as a slave in Revolutionary Boston, black readers and critics still have not forgiven her the literary sin of writing to white patrons in neoclassical couplets.
Providing a comprehensive and inspiring perspective in The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., remarks on the irony that "Wheatley, having been pain-stakingly authenticated in her own time, now stands as a symbol of falsity, artificiality, of spiritless and rote convention." Gates documents the history of the critique of her poetry, noting that African Americans in the nineteenth century, following the trends of Frederick Douglass and the numerous slave narratives, created a different trajectory for black literature, separate from the white tradition that Wheatley emulated; even before the twentieth century, then, she was being scorned by other black writers for not mirroring black experience in her poems. In effect, she was attempting a degree of integration into Western culture not open to, and perhaps not even desired by, many African Americans.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, by Olaudah Equiano, was first published in 1789, causing a sensation in British antislavery circles. His patroness was the Countess of Huntingdon, Wheatley's patron. This first slave narrative by an African writer furthered the abolitionist cause.
- The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution (1989), by Sidney Kaplan and Emma N. Kaplan, gives details of the lives of black soldiers, women, preachers, writers, artists, and legal petitioners for freedom in the Revolutionary period. It includes an account of Wheatley, putting her in context with other significant black contributors to the Revolution.
- Mary Beth Norton presents documents from before and after the war in Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (1996). She includes the experiences of different classes and races.
- The Collected Writings of Samson Occom, Mohegan: Literature and Leadership in Eighteenth-Century Native America (2006) contains Samson Occom's personal narrative and his letters, lending another view of the Revolutionary period. Like Wheatley, he went to England for support, finding Christianity to be a great equalizer, and Wheatley wrote one of her most famous letters to him about freedom. Also like Wheatley, he published his writings in newspapers during his life.
Of course, Wheatley's poetry does document a black experience in America, namely, Wheatley's alone, in her unique and complex position as slave, Christian, American, African, and woman of letters. "On Being Brought from Africa to America" is a statement of pride and comfort in who she is, though she gives the credit to God for the blessing. Arthur P. Davis, writing in Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley, comments that far from avoiding her black identity, Wheatley uses that identity to advantage in her poems and letters through "racial underscoring," often referring to herself as an "Ethiop" or "Afric." As her poem indicates, with the help of God, she has overcome, and she exhorts others that they may do the same. She places everyone on the same footing, in spite of any polite protestations related to racial origins.
In fact, although the lines of the first quatrain in "On Being Brought from Africa to America" are usually interpreted as celebrating the mercy of her white captors, they are more accurately read as celebrating the mercy of God for delivering her from sin. Her being saved was not truly the whites' doing, for they were but instruments, and she admonishes them in the second quatrain for being too cocky. Notably, it was likely that Wheatley, like many slaves, had been sold by her own countrymen. Wheatley does not reflect on this complicity except to see Africa as a land, however beautiful and Eden-like, devoid of the truth. To a Christian, it would seem that the hand of divine Providence led to her deliverance; God lifted her forcibly and dramatically out of that ignorance. The world as an awe-inspiring reflection of God's will, rather than human will, was a Christian doctrine that Wheatley saw in evidence around her and was the reason why, despite the current suffering of her race, she could hope for a heavenly future.
The impact of the racial problems in Revolutionary America on Wheatley's reputation should not be underrated. Even Washington was reluctant to use black soldiers, as William H. Robinson points out in Phillis Wheatley and Her Writings. In fact, blacks fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War, hoping to gain their freedom in the outcome. Indeed, racial issues in Wheatley's day were of primary importance as the new nation sought to shape its identity. Could the United States be a land of freedom and condone slavery? This question was discussed by the Founding Fathers and the first American citizens as well as by people in Europe. Wheatley's identity was therefore somehow bound up with the country's in a visible way, and that is why from that day to this, her case has stood out, placing not only her views on trial but the emerging country's as well, as Gates points out.
While Wheatley's poetry gave fuel to abolitionists who argued that blacks were rational and human and therefore ought not be treated as beasts, Thomas Jefferson found Wheatley's poems imitative and beneath notice. Jefferson, a Founding Father and thinker of the new Republic, felt that blacks were too inferior to be citizens. Although he, as well as many other prominent men, condemned slavery as an unjust practice for the country, he nevertheless held slaves, as did many abolitionists. This discrepancy between the rhetoric of freedom and the fact of slavery was often remarked upon in Europe.
In A Mixed Race: Ethnicity in Early America, Betsy Erkkila explores Wheatley's "double voice" in "On Being Brought from Africa to America." She notes that the poem is "split between Africa and America, embodying the poet's own split consciousness as African American." Given this challenge, Wheatley managed, Erkkila points out, to "merge" the vocabularies of various strands of her experience—from the biblical and Protestant Evangelical to the revolutionary political ideas of the day—consequently creating "a visionary poetics that imagines the deliverance of her people" in the total change that was happening in the world.
Erkkila's insight into Wheatley's dualistic voice, which allowed her to blend various points of view, is validated both by a reading of her complete works and by the contemporary model of early transatlantic black literature, which enlarges the boundaries of reference for her achievement. Vincent Carretta and Philip Gould explain such a model in their introduction to Genius in Bondage: Literature of the Early Black Atlantic. Reading Wheatley not just as an African American author but as a transatlantic black author, like Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano, the critics demonstrate that early African writers who wrote in English represent "a diasporic model of racial identity" moving between the cultures of Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Carretta and Gould note the problems of being a literate black in the eighteenth century, having more than one culture or language. Such a person did not fit any known stereotype or category. Western notions of race were still evolving. No wonder, then, that thinkers as great as Jefferson professed to be puzzled by Wheatley's poetry. There was no precedent for it. Nevertheless, Wheatley was a legitimate woman of learning and letters who consciously participated in the public discussion of the day, in a voice representing the living truth of what America claimed it stood for—whether or not the slave-owning citizens were prepared to accept it.
The need for a postcolonial criticism arose in the twentieth century, as centuries of European political domination of foreign lands were coming to a close. Postcolonial criticism began to account for the experience and alienation of indigenous peoples who were colonized and changed by a controlling culture. Such authors as Wheatley can now be understood better by postcolonial critics, who see the same hybrid or double references in every displaced black author who had to find or make a new identity. Wheatley calls herself an adventurous Afric, and so she was, mastering the materials given to her to create with. In Jackson State Review, the African American author and feminist Alice Walker makes a similar remark about her own mother, and about the creative black woman in general: "Whatever rocky soil she landed on, she turned into a garden."
Source: Susan Andersen, Critical Essay on "On Being Brought from Africa to America," in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
Mary McAleer Balkun
In the following excerpt, Balkun analyzes "On Being Brought from Africa to America" and asserts that Wheatley uses the rhetoric of white culture to manipulate her audience.
… Wheatley's cultural awareness is even more evident in the poem "On Being Brought From Africa to America," written the year after the Harvard poem in 1768. The later poem exhibits an even greater level of complexity and authorial control, with Wheatley manipulating her audience by even more covert means. Rather than a direct appeal to a specific group, one with which the audience is asked to identify, this short poem is a meditation on being black and Christian in colonial America. As did "To the University of Cambridge," this poem begins with the sentiment that the speaker's removal from Africa was an act of "mercy," but in this context it becomes Wheatley's version of the "fortunate fall"; the speaker's removal to the colonies, despite the circumstances, is perceived as a blessing. She does not, however, stipulate exactly whose act of mercy it was that saved her, God's or man's. One result is that, from the outset, Wheatley allows the audience to be positioned in the role of benefactor as opposed to oppressor, creating an avenue for the ideological reversal the poem enacts. Hers is a seemingly conservative statement that becomes highly ambiguous upon analysis, transgressive rather than compliant.
While the use of italics for "Pagan" and "Savior" may have been a printer's decision rather than Wheatley's, the words are also connected through their position in their respective lines and through metric emphasis. (Thus, anyone hearing the poem read aloud would also have been aware of the implied connection.) In lieu of an open declaration connecting the Savior of all men and the African American population, one which might cause an adverse reaction in the yet-to-be-persuaded, Wheatley relies on indirection and the principle of association. This strategy is also evident in her use of the word benighted to describe the state of her soul (2). While it suggests the darkness of her African skin, it also resonates with the state of all those living in sin, including her audience. To be "benighted" is to be in moral or spiritual darkness as a result of ignorance or lack of enlightenment, certainly a description with which many of Wheatley's audience would have agreed. But, in addition, the word sets up the ideological enlightenment that Wheatley hopes will occur in the second stanza, when the speaker turns the tables on the audience. The idea that the speaker was brought to America by some force beyond her power to fight it (a sentiment reiterated from "To the University of Cambridge") once more puts her in an authoritative position. She is both in America and actively seeking redemption because God himself has willed it. Chosen by Him, the speaker is again thrust into the role of preacher, one with a mission to save others. Like them (the line seems to suggest), "Once I redemption neither sought nor knew" (4; my emphasis). However, in the speaker's case, the reason for this failure was a simple lack of awareness. In the case of her readers, such failure is more likely the result of the erroneous belief that they have been saved already. On this note, the speaker segues into the second stanza, having laid out her ("Christian") position and established the source of her rhetorical authority.
She now offers readers an opportunity to participate in their own salvation:
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. (5-8)
The speaker, carefully aligning herself with those readers who will understand the subtlety of her allusions and references, creates a space wherein she and they are joined against a common antagonist: the "some" who "view our sable race with scornful eye" (5). The members of this group are not only guilty of the sin of reviling others (which Wheatley addressed in the Harvard poem) but also guilty for failing to acknowledge God's work in saving "Negroes." The result is that those who would cast black Christians as other have now been placed in a like position. The audience must therefore make a decision: Be part of the group that acknowledges the Christianity of blacks, including the speaker of the poem, or be part of the anonymous "some" who refuse to acknowledge a portion of God's creation. The word Some also introduces a more critical tone on the part of the speaker, as does the word Remember, which becomes an admonition to those who call themselves "Christians" but do not act as such. Adding insult to injury, Wheatley co-opts the rhetoric of this group—those who say of blacks that "‘Their colour is a diabolic die"’ (6)—using their own words against them. Betsy Erkkila describes this strategy as "a form of mimesis that mimics and mocks in the act of repeating" ("Revolutionary" 206). The effect is to place the "some" in a degraded position, one they have created for themselves through their un-Christian hypocrisy.
Suddenly, the audience is given an opportunity to view racism from a new perspective, and to either accept or reject this new ideological position. Further, because the membership of the "some" is not specified (aside from their common attitude), the audience is not automatically classified as belonging with them. Nor does Wheatley construct this group as specifically white, so that once again she resists antagonizing her white readers. Her refusal to assign blame, while it has often led critics to describe her as uncritical of slavery, is an important element in Wheatley's rhetorical strategy and certainly one of the reasons her poetry was published in the first place. Hers is an inclusionary rhetoric, reinforcing the similarities between the audience and the speaker of the poem, indeed all "Christians," in an effort to expand the parameters of that word in the minds of her readers. Rather than creating distinctions, the speaker actually collapses those which the "some" have worked so hard to create and maintain, the source of their dwindling authority (at least within the precincts of the poem).
Wheatley's shift from first to third person in the first and second stanzas is part of this approach. Although her intended audience is not black, she still refers to "our sable race." Her choice of pronoun might be a subtle allusion to ownership of black slaves by whites, but it also implies "ownership" in a more communal and spiritual sense. This phrase can be read as Wheatley's effort to have her privileged white audience understand for just a moment what it is like to be singled out as "diabolic." When the un-Christian speak of "‘their color,"’ they might just as easily be pointing to the white members of the audience who have accepted the invitation into Wheatley's circle. Her rhetoric has the effect of merging the female with the male, the white with the black, the Christian with the Pagan. The very distinctions that the "some" have created now work against them. They have become, within the parameters of the poem at least, what they once abhorred—benighted, ignorant, lost in moral darkness, unenlightened—because they are unable to accept the redemption of Africans. It is the racist posing as a Christian who has become diabolical.
The reversal of inside and outside, black and white has further significance because the unredeemed have also become the enslaved, although they are slaves to sin rather than to an earthly master. Wheatley continues her stratagem by reminding the audience of more universal truths than those uttered by the "some." For example, while the word die is clearly meant to refer to skin pigmentation, it also suggests the ultimate fate that awaits all people, regardless of color or race. It is no accident that what follows in the final lines is a warning about the rewards for the redeemed after death when they "join th' angelic train" (8). In addition, Wheatley's language consistently emphasizes the worth of black Christians. For instance, the use of the word sable to describe the skin color of her race imparts a suggestion of rarity and richness that also makes affiliation with the group of which she is a part something to be desired and even sought after. The multiple meanings of the line "Remember, Christians, Negroes black as Cain" (7), with its ambiguous punctuation and double entendres, have become a critical commonplace in analyses of the poem. It has been variously read as a direct address to Christians, Wheatley's declaration that both the supposed Christians in her audience and the Negroes are as "black as Cain," and her way of indicating that the terms Christians and Negroes are synonymous. In fact, all three readings operate simultaneously to support Wheatley's argument. Following her previous rhetorical clues, the only ones who can accept the title of "Christian" are those who have made the decision not to be part of the "some" and to admit that "Negroes … / May be refin'd and join th' angelic train" (7-8). They must also accede to the equality of black Christians and their own sinful nature.
Once again, Wheatley co-opts the rhetoric of the other. In this instance, however, she uses the very argument that has been used to justify the existence of black slavery to argue against it: the connection between Africans and Cain, the murderer of Abel. The line in which the reference appears also conflates Christians and Negroes, making the mark of Cain a reference to any who are unredeemed. Thus, in order to participate fully in the meaning of the poem, the audience must reject the false authority of the "some," an authority now associated with racism and hypocrisy, and accept instead the authority that the speaker represents, an authority based on the tenets of Christianity. The speaker's declared salvation and the righteous anger that seems barely contained in her "reprimand" in the penultimate line are reminiscent of the rhetoric of revivalist preachers.
In the event that what is at stake has not been made evident enough, Wheatley becomes most explicit in the concluding lines. While ostensibly about the fate of those black Christians who see the light and are saved, the final line in "On Being Brought From Africa to America" is also a reminder to the members of her audience about their own fate should they choose unwisely. It is not only "Negroes" who "may" get to join "th' angelic train" (7-8), but also those who truly deserve the label Christian as demonstrated by their behavior toward all of God's creatures. "May be refined" can be read either as synonymous for ‘can’ or as a warning: No one, neither Christians nor Negroes, should take salvation for granted. To the extent that the audience responds affirmatively to the statements and situations Wheatley has set forth in the poem, that is the extent to which they are authorized to use the classification "Christian." Ironically, this authorization occurs through the agency of a black female slave.
Starting deliberately from the position of the "other," Wheatley manages to alter the very terms of otherness, creating a new space for herself as both poet and African American Christian. The final and highly ironic demonstration of otherness, of course, would be one's failure to understand the very poem that enacts this strategy. Through her rhetoric of performed ideology, Wheatley revises the implied meaning of the word Christian to include African Americans. Her strategy relies on images, references, and a narrative position that would have been strikingly familiar to her audience. The "authentic" Christian is the one who "gets" the puns and double entendres and ironies, the one who is able to participate fully in Wheatley's rhetorical performance. In effect, both poems serve as litmus tests for true Christianity while purporting to affirm her redemption. For the unenlightened reader, the poems may well seem to be hackneyed and pedestrian pleas for acceptance; for the true Christian, they become a validation of one's status as a member of the elect, regardless of race …
Source: Mary McAleer Balkun, "Phillis Wheatley's Construction of Otherness and the Rhetoric of Performed Ideology," in African American Review, Vol. 36, No. 1, 2002, pp. 121-35.
William J. Scheick
In the following essay, Scheick argues that in "On Being Brought from Africa to America," Wheatleyrelies on biblical allusions to erase the difference between the races.
"On Being Brought from Africa to America" (1773) has been read as Phillis Wheatley's repudiation of her African heritage of paganism, but not necessarily of her African identity as a member of the black race (e.g., Isani 65). Derived from the surface of Wheatley's work, this appropriate reading has generally been sensitive to her political message and, at the same time, critically negligent concerning her artistic embodiment of this message in the language and execution of her poem. In this verse, however, Wheatley has adeptly managed biblical allusions to do more than serve as authorizations for her writing; as finally managed in her poem, these allusions also become sites where this license is transformed into an artistry that in effect becomes exemplarily self-authorized.
… In this poem Wheatley finds various ways to defeat assertions alleging distinctions between the black and the white races (O'Neale). She does more here than remark that representatives of the black race may be refined into angelic matter—made, as it were, spiritually white through redemptive Christianizing. She also indicates, apropos her point about spiritual change, that the Christian sense of Original Sin applies equally to both races. Both races inherit the barbaric blackness of sin.
Particularly apt is the clever syntax of the last two lines of the poem: "Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain / May be refin'd." These lines can be read to say that Christians—Wheatley uses the term Christians to refer to the white race—should remember that the black race is also a recipient of spiritual refinement; but these same lines can also be read to suggest that Christians should remember that in a spiritual sense both white and black people are the sin-darkened descendants of Cain. This latter point refutes the notion, held by many of Wheatley's contemporaries, that Cain, marked by God, is the progenitor of the black race only. Wheatley's revision of this myth possibly emerges in part as a result of her indicative use of italics, which equates Christians, Negros, and Cain (Levernier, "Wheatley's"); it is even more likely that this revisionary sense emerges as a result of the positioning of the comma after the word Negros. Albeit grammatically correct, this comma creates a trace of syntactic ambiguity that quietly instates both Christians and Negroes as the mutual offspring of Cain who are subject to refinement by divine grace.
In short, both races share a common heritage of Cain-like barbaric and criminal blackness, a "benighted soul," to which the poet refers in the second line of her poem. In spiritual terms both white and black people are a "sable race," whose common Adamic heritage is darkened by a "diabolic die," by the indelible stain of original sin. In this sense, white and black people are utterly equal before God, whose authority transcends the paltry earthly authorities who have argued for the inequality of the two races.
The poet needs some extrinsic warrant for making this point in the artistic maneuvers of her verse. This legitimation is implied when in the last line of the poem Wheatley tells her readers to remember that sinners "May be refin'd and join th' angelic train." To instruct her readers to remember indicates that the poet is at this point (apparently) only deferring to a prior authority available to her outside her own poem, an authority in fact licensing her poem. Specifically, Wheatley deftly manages two biblical allusions in her last line, both to Isaiah. That Wheatley sometimes applied biblical language and allusions to undercut colonial assumptions about race has been documented (O'Neale), and that she had a special fondness for the Old Testament prophecies of Isaiah is intimated by her verse paraphrase entitled "Isaiah LXIII. 1-8" (Mason 75-76).
The first allusion occurs in the word refin'd. Speaking for God, the prophet at one point says, "Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction" (Isaiah 48:10). As placed in Wheatley's poem, this allusion can be read to say that being white (silver) is no sign of privilege (spiritually or culturally) because God's chosen are refined (purified, made spiritually white) through the afflictions that Christians and Negroes have in common, as mutually benighted descendants of Cain. Wheatley may also cleverly suggest that the slaves' affliction includes their work in making dyes and in refining sugarcane (Levernier, "Wheatley's"), but in any event her biblical allusion subtly validates her argument against those individuals who attribute the notion of a "diabolic die" to Africans only. This allusion to Isaiah authorizes the sort of artistic play on words and on syntax we have noted in her poem.
A second biblical allusion occurs in the word train. Speaking of one of his visions, the prophet observes, "I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple" (Isaiah 6:1). The Lord's attendant train is the retinue of the chosen referred to in the preceding allusion to Isaiah in Wheatley's poem. And, as we have seen, Wheatley claims that this angel-like following will be composed of the progeny of Cain that has been refined, made spiritually bright and pure.
As the final word of this very brief poem, train is situated to draw more than average attention to itself. This word functions not only as a biblical allusion, but also as an echo of the opening two lines of the poem: "'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land, / Taught my benighted soul to understand." The final word train not only refers to the retinue of the divinely chosen but also to how these chosen are trained, "Taught … to understand." In returning the reader circularly to the beginning of the poem, this word transforms its biblical authorization into a form of exemplary self-authorization. At this point, the poem displaces its biblical legitimation by drawing attention to its own achievement, as inherent testimony to its argument. In effect, the reader is invited to return to the start of the poem and judge whether, on the basis of the work itself, the poet has proven her point about the equality of the two races in the matter of cultural well as spiritual refinement.
For Wheatley's management of the concept of refinement is doubly nuanced in her poem. The refinement the poet invites the reader to assess is not merely the one referred to by Isaiah, the spiritual refinement through affliction. She also means the aesthetic refinement that likewise (evidently in her mind at least) may accompany spiritual refinement. Wheatley's verse generally reveals this conscious concern with poetic grace, particularly in terms of certain eighteenth-century models (Davis; Scruggs). Nevertheless, in her association of spiritual and aesthetic refinement, she also participates in an extensive tradition of religious poets, like George Herbert and Edward Taylor, who fantasized about the correspondence between their spiritual reconstruction and the aesthetic grace of their poetry. And indeed, Wheatley's use of the expression "angelic train" probably refers to more than the divinely chosen, who are biblically identified as celestial bodies, especially stars (Daniel 12:13); this biblical allusion to Isaiah may also echo a long history of poetic usage of similar language, typified in Milton's identification of the "gems of heaven" as the night's "starry train" (Paradise Lost 4:646). If Wheatley's image of "angelic train" participates in the heritage of such poetic discourse, then it also suggests her integration of aesthetic authority and biblical authority at this final moment of her poem.
Among her tests for aesthetic refinement, Wheatley doubtless had in mind her careful management of metrics and rhyme in "On Being Brought from Africa to America." Surely, too, she must have had in mind the clever use of syntax in the penultimate line of her poem, as well as her argument, conducted by means of imagery and nuance, for the equality of both races in terms of their mutually "benighted soul." And she must have had in mind her subtle use of biblical allusions, which may also contain aesthetic allusions. The two allusions to Isaiah in particular initially serve to authorize her poem; then, in their circular reflexivity apropos the poem itself, they metamorphose into a form of self-authorization. Like many Christian poets before her, Wheatley's poem also conducts its religious argument through its aesthetic attainment. As Wheatley pertinently wrote in "On Imagination" (1773), which similarly mingles religious and aesthetic refinements, she aimed to embody "blooming graces" in the "triumph of [her] song" (Mason 78).
If the "angelic train" of her song actually enacts or performs her argument—that an African-American can be trained (taught to understand) the refinements of religion and art—it carries a still more subtle suggestion of self-authorization. In this poem Wheatley gives her white readers argumentative and artistic proof; and she gives her black readers an example of how to appropriate biblical ground to self-empower their similar development of religious and cultural refinement. That there was an audience for her work is beyond question; the white response to her poetry was mixed (Robinson 39-46), and certain black responses were dramatic (Huddleston; Jamison). In appealing to these two audiences, Wheatley's persona assumes a dogmatic ministerial voice.
This voice is an important feature of her poem. In alluding to the two passages from Isaiah, she intimates certain racial implications that are hardly conventional interpretations of these passages. The liberty she takes here exceeds her additions to the biblical narrative paraphrased in her verse "Isaiah LXIII. 1-8." In "On Being Brought from Africa to America" Wheatley alludes twice to Isaiah to refute stereotypical readings of skin color; she interprets these passages to refer to the mutual spiritual benightedness of both races, as equal diabolically-dyed descendants of Cain. In thusly alluding to Isaiah, Wheatley initially seems to defer to scriptural authority, then transforms this legitimation into a form of artistic self-empowerment, and finally appropriates this biblical authority through an interpreting ministerial voice.
When we consider how Wheatley manages these biblical allusions, particularly how she interprets them, we witness the extent to which she has become self-authorized as a result of her training and refinement. Perhaps her sense of self in this instance demonstrates the degree to which she took to heart Enlightenment theories concerning personal liberty as an innate human right; these theories were especially linked to the abolitionist arguments advanced by the New England clergy with whom she had contact (Levernier, "Phillis"). Nevertheless, that an eighteenth-century woman (who was not a Quaker) should take on this traditionally male role is one surprise of Wheatley's poem. That this self-validating woman was a black slave makes this confiscation of ministerial role even more singular. Either of these implications would have profoundly disturbed the members of the Old South Congregational Church in Boston, which Wheatley joined in 1771, had they detected her "ministerial" appropriation of the authority of scripture. Accordingly, Wheatley's persona in "On Being Brought from Africa to America" qualifies the critical complaints that her poetry is imitative, inadequate, and unmilitant (e.g., Collins; Richmond 54-66); her persona resists the conclusion that her poetry shows a resort to scripture in lieu of imagination (Ogude); and her persona suggests that her religious poetry may be compatible with her political writings (e.g., Akers; Burroughs). In this regard, one might pertinently note that Wheatley's voice in this poem anticipates the ministerial role unwittingly assumed by an African-American woman in the twenty-third chapter of Harriet Beecher Stowe's The Minister's Wooing (1859), in which Candace's hortatory words intrinsically reveal what male ministers have failed to teach about life and love.
In these ways, then, the biblical and aesthetic subtleties of Wheatley's poem make her case about refinement. She demonstrates in the course of her art that she is no barbarian from a "Pagan land" who raises Cain (in the double sense of transgressing God and humanity). Her biblically authorized claim that the offspring of Cain "may be refin'd" to "join th' angelic train" transmutes into her self-authorized artistry, in which her desire to raise Cain about the prejudices against her race is refined into the ministerial "angelic train" (the biblical and artistic train of thought) of her poem. This poetic demonstration of refinement, of "blooming graces" in both a spiritual and a cultural sense, is the "triumph in [her] song" entitled "On Being Brought from Africa to America."
Source: William J. Scheick, "Phillis Wheatley's Appropriation of Isaiah," in Early American Literature, Vol. 27, 1992, pp. 135-40.
Carretta, Vincent, and Philip Gould, Introduction, in Genius in Bondage: Literature of the Early Black Atlantic, edited by Vincent Carretta and Philip Gould, University Press of Kentucky, 2001, pp. 1-13.
Davis, Arthur P., "The Personal Elements in the Poetry of Phillis Wheatley," in Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley, edited by William H. Robinson, G. K. Hall, 1982, p. 95.
Erkkila, Betsy, "Phillis Wheatley and the Black American Revolution," in A Mixed Race: Ethnicity in Early America, edited by Frank Shuffelton, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 233, 237.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers, Basic Civitas Books, 2003, pp. 18, 33, 71, 82, 89-90.
Levernier, James, "Style as Process in the Poetry of Phillis Wheatley," in Style, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer 1993, pp. 172-93.
Parks, Carole A., "Phillis Wheatley Comes Home," in Black World, Vo. 23, No. 4, 1974, p. 95.
Rigsby, Gregory, "Form and Content in Phillis Wheatley's Elegies," in College Language Association Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2, December 1975, pp. 248-57.
Robinson, William H., Phillis Wheatley and Her Writings, Garland, 1984, pp. 92-93, 97, 101, 115.
———, ed., Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley, G. K. Hall, 1982, pp. 24, 27-31, 33, 36, 42-43, 47.
Shields, John C., "Phillis Wheatley and the Sublime," in Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley, edited by William H. Robinson, G. K. Hall, 1982, pp. 189, 193.
Smith, Eleanor, "Phillis Wheatley: A Black Perspective," in Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 43, No. 3, 1974, pp. 103-104.
Walker, Alice, "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Honoring the Creativity of the Black Woman," in Jackson State Review, Vol. 61, 1974, pp. 49, 52.
Wheatley, Phillis, Complete Writings, edited by Vincent Carretta, Penguin Books, 2001.
———, "On Being Brought from Africa to America," in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1, edited by Nina Baym, Norton, 1998, p. 825.
Baker, Houston A., Jr., Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women's Writing, University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Baker offers readings of such authors as Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Ntozake Shange as examples of his theoretical framework, explaining that African American women's literature is concerned with a search for spiritual identity.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., "Phillis Wheatley and the Nature of the Negro," in Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley, edited by William H. Robinson, G. K. Hall, 1982, pp. 215-33.
In this essay, Gates explores the philosophical discussions of race in the eighteenth century, summarizing arguments of David Hume, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson on the nature of "the Negro," and how they affected the reception of Wheatley's poetry.
Shockley, Ann Allen, Afro-American Women Writers, 1746-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide, G. K. Hall, 1988.
This is a chronological anthology of black women writers from the colonial era through the Civil War and Reconstruction and into the early twentieth century. Both well-known and unknown writers are represented through biography, journals, essays, poems, and fiction.
Shuffelton, Frank, "Thomas Jefferson: Race, Culture, and the Failure of Anthropological Method," in A Mixed Race: Ethnicity in Early America, edited by Frank Shuffelton, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 257-77.
This essay investigates Jefferson's scientific inquiry into racial differences and his conclusions that Native Americans are intelligent and that African Americans are not. Shuffelton also surmises why Native American cultural production was prized while black cultural objects were not.