A Poet & A Poem: Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought From AFRICA to AMERICA”

The following is a guest post by Megan Jenkins, an alumni of American Military University who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English with a concentration in Writing and a minor in International Relations. Megan was the 2019-2020 Vice President of Alpha Chi Tau.

As the first African-American poet ever published, as well as one of the first female American poets (Anne Bradstreet is recognized as the first), Phillis Wheatley is considered to be one of the most well-known poets in pre-19th century America.

The Poet: Life & Works of Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley was born in Senegal/Gambia, West Africa around 1753. When she was around seven to eight years old, she was kidnapped and brought from her home continent of Africa to America, where she was sold as a slave in Boston in New England (Massachusetts became a state in 1788). She was sold to John Wheatley, who was in search for a domestic servant for his wife, Susanna.

After discovering Phillis’ exceptional intelligence, the Wheatleys provided means of education for her, such as teaching her to read and write, though not allowing her to be completely excused of her “domestic duties”. She became well-spoken in English early on, as well as learning Greek and Latin. She became well-read in the Bible, Greek and Latin classic literature (e.g. Virgil, Ovid, and Homer), British literature (e.g. Alexander Pope and John Milton), and general studies like astronomy, geography, and history.

Wheatley’s poem that brought her initial national recognition and spotlight was “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield” (1770). Her first published piece was a few years earlier, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin (1767); however, she was not widely recognized until her elegiac poem that was a tribute to Reverend George Whitefield, a British clergyman and evangelist who greatly influenced 18th century Protestant revival in Britain and the British and American colonies.

He pray'd that grace in ev'ry heart might dwell,
He long'd to see America excell;
He charg'd its youth that ev'ry grace divine
Should with full lustre in their conduct shine;
That Saviour, which his soul did first receive,
The greatest gift that ev'n a God can give,
He freely offer'd to the num'rous throng,
That on his lips with list'ning pleasure hung.

~Phillis Wheatley 
"On The Death Of Rev. Mr. George Whitefield" (lines 20-27)

Having been unsuccessful in finding sponsors and subscribers in America on her literary works, the Wheatleys looked toward London. In 1771, Phillis, along with the Wheatley’s son, Nathaniel, went to London to meet several benefactors and supporters of her poetry. Around that same year, her first poetry collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published and well received in both America and England.

Much of her life after 1776 is relatively unclear. This was in part due to the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), but it was also due to her changes in life circumstances. Sometime around 1774 to 1776, Phillis was freed shortly before John and Susanna Wheatley died. Soon after, Phillis married John Peters in 1778, which also meant that her name changed to Phillis Peters, a free African American who owned a grocery store. At some unidentifiable time, Phillis and John would have three children; however all three died young.

These events significantly impacted not just her life, but in obtaining records of finding what happened to her in her later life. Slaves were seen as property, which had more documentation and record keeping than a freed slave, who unless owned a lot of material property, would not have a paper trail. Furthermore, because she married John Peters, her name and paper “identity” changed due to the fact that documents pertaining to her would now be tied with her husband, who was said to be a free African-American. Overall, scholars have obtained a broad view of her later life, but will never (unless records can be found or are discovered) know as much about her life after 1776.

A notable writing from 1776 from Wheatley was her letter to George Washington, supporting his efforts for liberty (against the British Empire), to which he responded respectfully, inviting her to his estate to meet (no records are known if they actually met in-person or not). In the letter included a poem, “His Excellency General Washington“.

“I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant Lines you enclosed; and however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyrick, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents. In honour of which, and as a tribute justly due to you, I would have published the Poem, had I not been apprehensive, that, while I only meant to give the World this new instance of your genius, I might have incurred the imputation of Vanity.”

From George Washington to Phillis Wheatley, 28 February 1776,

To conclude this brief overview of Wheatley’s life, Poets.org summarizes her life best as it says,

“Wheatley experienced difficulty publishing her poems, soliciting subscribers for a new volume that would include thirty-three new poems and thirteen letters, but unable to raise the funds. Phillis Wheatley, who had once been internationally celebrated, died alone in a boarding house on December 5, 1784. She was thirty-one years old. Many of the poems for her proposed second volume disappeared and have never been recovered.” Poets.org

From being a celebrated intellect with the power of her words in writing and overcoming the obstacles of slavery, to dying alone in a boarding house from illness and disturbingly unclean conditions, Phillis Wheatley’s ending in life is tragic and seemingly barren. However, the legacy of her literary work remains alive and well in honoring and celebrating the first African American poet, one of the first female American poets, and one of the most renowned 18th century poets in history.

Fun Treasures:

  • The Library of Congress’ Rare Books and Special Collections Division contains a digitized copy of a 1770 publication of “An elegiac poem, on the death of that celebrated divine, and eminent servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and learned George Whitefield, chaplain to the Right Honourable the Countess of Huntington,” that was “printed and sold by Ezekiel Russell, in Queen-street, and John Boyles, in Marlboro’-street [1770]” (Library of Congress) that can be freely accessed; click here. Note: the poem begins on image page 9 and ends on image page 12.
  • The Gutenburg Project, a project dedicated in providing free electronic copies and access to classical literature, has an electronic copy of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, that can be accessed and read online..for free! Click here to read.
  • Another way to view the collection, if you’re more interested in skipping to a particular poem and do not wish to scroll down the entire thing, is to go to University of Southern Florida’s “Lit 2 Go” site, where you can access Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Click here to read. You can also listen to the poems being read (a fun audio experience!).
  • Phillis Wheatley’s letter to George Washington can be accessed through the Founder’s Online project by the National Archive (though the letter doesn’t contain the poem). Click here to read.
  • George Washington’s letter in response to Phillis Wheatley can also be accessed through Founder’s Online project by the National Archive. Click here to read.

The Poem: “On Being Brought From AFRICA to AMERICA

"On Being Brought From AFRICA to AMERICA" 
by Phillis Wheatley

'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, ChristiansNegros, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

The poem is structurally simple, with eight lines total and a rhyming scheme of (A,A.B,B,C,C,D,D). In fancy terms, it’s using heroic couplets.

However, that is honestly the only simple thing about this poem. Wheatley uses italicization, capitalization, personification, subvert language/loaded diction, and a bunch of imagery to create a double-meaning poem. It’s essential to fully understand the context of the poem, along with seeing the intentions behind her very intended format.

As a quick note on context, Wheatley converted to Christianity as she was growing up in America. Her writing (if the title of her first publication wasn’t an indicator already) was heavily influenced and based on her faith.

The poem has two meanings and serves two different purposes. On one hand, she celebrates what Christianity has brought her, salvation and spiritual freedom, which was only discovered by being brought from Africa to America. However, this “celebration” is also met, which is probably more dominantly met, with irony and sarcasm as she does not shy away to note that she, along with all the other Africans brought over to America, were brought over against their wills, lost their freedom, and became slaves. The ironic idea of discovering freedom while being a slave and being told they were “freed” and “saved” by their faith in Christ; yet were stolen from their land and enslaved.

To start with the title, the complete capitalization of AFRICA and AMERICA emphasizes the destination and journey of the poem, beginning from Africa, then being brought to America.

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

The word Pagan is italicized and capitalized to represent Africa, her homeland. The word “mercy” contains two meanings; one being sincere in her faith and the biblical concept of God’s mercy, but the other being ironic and sarcastic due to the fact that she was brought from Africa to America as a slave, not a free person.

Taught my benighted soul to understand.

The word “benighted” contains two meanings. Wheatley uses themes of race and religion hand-in-hand throughout the poem. In this case, benighted, which means “overtaken by darkness or night,” (Merriam-Webster), means her spiritual soul as being darkened before coming to Christianity, but also her darkened skin.

That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:

Again, this “understanding” that she’s referring to is about her spiritual faith in Christianity. The italicized and capitalized Saviour contains a couple meanings. One is the Christian faith in Jesus Christ as being the Saviour of humanity, saving from sins and freeing someone of bondage. The other meaning and play highlights the second part of the previous, freedom. Wheatley uses italicization to ironize her words, providing double meaning. The irony in Saviour is that she had freedom in Africa, her Pagan land, but was a slave in America, where she discovered this Saviour as a term for a spiritual freedom. Her point was to display how she was free in Africa, where the colonial Americans saw as “evil” due to the fact that the African continent was not heavily Christianized at the time (hence saying they’re pagan), yet she was told that she was free as a slave in America because she was Christian.

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew,

Reaffirming what was said above, Wheatley claims that this freedom was not sought in Africa because she was free. In a spiritual sense, one could argue she was referencing to Isaiah 65:1 and Romans 10:20 from the Bible where it says,

"I was found by those who did not seek me;
 I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.”
-Isaiah 65:1/Romans 10:20 (NIV)-

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

The main word of interest in this line is “sable”, which means “the usually dark brown color of the fur of the sable” (Merriam Webster), basically meaning the dark furry animal. This use of the word was to show the idea of what slaves were viewed as, animals with “dark fur”. Wheatley uses descriptive words to intentionally convey a strong illustration and message on the dehumanizing view of slaves. In this case, she plays off her skin and describes how because of her skin (race) she is viewed as less than human.

“Their colour is a diabolic die.”

What’s interesting about this line is that she’s quoting someone. The next line reveals who the speaker of this quote is. Again, Wheatley uses words about her race to convey the negative attitude towards African-American slaves.

Remember, ChristiansNegros, black as Cain,

So, with this line the speaker is identified, the Christians. The words Christians, Negroes, and Cain are italicized and capitalized to describe a person and/or a people. The italicization of Christians is no doubt showing criticism and calling out those who believed, said, and felt the quoted statement in the previous line.

Negroes is referring to the Africans that were slaves in America. Wheatley further describes them by saying “black as Cain“. Now, Cain has two meanings. The first is viewed because of its spelling and capitalization, the biblical story of Cain. In order to understand the full significance of Wheatley’s poem and choice of word, one must understand the context and story behind it.

Beginning at Genesis 4 in the Bible, it tells the account of Cain and his brother, Abel being born. Then, versus 3-7, it tells how both Cain and Abel offered their respective offerings to God; however God was only “pleased” with Abel’s offering and not Cain’s. This made Cain jealous and killed his brother Abel, which is found in verse 9. Ultimately, God found out and cursed Cain, but gave Cain a “mark”, so that no one would kill him because of his crime.

"...Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him." 
~Genesis 4:15 (NIV) (bold/emphasis added)~

The mark described in the text had undergone various interpretations as to what that meant and looked like. During colonial times, one of the interpretations was that God had cursed Cain with dark skin as the noticeable “mark”, hence the attempted interpretation that slaves were somehow “less” due to their skin color.

The second interpretation of Cain is sugarcane (spelt differently). A lot of plantations were sugar cane plantations, where slaves would labor to harvest sugar canes. Now, liquid cane is dark when it’s unrefined. When it’s refined, it’s appearance changes to white. So, Wheatley was using not only a product that slaves were forced to labor over (sugarcane), but also the process of “refined” sugar, which the appearance goes from black to white.

May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

The last line of the poem ties into the imagery stated above with the process of liquid sugarcane becoming “refined”. However, the meaning of the last line ties into the spiritual idea of anyone being refined, saved, and free through the Christian faith. The message was that slaves, who were perceived and viewed as “sable” and “diabolic”, could also be saved by the same faith that they, the white colonials, believed in themselves.

“On Being Brought From AFRICA to AMERICA” is Phillis Wheatley’s testimony and thoughts on the colonial view of slavery, which contrasted/contradicted their Christian faith. Through irony and double meaning, Wheatley crafted a double-sided poem that focuses on two important subjects: race and religion. By using biblical themes and beliefs, she arranged thought provoking imagery to convey a strong, and rather unpopular at the time, abolitionist message during the pre-19th century America.

“In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.”

~Phillis Wheatley~
Letter to Reverend Samson Ocum (1774)

References:

  • Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Phillis Wheatley”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1 Dec. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Phillis-Wheatley.
  • Carretta, Vincent. Phillis Wheatley : Biography of a Genius in Bondage . University of Georgia Press, 2011.
  • Loving, MaryCatherine. “Uncovering Subversion in Phillis Wheatley’s Signature Poem: ‘On Being Brought from AFRICA to AMERICA.’” Journal of African American Studies, vol. 20, no. 1, Mar. 2016, pp. 67–74. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s12111-015-9319-8.
  • “Phillis Wheatley.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/phillis-wheatley.
  • “Phillis Wheatley.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, poets.org/poet/phillis-wheatley.
  • Pierce, Tammie. “Analyzing Phillis Wheatly’s ‘On Being Brought From Africa to America’..”, YouTube, YouTube, September 2017, https://youtu.be/qFh4zdW-XDc

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