Discuss the possible meanings in word choice regarding blackness in Phillis Wheatley's "On Being Brought from Africa to America."

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Wheatley demonstrates a profound grasp of the precarious balance that artists like herself faced in their writing.  On one hand, they had a strong message about what it was to be Black in a White American society.  Yet, they had to communicate in an almost "code" like manner to ensure that White audiences and the White public would not persecute Black artists for what was being said.  Wheatley's use of word choice to indicate blackness is written in this dynamic.  Fundamentally, the poem is about how someone brought from Africa responds to the world in which they now live in America.  It is a musing that reflects the massive amount of change.  From a setting where there is nothing but people of color to a setting where people of color are the minority is startling from a physical point of view.  In this condition, the issue of "blackness" is raised.  The use of terms like "benighted" helps to bring this out.  Being Black in a setting of White people is seen as a curse from the point of view of the White majority. The challenge is to describe how others see oneself without seeing oneself in this light and Wheatley manages to do this.  This same dynamic of description of oneself from "the other" without appropriating it in one's own mind is seen in Wheatley's use of the term "diabolic die."  The use of "sable" is an interesting choice of term because one does not really know if Wheatley is using this term as a Black person describing themselves or if it is a view of White society describing them, reflecting how confusing and challenging the issue of race is for both sides of the coin.  It is in the word choice that Wheatley uses that reflects how different and intricate meanings are evoked about the issue of Blackness both internally and how it is viewed externally.


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