On Being Brought from Africa to America

by Phillis Wheatley

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What is the theme and meter of "On Being Brought from Africa to America"?

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The meter of this poem is straightforward. Wheatley writes in iambic pentameter, and her poem is an octave, or set of four couplets. The eight lines rhyme in aabbaabb fashion. In this way, she adheres to popular poetic conventions. 

In other ways, however, this poem is not conventional at all. To begin with, the poet herself is an interesting example of a literate slave writing about her own experience prior to the nineteenth century, where we begin to see more of this. The theme of the poem is twofold, and in some sense problematic to the modern eye. Wheatley describes her native Africa as a "Pagan" land wherein her soul was "benighted": she describes her enslavement and passage to America as representing a salvation for her, in that she has been taught about God and a Saviour and redemption she "never sought nor knew" before. 

The second half of the octave is an exhortation to Christians to recognize the "sable race" as equally capable of achieving redemption—the poet knows that some view the color as "a diabolic die," marking out "Negros" as "black as Cain." The language evokes Biblical figures of villainy, namely Cain and Satan, as Wheatley knows that, to many, her soul appears as "benighted" as her dark skin. 

Wheatley's themes, then, of blackness and of redemption, are entwined, but she also seeks to disentangle them in the eyes of the whites who may meet her. Blackness of the skin, Wheatley says, does not equate to blackness of the soul, and black people too may "join th'angelic train". 

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In the poem "On Being Brought from Africa to America," Wheatley is stating that she has been redeemed. She has been enlightened as to God's redemptive plan. She states that her soul now understands God as Saviour...Wheatley shares that her "sable" or black race can be refined and united with God just like the white man...

Amazingly, she was not seeking God but as mercy would have it, he found her and now she is understanding of God and his redemptive plan...

Wheatly clearly understands there are people who scorn her race and she writes to give them an understanding that white men are not the only ones who can experience God and His redemptive plan. she speaks to the white Christians:

'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 rhyme scheme is aabb...she writes in heroic couplets throughout the poem...the theme is physical and spiritual rescue by God...the tone is serious and meditative...the point of view is first person meditation...Wheatley uses subtle irony in that she writes to make her white readers feel good yet perceive how wrong they are for thinking only white people can be Christians...

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