On Being Brought from Africa to America

by Phillis Wheatley

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Compare the tone and theme of "On Being Brought from Africa to America" with Hughes' "I, Too Sing America".

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The tone and themes of these poems are very different. "On Being brought from Africa to America" is a more religious poem, whereas "I, Too Sing America" is an anti-racist poem.

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These poems both share a common theme of black experience in the United States, and in both poems, there is evidence that the speaker has suffered racism. Wheatley refers to the "scornful" looks she has received from those who view her blackness as a "diabolic die," and Hughes laments being sent "to eat in the kitchen / When company comes." Both speakers have been mistreated because of the color of their skin.

The tone in Hughes' poem, however, is radically different to that in Wheatley's. If "tone" represents the author's attitude towards their subject, then it is fair to say that Wheatley's attitude towards her own blackness is different from Hughes'. Wheatley describes being brought from her "pagan land" with an element of religious gratitude: her "benighted soul" has been educated by white people about God and redemption. Certainly, she pleads for compassion from Christians towards those who, "black as Cain," have simply been uneducated about the potential of joining the "angelic train" of Christianity. However, there is a sense that the speaker has had to be "refin'd" first: the word "benighted" is particularly telling, as it unites blackness with connotations of ignorance and spiritual darkness. Wheatley expresses gratitude to those who have helped her move beyond her "benighted" African self and become, as it were, civilized.

Hughes' poem, on the other hand, is a plea for equality. Rather than allowing that there is a negative connotation to blackness, he repeats that "I, too, sing America." There is no equivocation here: Hughes is claiming the equal place which should be afforded to him, and yet is denied to him on the basis of racism. Rather than being grateful for what he has and content with his lot, he looks towards a brighter future when "they'll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed." White people, in Hughes' eyes, should recognize that black people are their equals in every way, and that their blackness is not a failing or a curse for them to be rescued from, but beautiful in its own right. Hughes' blackness, unlike Wheatley's, does not need to be "refin'd."

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Two things that both poems have in common, of course, are that they are both written by African American writers and that they both address the place of black people in America in one way or another. I would focus on these elements first in my comparison of the two poems.

Phillis Wheatley's poem "On Being Brought from Africa to America" seems in many ways different from Langston Hughes' poem "I, Too." Where Wheatley's poem presents blackness as a mark of sinfulness and as reminder of a past that is best left behind, Hughes' poem touches at least briefly on the idea of blackness as beautiful. Whereas Wheatley's poem seems to suggest that blacks should be treated fairly for religous reasons ("Remember, Christians, ...") even if they remain slaves, the note of protest in Hughes' poem is much louder (he wants a place at the table) and much more secular in nature.

Both poems have a serious tone, at least at times, but that tone is much more dominant in Wheatley's poem than in Hughes' poem.

I hope that these ideas get you started!

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