What is "A Letter from Phillis Wheatley" about?

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Among other things, the poem can be interpreted as a mordant critique of race relations in America. It says a lot about how African Americans, like Phillis Wheatley, are treated that they have to travel 3,000 miles to achieve any kind of respect (even a qualified one) from white people....

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Among other things, the poem can be interpreted as a mordant critique of race relations in America. It says a lot about how African Americans, like Phillis Wheatley, are treated that they have to travel 3,000 miles to achieve any kind of respect (even a qualified one) from white people. In America, Wheatley just a former slave, but in England, she's a celebrated poet, revered by the literati and the aristocracy. Another layer of irony is that Phillis Wheatley, a self-proclaimed patriot, can only gain some measure of respect in a country which will soon be at war with the American colonies.

Moreover, her journey across the Atlantic to England is noticeably uneventful; it's certainly a good deal more pleasant than the horrendous voyage she was forced to endure when first brought to America as a slave. Again, this reinforces the message that Phillis can only be treated as a normal human being while traveling away from America, the country to which she's formed such a patriotic attachment.

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In this poem, Hayden places himself in the position of Phyllis Wheatley, the early black American poet, traveling to London in 1773. He deliberately evokes features of her voice and language—note the archaic diction and the use of capitalization.

The speaker describes her voyage to London as "without incident," in contrast to her first voyage from Africa to America years before. Upon arrival in London, she was presented by "her Ladyship" to gathered friends, who wished to hear about Africa, but Wheatley could not tell them much about that (although she could speak of "Boston and my hope of heaven"). This underlines the fact that Wheatley, while visually very different from white Americans in the eyes of these white women, had actually had her original heritage taken from her and now considered herself American. Elsewhere in the poem, she determines she had better not allow herself to be presented at Court, because she is "a Patriot." Wheatley dines apart "like captive Royalty." She is treated well, in many ways, and honored as a "poetess," but she is also made very aware of her difference.

The speaker notes that she thinks she will recover well in England, but also that there is a "serpent" in this garden, such as the man who called her a "Cannibal Mockingbird." At the end of the poem, she relates to her friend an incident she thought quite amusing: when a little chimney sweep asked her if she swept chimneys too.

Ultimately, this poem is about Wheatley as a stranger in a strange land and the tension in her between her feelings of being American and the way she is viewed in England. It focuses on the difficulties that many black Americans face in feeling that they do not fit anywhere, as a result of how their original cultures were eroded and destroyed.

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It is definitely understandable to ask what this poem is about, because there is a lot going on here. Let’s take things in stages, to show some of the complexities of this poem.

First, a few historical facts. Hayden was a major African American poet. Wheatley was the first major African American poet. In writing a letter from her, Hayden first shows respect for Wheatley, paying her the homage she deserves and drawing attention back to her.

Next, Wheatley wrote a number of poems in letter form, addressing major historical figures like George Washington. In writing a (fictional) letter from Wheatley, Hayden again bows in her direction, modeling his work on her work.

A third layer is the profound irony of this poem. In it, Hayden has Wheatley comment on sailing across the ocean and how easy it was. This is compared to her earlier voyage, which was crossing the ocean to be a slave. He also has her comment on American society, the racial divide in it, and the gap between the Christianity they claim and the racism they practice.

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