On Being Brought from Africa to America

by Phillis Wheatley

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 352

In her meditation, Wheatley attempts to come to terms with artistic and personal abstractions such as what art is and when fancy becomes imagination. However, one of the most significant abstractions with which she contends is where the African American slave fits into the grand scheme of things. Much of her need to understand comes from the refusal of many in the white reading community to take her seriously as an artist because she was both black and a woman. In “To S. M.,” Wheatley articulates the reality of blacks’ ability to create art in spite of the whites’ refusal to accept this “inferior” group of people as able to create anything of significance or be anything more than second-class individuals at best.

The conflict between racial reality and perception is most vividly and artistically presented in Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America” when she uses such poetic devices as irony, italics, and first-person narration to express her unwillingness to be cast into a second-fiddle role. In order to magnify the discrepancy between the whites’ perception of blacks and the reality of the situation, Wheatley guardedly speaks of the good the whites have done in bringing blacks into the Christian world. It is not until the second half of the poem, however, that Wheatley brings into play an understanding that runs counter to the careless reader’s impressions. In the concluding four lines of the poem, Wheatley argues that blacks and whites are made from the same spiritual cloth and that both can “be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train” of salvation.

In most meditations, poets move from the physical to the metaphysical or to a philosophical or spiritual foundation for existence. This is what Wheatley does in “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” First, she shows how life is perceived by white enslavers and many of the enslaved. Then she moves on to argue that in the final analysis both races have the same potential and are one in their relationship with the same supreme being who, as her subtext discloses, is color-blind when granting salvation.

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