On Being Brought from Africa to America Analysis

Phillis Wheatley

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The four heroic couplets that constitute Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America” delve deeply into the psyche of the young African American slave narrator who attempts to come to terms with her being torn from her native African soil and being forcibly relocated to colonial America. The poem’s original title, “Thoughts on being brought from Africa to America,” when written in 1768, clearly indicates that the work was intended to represent the speaker’s pondering her situation rather than serving as a mere statement, which is often misread for various reasons.

The first quatrain sets the tone for most readings of the poem by seeming to parallel spiritual and physical rescue. The speaker’s “mercy” was the underlying factor that took her from her home, her “Pagan land,” and brought her to a world centered upon “redemption [which she] neither fought nor knew.” The result of her resettlement, the narrator says, was her becoming aware “That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too.” This resulting understanding, no doubt, echoes the rationalization that many who brought slaves to the new world used to vindicate their actions.

The second and concluding quatrain moves Wheatley’s meditation to a new realm, in which the narrator places herself and her race into context with the views of those who eventually enslaved them. Regardless of intention, the takers of slaves held the blacks in...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Much of Wheatley’s acclaim has come from her elegies that celebrated the lives of great men such as George Washington and the Reverend George Whitefield. However, many of her most complex and delving poems are her meditations, which investigate such abstract concepts as fancy and imagination. For what has become her most famous work, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” Wheatley chose to use the meditation as the form for her contemplation of her enslavement, because the narrator (Wheatley) meditates on the institution of slavery as it applies to her instead of making a more vocal condemnation or acceptance.

The first-person meditation makes the message of the poem more personal than if it had been presented in another pedantic pronouncement. “On Being Brought from Africa to America” is clearly an internal monologue through which the narrator bares her soul and voices her conclusion that even “Negroes, black as Cain,/ May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train” in spite of their captors’ strong belief that the dark race is hopeless and greatly inferior.

Wheatley utilizes a white/dark contrast to demonstrate the narrator’s movement from a life of misunderstanding and ignorance in a “Pagan land” to a life of deliverance and revelation in her new home. Up until the last line of the poem, Wheatley inserts such dark language as “benighted soul,” “sable race,” “diabolic die,” and “black as Cain” to depict both her and her race’s real and perceived place in the psychological world of their new homes. Although the last line contains no definite reference to light, Wheatley creates a light tone when she says, “refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.” Thus, the possibility of a darkened soul’s moving into a spiritual light under the most adverse of conditions becomes evident.

Wheatley even utilizes semiotics, although the term may have been unknown to...

(The entire section is 802 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bassard, Katherine Clay. Spiritual Interrogations: Culture, Gender, and Community in Early African American Women’s Writing. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Carretta, Vincent, and Philip Gould, eds. Genius in Bondage: Literature of the Early Black Atlantic. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

Lasky, Kathryn. A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet. Cambridge, Mass.: Candlewick Press, 2003.

Renfro, G. Herbert. Life and Works of Phillis Wheatley. The Black Heritage Library Collection. Plainview, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1970.

Richmond, Merle. Phillis Wheatley. American Women of Achievement. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Robinson, William H., ed. Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.

Shields, John C. “The American Epic Writ Large: The Example of Phillis Wheatley.” In The American Aeneas: Classical Origins of the American Self. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2001.