The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442

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.

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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 low esteem. To illustrate her point, Wheatley uses such terms as “our sable race,” “diabolic die,” and “black as Cain” as descriptors for those thrust into slavery. The perceptions depicted in the second quatrain seemingly intensify the significance of the situation presented in the first.

Taken together, these two quatrains set up a rhetorical paradigm by which many readers confront Wheatley and this poem and come away with the perception that Wheatley is writing a poem of gratitude, much in the vein of her many elegies that address important individuals who have passed from the scene but whose influence continues. In “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” Wheatley mourns the passing of freedom in spite of the superficial thanks expressed by the narrator.

“On Being Brought from Africa to America,” as well as the other works collected in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, has brought Wheatley both admirers and detractors. For her work, Wheatley is now known as the first published African American writer. Because of the superficial complacency of the narrator’s statements, many have criticized the poem for denying Wheatley’s real situation and voicing the sentiments of her enslavers and for her not speaking out more clearly for her race.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 802

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 ,...

(The entire section contains 1378 words.)

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Themes