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...

(The entire section is 442 words.)