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 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.
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...
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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 her, when she creates a title which illustrates the underlying concept of her poem. Wheatley draws attention to her being forced to leave her home instead of to her being taken to a better place by titling her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” By placing Africa first, Wheatley intimates that her past holds as much if not more importance than her future.
However, the strongest but often missed device to be found in “On Being Brought from Africa to America” is Wheatley’s subtle irony which she presents through limited use of italicized words. This irony allows Wheatley to placate her white reading public by permitting them to hear what makes them feel good while, in fact, she is saying exactly how wrong her captors’ perceptions are. For instance, her readers no doubt understood her reference to “my Pagan land” as a condemnation of the place from which they had freed her. Rather, when one accepts Wheatley’s irony, “Pagan land” illuminates the concept that the most ungodly of actions came when the rescuers forced Wheatley and others into enslavement. This same ironic approach should be considered when pondering the word “Saviour.” Although one immediately thinks of a religious salvation, the italics draw attention to the specific word and to the distinct possibility that the speaker did not completely want to be saved from the life she knew.
It is in line seven, however, that the significance of italics becomes evident with the inclusion of the proper nouns “Christians,” “Negroes,” and “Cain.” Again, a superficial reading of these words leads to the conclusion that the speaker is offering a statement of gratitude for having been delivered from her previously spiritually dark life. One must look closely at the pronouncement that “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,/ May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train” and appreciate Wheatley’s placement of her race on an even playing field with her captors through the possibility that the black race’s shortcomings can be just as completely forgiven as those of the white race and that the white race is the one destroying its brothers as Cain did Abel.
The poem’s two quatrains of heroic couplets serve the same artistic and philosophical purpose as do the octave and sestet of a traditional sonnet. The first section lays the foundation for the speaker’s argument, while the second section presents the speaker’s conclusion or resolution. For instance, in the first quatrain, the narrator tells, in a relatively positive voice, of her removal from a world of darkness into one of light. The second quatrain then provides a sounding board for the narrator’s more complex conclusion, that blacks as well as whites, the enslaved as well as the enslavers, have the same potential for salvation and becoming a member of the “angelic train,” thus negating the egocentric attitude of whites. This message is often misread by careless readers.
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.