Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Two arguments against Wheatley’s poetry have been discussed through the years by critics. One is that she was an imitator of imitators; the other is that she lacked interest in fellow slaves, Africa, and Africans. Much of her poetry is derivative, as was that of many poets and poetasters of mid-eighteenth century America. Like them, she used Pope and John Milton as models. Her own imagination and fancy, however, prevented her from following her models slavishly.

Early twentieth century critics discerned Wheatley’s alleged lack of interest in Africa and blacks in part in her stance and tone in poems such as “On being brought from Africa to America,” which states, “’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land.” Several factors influenced her thoughts on the subject. She grew up among Bostonians who regarded Africa as a primitive and heathen place, and she was likely constrained as a slave writing for a predominantly white reading public. However, she was herself a constant statement against slavery; abolitionists used her as an embodiment of their argument of what the slave could become if freed and educated. Although occasionally her poetry reveals her as more interested in slaves’ souls than in their bodies, she was, even in her early years, opposed to slavery. A growing chorus of critics, having benefited from recently discovered poems and letters, argue convincingly that Wheatley was not devoid of racial feelings. The strongest indictment of slavery in her book is in her poem to the Earl of Dartmouth:

I, young in life, by seeming cruel fateWas snatched from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat;What pangs excruciating must molest,What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’dThat from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:

(The entire section is 828 words.)