Phillis Wheatley and the poem "Being Brought From Africa."
Phillis Wheatley came to America as a slave when she was a young girl; she was probably about eight-years-old when Mr. And Mrs. Wheatley purchased her. She lived in Boston with the family, serving as a companion and helper to Mrs. Wheatley. They encouraged her education, "Indeed, she gained as good an education as (and probably a better one than) most Boston women had, and her learning and abilities gradually gained the interest of a wider and wider segment of the community, especially after she began writing poetry at about the age of twelve, after having been in Boston only about four years" (Mason 3-4).
Thomas Wooldridge wrote of her, "While in Boston, I heard of a very Extraordinary female Slave, who had made verses on our mutually dear deceased Friend [Whitefield]: I visited her mistress, and found by conversing with the African, that she was no Impostor;" (Isani 152). Her first book of poems was published in England, with the title "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral."
Interestingly enough, many people thought a slave could not possibly write the work, and the introduction to the published volume included the signatures of sixteen prominent Bostonians, confirming Wheatley did indeed pen the poems. "WE whose Names are under-written, do assure the World, that the POEMS specified in the following Page,* were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town. She has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them" (Wheatley).
Right before her mistress died, the Wheatley's granted her freedom, but remained in Boston in the Wheatley household, where she continued to write. "My old master's generous behaviour in granting me my freedom, and still so kind to me I delight to acknowledge my great obligations to him. This he did about 3 months before the death of my dear mistress & at her desire, as well as his own humanity" (Silverman 268).
She married John Peters on April 1, 1778, and had three children with him. The marriage was not a happy one, and they had severe money troubles. During this time, she published only one or two poems, and it seemed she had stopped writing for the most part. One of the last poems she wrote appeared shortly before her death and the topic itself was death. She had always suffered from poor health and asthma, and she died when she was only 31.
The reports of her circumstances in the period before her death on Sunday, December 5, 1784, seem to agree that her life was then at least one of hardships, personal, financial, and familial. Her children did not survive her; the last surviving one was buried with her" (Mason 10).
Of course, there were many critics of Wheatley's work. Many said she used her skin color and situation to gain sympathy from her readers. "Francis Smith Foster maintains that Wheatley 'encouraged' in her audience 'racial awareness by repeatedly referring to her African heritage in her poems, calling attention to her "sable race" and identifying herself as "Afric's muse"(33). And finally, Anita Silvers points out that Wheatley herself began the tradition of presenting her poetry as 'remarkable for the reason of the history of its author' by actively marketing the volume as written by an African female slave" (481)
Wheatley was not the first black writer to publish their work, and many critics acknowledge that she was not a great poet, but she was historically significant for her contribution to American literature. "Certainly she was the first truly significant black American writer, and her 1773 book of poems was probably the first book -- and certainly the first book of poetry -- published by a black American" (Mason 13).
BEING BROUGHT FROM AFRICA
The poem "Being Brought from Africa" is one of the few Wheatley wrote about slavery. She had an exceptional experience in the Wheatley household. They treated her almost like one of the family, and thus her view of slavery was quite different from most African-Americans of the time. Most of her work centered around religion, and her deep-set beliefs, which was extremely common for an 18th century writer.
This poem is probably one of the most famous of Wheatley's work, and it is often reproduced in print and on the Internet. The simple eight lines are short, but they tell quite a story in only a few words.
Marsha Watson said of this poem, "Read literally, the first quatrain has struck many critics as a shocking example of Wheatley's willingness to 'sell her blackness for a pottage of white acceptability.' But read metaphorically, as multilayered discourse, "On Being Brought" chronicles Wheatley's metaphysical, poetic journey from the hopeless and powerless mortality of an ancient pagan mythos, to the Christian promise of ultimate spiritual liberty and redemption" (Watson 123).
Wheatley's first lines "Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land, / Taught my benighted soul to understand / That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too: / Once I redemption neither sought nor knew," at once tell the reader that this is no ordinary poem about slavery. She saw her land as "pagan," and that "mercy" brought her to America. She in fact refused to return to Africa as a missionary, saying that her Natives would not be able to understand her "tongue" [language]. Her life in Boston was very good, even before she gained her freedom, and her poem reflects this.
The poem shows her deep belief in God, and her religion. She said she did not know redemption until she found God, and this was enough reason for her to see America as her promised land. "Scripture, in fact, profoundly influenced her writings (Wheatley 15-16). Sometimes the Bible provided her with a means of undercutting colonial assumptions about race (O'Neale 145). Wheatley's dual exposure to theological and secular applications of Holy Writ accounts for the compatibility of her religious and her political writings (Akers 403-04; Burroughs 61-62)" (Scheick 123).
Watson goes on to say, "Finally, Wheatley's speaker openly challenges the simplistic proslavery equations that set black skin equivalent to sin and bestiality. In answering the 'scornful' charge of 'Their colour is a diabolic die,' Wheatley's speaker returns with unmistakable sarcasm: the emphasis placed on 'Christians' in line 8 suggests they may in fact be no such thing -- especially if such Christians make the mistake of equating 'Negroes' with the sinfulness of 'Cain. Wheatley radically complicates concepts like sin and skin color as a determiner of 'race' in this one line" (Watson 123-124).
The second stanza reads, "Some view our sable race with scornful eye, / 'Their colour is a diabolic die.' / Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain, / May be refined, and join th' angelic train." This is the real heart of the poem, and it changes tone slightly from the first four lines. She calls her race "sable," a lovely, resonating word that gives the impression of silky smoothness, and deep richness, that is perfect in this context.
It is clear that even though her life has been exceptional, she has faced the "scorn" of others because of her color. She says people view them with a "scornful eye," and "their color is a diabolic die," meaning that blacks are diabolical and not to be trusted in the white world. She may be religious, but the last lines of this poem prove that she can see through people, and some who call themselves "Christians" are really the first to point fingers because of color. These lines may also be a censure of those "Christians" who also own slaves, reminding them that true "Christians" do not keep people in bondage.
She is at home with herself, and her religion, and it shows in this poem. She knows her life is good, and she loves living in America. The last line of this poem probably states her beliefs most clearly, for she knows that even though she is Black, she is "refined," just like the "white folks," and she will be redeemed when she dies, also just like the "white folks." She knows that God will not turn anyone away from Heaven's Gate, if they are believers, their color does not matter.
Wheatley's style of writing is simple and uncomplicated; perhaps that is why some critics were so judgmental of her work. Thomas Jefferson said of her work, "Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.' Her work often was caught in what Gates called 'the politics of authenticity.' When black critics in the 20th century began to define a black aesthetic, they…