Poem #1: On Being Brought from Africa to America by Phillis Wheatley

Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.Estimated Reading Time: 4.5  minutes

Title: On Being Brought from Africa to America

Author: Phillis Wheatley Peters

SourceAfrican-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.

‘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.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negro’s, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

I first learned about Phillis Wheatley when I sat in a building named after her in my American Studies Master's Program at UMASS Boston.  I would later return to her when I taught American literature as a voice to make sure to expose my students to from the 1700s. She was an African who was enslaved and brought to the American British colonies as a child, where she was given a British education as part of the Wheatley family in Boston.  

This poem appears as one of those poems that can operate on different levels. As an enslaved African female in late 18th century America that was home of the Puritans and also at both the dawn of American freedom and aftermath of the Great Awakening, it would be fascinating to know where the target of Wheatley's poem focused.  

There's a plea at the center of this poem for Christians to recognize the humanity of Africans whom they have enslaved.  The straight-forward read is Wheatley pleading for Christians to remember that they can save the souls and redeem Africans jus tas her soul had been saved.  

I think it also can also be read as a condemnation of slavery and Christianity as Wheatley saw it in the time.  There's two parts to the poem. The first half speaks of Wheatley's enslavement and conversion; the second half says that is she too can be converted and saved, so too can all Africans. 

But what if we read those parts in reverse, we are more forcefully introduced to the criticism of white Christians.   If we start the poem with "Some view our sable race..", the section stands as much more egregious and critical of Christians. It says that they fail to see the humanity and souls of Africans. That there is no categorical difference between Africans and the white Christians beyond how whites see them ("with scornful eye").  Additionally, the language of "refin'd and join' speak to a tension of something being done and something someone does. But in this case, what are we to make of "join th' angelic train."  After all, train in this sense could operate in two ways. A succession of something (in this case, supposedly, angels), but of course, the more familiar train to Africans would be that of chain slaves. Of course, train could also work here as a verb.  Though not properly conjugated (never stop a poet from perfect grammar--that's rarely the point), train could refer to learning and be a call back to the "taught" of the second line.  

Taken in either way, this could be Phillis encapturing how white Europeans made arguments to enslave Africans under the guise of converting to Christianity but largely always kept them as part of the slave train.  

Now, if we transition to the first half and read it, it feels different.  The first half now feels a bit sarcastic, right?  Those "Some" "with "scornful eye" "brought" Wheatley--an act that was inevitably anything but filled with "mercy" but with profit and dehumanization. She follows this with speaking of her benighted soul (that is, darkened soul) was "taught" "to understand". It's an interesting framing. She did not learn per see, she did not discover God's "mercy" but had to be taught.  There's a forcefulness to structuring the sentence that way, especially when the following lines focus on what she was taught: God, Saviour, and redemption--none of which she sought or knew.  But again, it doesn't say that she's found them (the counterpart to "sought" but just that she's been "taught" "to understand.").  

In this way, Wheatley could be saying that it has been forced upon her much like her slavery ("mercy brought") to endure things that she "neither sought or knew." She sees her redemption as questionable at best. In this way, poetry is powerful in that it can give people what they want to see (in this case, the largely white reading public can feel better about themselves for embracing slavery and "saving" people like Wheatley) but that it leaves room for those who understand Wheatley's plight to see lines of division and criticism. 

Those are my thoughts.  How do you interpret the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciate and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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