A life-changing event can lead to a poem such as the one written by Phillis Wheatley (1753 – 1784). At a very young age, she was sold as a slave. With a ship, she sailed from Africa to America and was bought by a wealthy family from Boston. In her poem “On being brought from AFRICA to AMERICA,” she writes about her journey to another world. But in a way, this poem is a paradox. What makes part of this poem produce a bitter aftertaste?
Who was Phillis Wheatley?
Phillis Wheatley wasn’t born with the name a wealthy family from Boston gave her. She was sold as a slave at a very young age. She was emancipated and her poems made her one of the first African-American women who became famous in her time. All this fame could not prevent the sad ending of her life. She died in poverty, after the family who took her in died.
Wheatley is one of the poets that can’t be ignored when it comes to early American literature.
About “On being brought from AFRICA to AMERICA”
The poem that Wheatley wrote was inspired by two things: a difference of culture and her journey to America. Her poem seems to be highly influenced by what happened to her. Instead of words of anger about her being taken from her home country, she used the words Pagan land. Where the pagans were the indigenous people of the area we now know as Senegal. There’s nothing pagan about this, of course. When Wheatley wrote her words, people thought it was normal to distinguish based on physical characteristics.
Perhaps using these two words make it a strange poem? An African-American who speaks of a pagan country. That seems strange. It’s also a bit like indoctrination. Especially when you read on. She claims her soul was benighted. Another word for terms as unread, uneducated, uncultured. Words that give a bitter aftertaste.
Wheatley claims it was all God’s doing. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that: believing that some heavenly creature or being saved your life. You may ask yourself the question: did she need saving? If it wasn’t for the Wheatley family, she would never be emancipated and she would never have the opportunity to leave us her beautiful literary legacy. This makes it a paradox (a contradictory conclusion that nevertheless arises as a result of correct reasoning within a correct presupposition).
The poem can make someone very uncomfortable. Why would Wheatley have written such a submissive poem? Did she forget about her abduction from Senegal? Or the way she was transported to America? Her name was a constant reminder of that ship. She was transported on board of the “Phillis.” Was this an act of God? In a way, it might have been. Because she survived this tough journey.
Yes, in this new world, she learned new things. She was emancipated and was able to write. In her poem, she wants to bring forward her being thankful for what she got in this new world. Still, she finds herself living in a world where people thought different things about African-American people. They were merely animals and could best be used as labour workers.
The twist comes at the end of this poem, making it completely different. Prejudice, bigotry and racism towards African-Americans are not only wrong, but it’s anti-Christian. Something that even today people should think about before they act.
On being brought from AFRICA to AMERICA
‘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, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
By Phillis Wheatley