Literature

A Short Analysis of Phillis Wheatley’s ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’

‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’ is a poem by Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-84), who was the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared in 1773 when she was probably still in her early twenties.

Because Wheatley stands at the beginning of a long tradition of African-American poetry, we thought we’d offer some words of analysis of one of her shortest poems. Before we analyse ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’, though, here’s the text of the poem.

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.

Wheatley had been taken from Africa (probably Senegal, though we cannot be sure) to America as a young girl, and sold into slavery. A Boston tailor named John Wheatley bought her and she became his family servant.

The young Phillis Wheatley was a bright and apt pupil, and was taught to read and write. She learned both English and Latin. Even at the young age of thirteen, she was writing religious verse. As Michael Schmidt notes in his wonderful The Lives Of The Poets, at the age of seventeen she had her first poem published: an elegy on the death of an evangelical minister. Wheatley was fortunate to receive the education she did, when so many African slaves fared far worse, but she also clearly had a nature aptitude for writing.

She was freed shortly after the publication of her poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, a volume which bore a preface signed by a number of influential American men, including John Hancock, famous signatory of the Declaration of Independence just three years later. Indeed, she even met George Washington, and wrote him a poem. However, her book of poems was published in London, after she had travelled across the Atlantic to England, where she received patronage from a wealthy countess. She died back in Boston just over a decade later, probably in poverty.

In the short poem ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’, Phillis Wheatley reminds her (white) readers that although she is black, everyone – regardless of skin colour – can be ‘refined’ and join the choirs of the godly.

Let’s take a closer look at ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’, line by line:

’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Wheatley casts her origins in Africa as non-Christian (‘Pagan’ is a capacious term which was historically used to refer to anyone or anything not strictly part of the Christian church), and – perhaps controversially to modern readers – she states that it was ‘mercy’ or kindness that brought her from Africa to America. This is obviously difficult for us to countenance as modern readers, since Wheatley was forcibly taken and sold into slavery; and it is worth recalling that Wheatley’s poems were probably published, in part, because they weren’t critical of the slave trade, but upheld what was still mainstream view at the time.

Taught my benighted soul to understand

Wheatley casts her own soul as ‘benighted’ or dark, playing on the blackness of her skin but also the idea that the Western, Christian world is the ‘enlightened’ one. She is writing in the eighteenth century, the great century of the Enlightenment, after all.

That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Contrasting with the reference to her Pagan land in the first line, Wheatley directly references God and Jesus Christ, the Saviour, in this line. She sees her new life as, in part, a deliverance into the hands of God, who will now save her soul.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

The word ‘sable’ is a heraldic word being ‘black’: a reference to Wheatley’s skin colour, of course. But here it is interesting how Wheatley turns the focus from her own views of herself and her origins to others’ views: specifically, Western Europeans, and Europeans in the New World, who viewed African people as ‘inferior’ to white Europeans.

‘Their colour is a diabolic die.’

The word ‘diabolic’ means ‘devilish’, or ‘of the Devil’, continuing the Christian theme. ‘Die’, of course, is ‘dye’, or colour.

Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,

Wheatley implores her Christian readers to remember that black Africans are said to be afflicted with the ‘mark of Cain’: after the slave trade was introduced in America, one justification white Europeans offered for enslaving their fellow human beings was that Africans had the ‘curse of Cain’, punishment handed down to Cain’s descendants in retribution for Cain’s murder of his brother Abel in the Book of Genesis.

May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

But Wheatley concludes ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’ by declaring that Africans can be ‘refin’d’ and welcomed by God, joining the ‘angelic train’ of people who will join God in heaven.

‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’ is written in iambic pentameter and, specifically, heroic couplets: rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter, rhymed aabbccdd. We can see this metre and rhyme scheme from looking at the first two lines:

’Twas MER-cy BROUGHT me FROM my PA-gan LAND,
Taught MY be-NIGHT-ed SOUL to UN-der-STAND

Heroic couplets were used, especially in the eighteenth century when Phillis Wheatley was writing, for verse which was serious and ‘weighty’: heroic couplets were so named because they were used in verse translations of classical epic poems by Homer and Virgil, i.e., the serious and grand works of great literature. In using heroic couplets for ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’, Wheatley was drawing upon this established English tradition, but also, by extension, lending a seriousness to her story – and her moral message – which she hoped her white English readers would heed.