Analysis of Poem "On Being Brought From Africa to America" by Phillis Wheatley
Phillis Wheatley and On Being Brought From Africa to America
On Being Brought From Africa to America is an unusual poem because it was written by a black woman who was a slave back in the days when black people could be bought and sold at will by white owners.
Phillis Wheatley was abducted from her home in Africa at the age of 7 in 1753 and taken by ship to America, where she ended up as the property of one John Wheatley, of Boston. She took the surname of this man, as was the tradition, but her first name came from the slave ship The Phillis, which brought her to America.
During her time with the Wheatley family Phillis showed a keen talent for learning and was soon proficient in English. At the age of 14 she published her first poem in a local newspaper and went on to publish books and pamphlets.
In 1773 Poems of Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared. In it was the poem that is now taught in schools and colleges all over the world, a fitting tribute to the first ever black female poet in America.
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.
On Being Brought From Africa to America is eight lines long, a single stanza, four rhyming couplets formed into a block. All the end-rhymes are full, for example: land/understand...Cain/train.
It has a steady rhythm, the classic iambic pentameter of five beats per line giving it a traditional pace when reading:
Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
Poetic devices are thin on the ground in this short poem but note the thread of silent consonants brought/Taught/benighted/sought and the hard consonants scornful/diabolic/black/th'angelic which bring texture and contrast to the sound.
Alliteration occurs with diabolic dye and there is an allusion to the old testament character Cain, son of Adam and Eve.
Line by Line Analysis
Lines 1- 4
The speaker begins by declaring that it was a blessing, a free act of God's compassion that brought her out of Africa, a pagan land.This appreciative attitude is humble acknowledgement of the virtues of a Christian country like America. Despite the hardships endured and the terrible injustices suffered there is a dignified approach to the situation.
Conditions on board some of the slave ships are known to have been horrendous; many died from illness; many were drowned. Whilst there is no mention of the physical voyage or abduction or emotional stress, the experience came about through the compassion of God.
Surviving the long and challenging voyage depended on luck and for some, divine providence or intervention.
The speaker has learned of God, become enlightened, is aware of the life of Christ on Earth and is now saved, having previously no knowledge or need of the redemption of the soul.
- benighted - taken over by moral and intellectual darkness, ignorance.
- redemption - being saved from sin and evil.
Lines 5 - 8
The first four lines concentrate on the retrospective experience of the speaker - having gained knowledge of the new religion, Christianity, she can now say that she is a believer, a convert. The speaker takes the high moral ground and is not bitter or resentful - rather the voice is calm and grateful. There is no mention of forgiveness or of wrongdoing.
Line 5 does represent a shift in the mood/tone of the poem. The speaker makes a claim, an observation, implying that black people are seen as no better than animals - a sable - to be treated as merchandise and nothing more.
And with this powerful statement introduces the idea that prejudice, bigotry and racism towards black people is wrong and anti-Christian.
White people are given a lesson in basic Christian ethics. Being made a slave is one thing, but having white Christians call black a diabolic dye, suggesting that black people are black because they're evil, is something else entirely.
- sable - black; (also a small animal with dark brown or black fur. The fur is highly valued)
A strong reminder in line 7 is aimed at those who see themselves as God-fearing - Christians - and is a thinly veiled manifesto, somewhat ironic, declaring that all people are equal in the eyes of God, capable of joining the angelic host.
- Cain - son of Adam and Eve, who murdered his brother Abel through jealousy. God punished him with the fugitive and vagabond and yieldless crop curse.
All in all a neat package of a poem that is memorable and serves a purpose. Whilst showing restraint and dignity, the speaker's message gets through plain and clear - black people are not evil and before God, all are welcome, none turned away.
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© 2017 Andrew Spacey