On Being Brought from Africa to America by Phillis Wheatley: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:00 Who Was Phillis Wheatley?
  • 0:56 The Poem
  • 1:29 Poem Summary
  • 2:16 Structure
  • 6:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sophie Starmack

Sophia has taught college French and composition. She has master's degrees in French and in creative writing.

'On Being Brought from Africa to America' is the most famous poem by Phillis Wheatley, an African-American poet who gained literary success in her day, despite living in slavery. We'll explain and analyze the poem's meanings in this lesson.

Who Was Phillis Wheatley?

Phillis Wheatley, who lived from 1753-1784, had a life story that would qualify her for her own adventure movie. Captured in Africa as a young girl, then brought to the United States of America, she was purchased and lived as a domestic slave in a wealthy Boston household. Most unusually, Wheatley's owners taught her to read and write, and as she displayed great talent and intelligence, they encouraged her creativity and studies.

Her poetry was published during her lifetime, which is very rare for any poet, let alone a Black woman, and she eventually became quite famous, touring and reading her work in Europe and the U.S. However, she remained a slave for a large part of her life, only freed at the death of her master and mistress. Wheatley's work explores the conflicting realities of being an educated, yet enslaved, African in America.

The Poem

'On Being Brought from Africa to America' is only eight lines long. It's short enough that we can read the entire text here:

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.

Poem Summary

In line one, the speaker says that it was great luck that she was brought from Africa (the 'Pagan land') to America. In lines two through four, she says that coming to America introduced her to Christianity, which has brought her peace and salvation that she didn't even know she needed.

In lines five through six , the speaker says that some people scorn the African races, saying that their dark skin is a mark of inferiority or perhaps even evil - the 'diabolic die' refers to a taint by the devil. Lines seven through eight conclude the poem with a strong command for Christians to remember that Blacks can also become spiritual and educated ('refin'd') and that they are just as worthy of a place in society and in heaven ('th' angelic train') as whites.

Structure

The poem's structure is divided into two thematic parts. The first part speaks directly from the speaker's experience of coming to America as a slave. Notice that the author writes in the first person, using 'I' to tell her story.

There is a shift in the second part of the poem. Notice how the author is now using the third person, writing about 'some' people rather than herself. Notice also that she's using the imperative, the grammatical form for giving commands. She's using forceful language to give her readers a moral lesson: if they consider themselves good 'Christians,' they must remember that Africans can be educated, enlightened, and spiritual, too.

It's important to note the rhyme and meter in the poem. Wheatley's poem is written in iambic pentameter. That means each line has exactly ten syllables, with a stress on every other syllable. The rhythm could be roughly translated as 'baBUM, baBUM, baBUM, baBUM, baBUM.' Iambic pentameter feels very natural to most English speakers, and a lot of the time, we talk this way in conversation without even knowing it. Some people say iambic pentameter feels like a heartbeat, which may account for its popularity. It's probably the most common meter for all poetry in English.

You probably noticed that 'On Being Brought from Africa to America' has an AABBCCDD rhyme scheme, with the last words in lines one through two, three through four, four through five, and seven through eight sounding alike. When a poet uses rhyme, we want to pay close attention to the words he or she links together. In the final couplet, for example, lines seven and eight link the words 'Cain' and 'train.' Cain, you may remember, was the Biblical character who slew his brother, the prototype of human evil in the Christian tradition. When Wheatley rhymes his name with 'angelic train,' she's setting up a quiet bond between the two ideas, suggesting that what appears evil may in fact be worthy of joining heaven.

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