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Phillis Wheatley: African Poetry in America Video

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  • 0:09 From Slave to Poet
  • 1:35 On Being Brought...
  • 2:16 Religion
  • 3:41 Race
  • 5:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Phillis Wheatley was a slave and poet in 18th century America who wrote about religion and race. In this lesson, we'll learn more about her and examine one of her poems for the themes of religion and race.

From Slave to Poet

In 1761, Boston businessman John Wheatley and his wife Susannah bought a sickly slave girl who they named Phillis. The child was most likely seven or eight at the time, and had been taken from Africa and brought to the Massachusetts colony to be sold. At first, the Wheatleys didn't expect much of Phillis. They bought her to be a house slave and help with domestic chores. But within 16 months, she was speaking English and reading the Bible fluently. She asked for more, and Susannah, impressed with Phillis' precociousness, educated her in between the chores that she was still expected to do.

When she was a teenager, Wheatley began to write and publish poems, making her the first African American poet to be published and only the second woman from America to be published, after Anne Bradstreet. Wheatley's poems were wildly successful, and she was celebrated in her life as a great American writer. She focused mainly on religious themes, but almost always discussed race in her poems, as well.

Wheatley was the first published African American poet
Phillis Wheatley Image

The fact that so many white Americans and Britons loved her poetry was a testament to both how well-written they were and how clever Wheatley was in her language. In many of her poems, race is discussed so subtly that her readers didn't fully realize what she was talking about. Let's look at one of her early poems, 'On Being Brought from Africa to America', to see how Wheatley tackled religion and race in her works.

'On Being Brought...'

'On Being Brought from Africa to America' was published when Wheatley was about 16. It is a short poem, but a powerful one. Let's read and then analyze it.

'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.

Religion

On the surface, this poem is a simple ode to Christianity and the grace of God. Wheatley lived in the colonies at a time when religion was an important part of everyday life and she celebrates this in her poem. The opening lines of the poem call her kidnapping in Africa a 'mercy' because it brought her to understand/That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too. In other words, despite the fact that she was taken into slavery, Wheatley says, it was a good thing because she found religion. To the religious white community around her, this appears to be a celebration of the good they have done for their slaves, though as we'll see later, the message is more complex than that.

The second half of the poem turns the tables. She reminds Christians that the message of the Bible is one of inclusion and says that even black slaves can join th' angelic train. That is, even the most outcast of society can be accepted into heaven and saved. As a religious poem, 'On Being Brought from Africa to America' follows closely parables in the Bible like that of the Good Samaritan or the parable of the sheep and the goats.

In these stories, Jesus preached the way that God's grace can come from the most unlikely sources and flow to the most unlikely people. Wheatley echoes these sentiments; her enslavement is a source of God's grace, and her dark skin is testament to how God's grace can touch even those that society deems unfit.

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