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Phillis Wheatley: Christian
by Matthew Acton
October 9, 2001
Phillis Wheatley was a black, female poet in America when in many places in America it was illegal to educate black people of any gender. She was more than that. She was a Christian and a patriotic American at a time when many told people of her race that they weren't human enough to be worthy of Christianity or to enjoy the benefits of citizenship in America. Wheatley overcame these overwhelming obstacles and was grateful for the chance to hear the message of Christianity and grateful that she was brought to a country where she had the opportunity to read and write. She is an example to all who are oppressed in the world. More relevant to the purpose of this essay, she is an example of someone who adopted what she found to be an enlightened religion and applied her talents to try to make others realize that everyone is entitled to the benefits of the Christian gospel, regardless of race.
People in countries where a particular religion is entwined in the culture may brand their fellow citizens who adopt a different religion as traitors. Others outside that country may call them brainwashed. Wheatley was in this situation, and she tried to convince people that this wasn't true. The poem "On Being Brought from Africa to America" illustrates this point.
Wheatley wrote in the first line, "'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land.1" Could she really have meant that Africa was inherently a Pagan land? It's important to examine what she meant before the question can be answered fully. She had by the time she wrote these words adopted the Christian religion. Christians who really believe what the Bible says naturally believe that people who aren't Christians are by definition pagans. She referred to the land as pagan because the people of her land were not aware of Christ and so were as a matter of course and culture, pagans. Because the people were pagans, the land was pagan.
In the second line, Wheatley refers to her "benighted" soul. The word means exactly what it sounds like, but Wheatley uses it to illustrated what she believed was the sinful state she was in before she became a Christian. The word benighted implies darkness. She felt like before she had come to America and heard the message of Christianity and adopted it as her own, she had been in darkness. She used this also to contrast it with what her condition was when she wrote.
Wheatley felt like she had by "mercy" been brought to where she could "understand that there's a God, that there's a Saviour too." For someone who had genuinely become a faithful Christian, it was the Savior that was important. She may have had a concept of a god in her native land. She may have worshipped many gods, but the Savior that mercy had brought her to America to understand was something entirely new. A Savior would bring her out of the darkness that she believed she was in while she was in Africa. Stating that she had accepted that she could be saved was subtle way of asserting that regardless of race or national origin, a person can be saved. Africans were human too and consequently no less eligible for the gift of salvation.
The next line of "On Being Brought..." is the point in the poem at which Wheatley begins to really make her point. She writes, "Once I redemption neither fought nor knew." This reinforces the point that in her native land, the culture so incorporated the darkness that she had been in that she hadn't even realized that she was in that darkness. More importantly, the line leads to the overt point that it doesn't matter where a person comes from or what race he or she belongs to, that person can be allowed to come into the light of Christianity and enjoy its blessings.
"Some view our sable race with scornful eye." This line of Wheatley's poem is the first one that addresses the issue of racism. Wheatley writes that "some" people hate blacks and think they're less than human. Her point is that not everyone does, and as the rest of the poem continues to assert, she's certainly not one of them. Wheatley could have made this line stronger by pitting white slaveholders against Africans, most of whom were the slaves the whites owned. She didn't though. Part of this may be out of ignorance. According to the Heath Anthology, she was in only token slavery, and she was freed when she was 20 years old, old enough to take care of herself2. The line was also in keeping with the rest of the poem, however. She wanted to stress the equality of every member of the human race, black or white.
The "diabolic die" and the reference to Negroes being "black as Cain" go together. They are both references to the widely held belief among white, slaveholding "Christians" of the time that the mark God placed on Cain to keep him from being killed was black skin. The people who believed this unfounded idea used it as an excuse for holding slaves. They thought that if this was true, God was sanctioning the bondage and slavery of the black race. Cain had killed his brother Abel, and God was punishing him by sentencing him to roam the earth with a mark that allowed him to live but would be a sign to others that Cain had committed a terrible act. The Bible does not say what the mark was, and the slaveholders who needed to ease their consciences snatched up the opportunity to do so by claiming they knew what the mark was. Wheatley is using irony in the phrase, "black as Cain." She does not believe that Cain's mark was black skin, but she is sarcastically throwing the phrase back at those who do.
In the same line that she uses the phrase, "black as Cain," Wheatley begins her final statement that brings the poem together to its logical conclusion. Irony abounds in this line. She addresses "Christians" who believe that slavery, especially the cruel type of slavery America practiced at the time, was justified by the Bible.
Undoubtedly, to the consternation of those "Christians," she has the gall to say that God allows Africans, even those very slaves, to enter Heaven. The very people that many whites enslaved because they thought that God wanted them to were actually human beings, and they were just as worthy of Heaven if they were Christians as their masters were. She doesn't go so far as to say that the slaveholders weren't Christian, but the idea that master and slave could both join "th' angelic train" must have angered any slaveholder who dared to read the poem.
Finally, anyone who thinks that the poem "On Being Brought from Africa to America" is not to be taken literally is probably reading it in a vacuum, so to speak. Even a cursory reading of Phillis Wheatley's other writings indicate a genuine belief in the Christian God and concept of salvation. Also, there are less subtle statements against racism in those other writings of Wheatley.
Phillis Wheatley had come to America and endured the slavery and later racism of America. Even though her slavery had been "token," it was slavery after all. She was in bondage because of her race. Also, many of her poems were not published in America during her lifetime because the vast majority of white Americans didn't want to accept a black writer3. But, she is an example of how a person can overcome great, seemingly overwhelming, obstacles to be grateful for what she's been given by what she sees as divine providence and still not forget or "scorn" the people of her native land.