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.
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.
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.
But, of course, there is much more going on inside the poem than a simple ode to Christianity. This poem is as much about race as about religion, and while some of her discussion on race is obvious, some of it is couched in words that carry more than one meaning. The second half of the poem, of course, discusses race in clear terms: she says that some whites believe that blacks are related to the devil, that the color of their skin is a diabolic die. But, she reminds them, even the darkest of Africans can make it to heaven to join th’ angelic train.
There’s more to Wheatley’s discussion on race than that simple message. Look again at the fourth line of the poem: Once I redemption neither sought nor knew. As the last line in the first half of the poem, the message on the surface of this is pretty straightforward: before she was enslaved, Wheatley didn’t know about God, and, therefore, she didn’t seek his redemption. However, there’s another message hidden within that line.
For the first time in African American literature, Wheatley is asserting that African slaves once had an identity outside of the realm of what the white Christian slave owners had given them. When brought to the United States, African slaves were renamed with Christian names, and had their previous identities in Africa wiped clean.
In the fourth line of the poem, Wheatley is declaring that there was an identity before she became the slave known as Phillis Wheatley. She is asserting her own power here and declaring that she is much more than simply who she has become. She is also the girl who neither sought nor knew the world of white America.
Of course, once you realize the double meaning of that fourth line, the rest of the poem takes on a different tone. Now, instead of simply and meekly saying, ‘Hey, listen, God loves and saves all of us,’ it’s as if Wheatley has taken a more assertive tone. She forcefully reminds the reader that though she may be black as Cain; she also might become an angel of the Lord. The end of the poem becomes as much a warning as a reminder to the white Christians: remember that God’s grace extends to me, and if you deny that, you are denying God.
Phillis Wheatley was the first African American poet. Bought as a slave when she was very young, she became a celebrated writer of the colonies. Her poems, including ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America,’ both celebrate religion and examine race issues at a time when slavery was still the norm in America.
Upon completion of this lesson, you should recognize that Phillis Wheatley was the first African American poet and her work, which tackled the themes of religion and race, was popular with white Americans and Britons.