Discordant Apologetic: Representations of Slavery in the Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

Reading the title of Phillis Wheatley’s book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, by Phyllis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston, in New England it is likely that the reader will notice both the incredible length of the title and that care has been taken to point out the race and social status of the author. The stressing of the race of the author categorizes these poems as the production of the non-white, the creations of the other, a dispatch from the subjected subject. But by representing the voice of the marginalized subject as it speaks on the topic of her slavery these poems offer an alternative perspective that differs from the dominant white supremacist narrative of her time.

The topic of Wheatley’s status as a slave is the central subject of the poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” and it begins with the interesting statement, “`Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land”. From what is commonly known about the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade it is surprising to see a practice fueled by greed that turned people into commodities described as a “mercy”. Yet the use of the word “Pagan” to describe her homeland indicates the dichotomy between the rejected pagan and the embraced Christian that is echoed throughout the poem. As the poem states, the act of mercy was to teach “that there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too”, implying that the the intent of her enslavement was to serve as a means of revealing knowledge and effecting rescue.

It is in the latter part of the poem that it turns from merely being a hymn of praise for the gift of Christianity as a result of her subjected state into a critique of the racist views that buttressed her enslavement. “Some view our race with scornful eye, `Their color is a diabolic die’” alludes to the association of blackness with evil, but the concluding lines, “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, / May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train,” counters this belief with a reminder of the Christian belief in the power of God to cleanse evil. The interesting thing about this statement is that it brings to the fore the conflict between the racism of the British culture with the alleged beliefs of their faith. The white supremacist belief in the sinister nature of blackness is not explicitly contradicted, but by invoking the imagery of refinement and angels Wheatley places white Christians in the situation where they must either assent to their Christian beliefs or deny them in favor of their racism.

Wheatley’s second poem that raises the subject of her enslavement is “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North America”. In a passage explaining her love of freedom she states, “I, young in life by seeming cruel fate Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat”. The reference to “seeming” cruelty and her home as a “fancy’d happy seat” can be seen as an echo of the earlier poem’s assertion that her enslavement was an act of mercy. However, the use of the term “snatch’d” rather than the comparatively benign term “brought” from the earlier poem undermines the apologetic tone of the line. This image of snatching is elaborated a few lines later, “Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d / That from a father seiz’d his babe beloved: Such, such was my case. And can I then but pray / Others may never feel tyrannic sway”. Rather than the agent of mercy, the slaver is portrayed as a heartless kidnapper of children and Wheatley is shown to be the victim of tyranny, not the benefactor of her new state.

So we can see that the images of slavery and Wheatley’s status as a slave are presented in contradictory ways in these poems. Slavery is both a means of imparting a blessing and an act of heartless violence. Indirect assent is given to the racist ideology of her captors in these poems but their hypocrisy and that of the surrounding culture is also called into question. Though perhaps these contradictions are inevitable when the subject expressing them does so in a medium regulated by those who maintain the oppressive structures that stole Wheatley from her home and maintain her captivity.

Works Cited

Wheatley, Phillis. “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” Unchained Voices: An

     Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth

     Century Expanded Edition. Ed. Vincent Carretta. Lexington: University Press of

     Kentucky, 2004. Nook file.

—.  “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principal

Secretary of State for North America.” Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black       

Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century Expanded            

Edition. Ed. Vincent Carretta. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004. Nook file.

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