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Religion, specifically Christianity, gives Phillis Wheatley an avenue with which to connect and influence her readers. Wheatley appears to embrace Christianity without offering criticism or highlighting hypocrisies. However, a deeper reading of her poetry suggests that she uses her newfound religion to deliver a message on the injustices of slavery. Within “On Being Brought from Africa to America”, Phillis Wheatley strives to utilize Christianity with an emphasis on redemption, so that there is a hidden implication of equality and the notion that all slaves are capable of being saved.
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The first four lines of Wheatley’s poem, “On Being Brought from Africa to America”, confirm the ideals of Christianity:
’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
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That there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Within these lines, she admits that she was once a pagan, but God removed her of this sin and lead her to the path of redemption. Instead of beginning with a condemnation of slavery she calls it “mercy brought me from my Pagan land” (Wheatley, “On Being Brought from Africa to America”, line 1). Further she implies that her finding of a God and savior has allowed her once stained soul to be redeemed (lines 2-4). This simple confirmation of the Christian belief system would have made this poem extremely well received during the time in which it was written.
Wheatley credits slavery as having a positive impact on her life because it brought her to Christianity. While her Christian faith was authentic, it was also a safe subject for a slave poet in a dominantly white society. Expressing gratitude for her enslavement may be unexpected to most readers. However, it was the only way that Wheatley could relate to her audience at the time and portray her message without being condemned. She uses the phrase “mercy brought me” (line 1) and the title “On Being Brought” in order to downplay the violence of being kidnapped and forced into slavery. This is could also be read as denying power to those people that captured her. She does not submit herself to them, but gives all the credit to God.
Wheatley’s rational for condemning her former beliefs most probably developed from her fragile position in American society. In order for her poetry to be well acknowledged, it would have had to appeal to a white Christian society. Her audience would have been quite interested in the idea of a black woman renouncing her pagan ways in favor of Christianity. If the poem had noticeably focused on equality between slaves and whites it would have never been dispersed throughout the white society. The non-confrontational tone that Wheatley uses along with the idea that slaves can become Christians, inertly leads the reader to conclude that slavery is wrong both in a moral and religious sense.
In the last four lines of “On Being Brought from Africa to America”, Wheatley subtly establishes the notion of equality between all races:
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’angelic train.
In the seventh line of the poem, Wheatley writes “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain” (“On Being Brought from Africa to America”, line 7). The biblical reference to Cain is used to draw a parallel between the racist idea that African Americans are slaves because they are cursed making slavery just, and that Christianity is a religion of redemption and harmony, thus slavery should not exist. The belief that slaves were the descendants of cursed biblical people is used by Wheatley to convey that even if these people were cursed, it does not justify enslaving the African American race.
The last two lines of the poem state that, “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain/May be refin’d, and join th’angelic train” (lines 7-8). Wheatley is essentially saying that even if African Americans represent the curse of Cain because of their black skin, this should not prevent them from accepting God and being saved. She is stating that any person of any skin color can become a Christian and go to heaven. She is arguing against slavery in a way hidden from the passive reader. At first glance, it may appear that Wheatley is simply suggesting that blacks can become Christians and go to heave. However, a deeper reading shows how she is hinting that blacks and whites are equal and will go to heaven together. She uses Christianity as a tool here to emphasize equality among races.
Wheatley articulates her consciousness of black struggles in a white-dominated society in this poem. William Van Deburg states in his book, Slavery and Race in American Popular Culture, although she believed that God has rescued her from paganism, “She criticized whites for their shallow understanding of spiritual equality” (56). By putting the line “Their colour is a diabolic die” (line 6) in quotation marks, Wheatley suggests that while others attach negative associations to blackness, she would not. If whites were truly Christians and practiced these beliefs they would not judge people by their color. For Christianity is the belief that all can be redeemed and saved.
Wheatley’s use of the word “sable” (line 5) can be read has having a double meaning. If interpreted as the color of grief, it suggests that she and her entire race are in mourning. However, sable could be viewed as a reference to valuable and desirable animal fur indicating her disgust for the negative value placed on the blackness of skin. By asking the whites to “Remember” (line 7), she effectively cautions them for forgetting the real Christian truth behind one of the main religious arguments supporting slavery, the biblical story of Cain. Wheatley was reminding her white readers about the religious hypocrisy in regards to her blackness, and if that blackness is presumably Cain’s mark then true Christians should defend and not abuse Africans.
Phillis Wheatley’s poetry leads the way for the abolitionist movement decades later. Her writings of the injustice of slavery are mild, but are not devoid of racial consciousness and personal declarations for reform. She uses religion of Christianity throughout her works to relate to her audience, but also to advocate racial equality. She shows that one does not have to be arrogant and demanding to get their message across to others. She uses a more aesthetic way to influence and impact readers for generations.
Van Deburg, William. Slavery and Race in American Popular Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.
Wheatley, Phillis. “Poems:Phillis Wheatley.” January 1998. Renaissance Editions. 24
February 2009 <http://www.uoregon.edu/~rbear/wheatley.html>.
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