Notes on Phillis Wheatley

Notes on Phillis Wheatley

Wheatley is arguably one of the most discussed authors of her time. Her success is an accumulation of the many rare circumstances that she was afforded in life. One could argue that it was pure luck that afforded her the opportunity to be educated and published in a society that still supported slavery. Whetleys poetry has been received in many ways over many generations. Some support and understand her point of view while others criticize it and feel that she is a sell out and an Uncle Tom.

Whatever ones opinion about her works may be, it is a fact that Phillis Wheatley was alented beyond her years and circumstances. One work that can best articulate the reasoning behind individuals mixed points of view regarding Wheatley is her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America”. It is important to give background on the life of Wheatley so that it will be easier to analyze the motivations of poetry. By looking back on how she came into her education and literary abilities it is easy to see why she felt so strong in her convictions in this poem.

While the date and place of her birth are not documented, it is believed that Phillis Wheatley was born in 1753 in West Africa, and that during er childhood she was brought to British-ruled Boston, Massachusetts on July 1 1, 1761, on a slave ship named The Phillis own by Timothy Fitch and captained by Peter Gwinn. At the age of seven, she was sold to the wealthy Boston merchant and tailor John Wheatley, who bought her as a servant for his wife Susanna. John and Susanna Wheatley chose to name her Phillis, after the ship that had brought her to America.

They also gave her their last name of Wheatley, as was a common custom during the time, if slaves had any last name at all. The Wheatleys eighteen-year-old daughter, Mary, first tutored Phillis in reading and writing. Their son Nathaniel also helped her. John Wheatley was a progressive throughout New England; his family gave Phillis an education that was rare for an enslaved person, let alone a female of any race. By twelve, Phillis was reading Greek and Latin classics as well as scriptures from the Bible.

The Wheatleys recognized Phillis’ literary ability and the Wheatley family supported her education and left the household labor to their other domestic slaves. The Wheatleys often showcased Phillis’ literary abilities to friends and family. Strongly influenced by her studies of seasoned and talented authors like Alexander Pope, John Milton, Homer, Horace and Virgil, Phillis Wheatley began to write poetry. It seemed that the Wheatleys found it a matter of great importance that her work was authenticated. This was most likely because many white colonists found it difficult to believe that an African slave was writing excellent poetry.

They enlisted the assistance of many men who were monumentally influential in society. Among these men were Thomas Hutchinson, Massachusetts governor, Andrew Oliver, the lieutenant governor, Rev. Mather Byles and Rev. Charles Chauncey, as well as John Hancock, Thomas Hubbard, Dr. Benjamin Rush, James Bowdin, and John Erring. It was definitely a step forward for a black woman in this time period to have passed what may have been a quite rigorous authentication by such highly regarded white men. It words using Latin or Greek. It is fortunate that the Whetleys had enough forethought to have Phillis vetted as an author.

Being a female author at the time was somewhat common but it was not as greatly respected as a male author would have been. Not only was Phillis a woman but she was an enslaved black woman. Had Phillis not been authenticated, by such prominent and powerful men, he work would definitely have ever been published and she may have gone the way of many other great but unknown authors of her time, black or white. 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 dye. ” Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, May be refin’d, and Join th’ angelic train. At first glance this poem by Phillis seems a bit off putting, but now that we know her background it will be a little clearer as to why she wrote what she wrote. Perhaps it was because she had conflicting feelings about the institution. In the above poem, it seems as though she praises slavery because it brought her to Christianity.

But, in another poem, she wrote that slavery was a cruel fate. Wheatley begins by crediting her slavery as a positive, because it has brought her to Christianity. While her Christian faith was surely genuine, it was also a “safe” subject for a slave poet. Expressing gratitude for her enslavement may be unexpected but Wheatleys experience was so different that that of many slaves at that time. Her use f the word “benighted” is also interesting: it meaning is “overtaken by night or darkness” or “being in a state of moral or intellectual darkness. Therefore we see Phillis making her skin color and her original state of ignorance of Christian redemption parallel situations. She also uses the phrase “mercy brought me” and the title “on being brought” ; deftly down-playing the violence of the kidnapping of a child and the voyage on a slave ship, so as to not seem a dangerous critic of slavery, but at the same time crediting not the slave trade, but (divine) mercy with the act. This could be read as denying the power to those human beings who kidnapped her and subjected her to the voyage and to her subsequent sale and submission.

She credits “mercy” with her voyage, but also with her education in Christianity. Both were actually at the hands of human beings. In turning both to God, she reminds her audience that there is a force more powerful than they are a force that has acted directly in her life. Phillis cleverly distances her reader from those who “view our sable race with scornful eye” ,perhaps thus nudging the reader to a more critical view of slavery or at least a more positive view of those who are slaves.

Sable” as a self-description of her color is a very interesting choice of words. Sable is very of the next line. “Diabolic die” may also be a subtle reference to another side of the “triangle” trade which includes slaves. At about that same time, the Quaker leader John Woolman was boycotting dyes in order to protest slavery. In the second-to-last line, the word “Christian” is placed ambiguously. She may either be addressing her last sentence to Christians or she may be including Christians in those who “may be refined” and find salvation.

She reminds her reader that Negroes may be saved. The implication of her last sentence is also this: the “angelic train” will include both white and black. In the last sentence, she uses the verb “remember” implying that the reader is already with her and Just needs the reminder to agree with her point. She uses the verb “remember” in the form of a direct command. While echoing Puritan preachers in using this style, Phillis Wheatley is also taking on the role of one who has the right to command: a teacher, a preacher, even perhaps a master or mistress.

What can be said is that the poems of Phillis Wheatley display not only classical quality but restrained emotion as well. Many deal with the Christian sentiments she learned from her masters. Often times, Wheatley uses classical mythology and ancient history as allusions, including many references to the muses as inspiring her poetry in a clear imitation of the great authors that she had studied earlier in her life. She speaks to the white establishment, not to fellow slaves nor, really, for them.

This is most likely why individuals feel she was a traitor to her race. The perception of Wheatley’s work changed over time. In its prime it was found to be profound that the writings of a black woman could add toward the notions that blacks were ntellectually inferior and incapable of being as equally influential as their white counterparts being disapproved. However, as time progressed, blacks began to treat Wheatley’s poems as works of treason against her own race, even going as far as to call her an Uncle Tom or sellout.

What must be understood is that the time period in which Wheatley wrote and the time period in which man individuals read her works are drastically different. It is generally individuals of later generations who feel that Wheatley was a traitor to her race for speaking so highly of the whites who enslaved her. Their error is not looking into the reality of the situation. Yes, it is unfortunate that Wheatley was taken from her homeland and shipped thousands of miles on an overcrowded boat to a new nation which she knew nothing of.

The exception is that this is probably the worst part of Phillis Wheatleys experience as a slave. She had the opportunity t be well educated, and it is clear that her owners cared well for her. There is no doubt that she was well fed and well dressed. The Wheatleys certainly were not going to have her appear and travel as a representation of them in an unkempt appearance. Phillis certainly knew that there was a cruel and unfair side of enslavemt but she didn’t experience it and that was showcased in her poems.

It seems almost unfair to blame her for writing her opinions on the experience in slavery that she had. Instead of criticizing Wheatley’s poems individuals should Just take them for what they are and learning from them. Each time period is filled with authors who have different points of view and different subjects that are important to them as writers. Rather than viewing Wheatleys works as an act of treason they what it was like for slaved during that time period.

It is most likely that Whetley was not the only slave who did not have the typical “slave experience” and was afforded opportunities rare for the masses. “On Being Brought from Africa to America” is one of Phillis Wheatleys most discussed pieces. Her points of view are profound and her experience is rare. This is almost more of a history piece than a poem because it allows insight on every aspect of the experience of slavery. Although all may not agree with her views, it cannot be removed that her intellect and abilities reached far beyond her years and gave her works the resilience to transcend generations.