‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’ was written by Phillis Wheatley and published in her collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773. This poem is a real-life account of Wheatley’s experiences. She was the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry and was brought to America and enslaved in 1761.
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In the lines of this piece, Wheatley addresses all those who see her and other enslaved people as less because of their skin tone. She wants them all to know that she was brought by “mercy” to America and to religion. This, she thinks, means that anyone, no matter their skin tone or where they’re from can find God and salvation.
Wheatley’s most prominent themes in this piece are religion, freedom, and equality. The latter is implied, at least religiously, in the last lines. This poem is more about the power of God than it is about equal rights, but it is still touched on. She believes that her discovery of God, after being forcibly enslaved in America, was the best thing that could’ve happened to her. Her religion has changed her life entirely and clearly she believes the same can happen for anyone else.
‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’ by Phillis Wheatley is a short, eight-line poem that is structured with a rhyme scheme of AABBCCDD. This simple and consistent pattern makes sense for Wheatley’s straightforward message.
In regards to the meter, Wheatley makes use of the most popular pattern, iambic pentameter. This means that each line, with only a couple of questionable examples, is made up of five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed. By using this meter, Wheatley was attempting to align her poetry with that of the day, making sure that the primary white readers would accept it.
Wheatley makes use of several literary devices in ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’. These include but are not limited to personification, allusion, and alliteration. The first, personification, is seen in the first lines in which the poet says it was “mercy” that brought her to America.
Alliteration is a common and useful device that helps to increase the rhythm of the poem. For example, “Saviour” and “sought” in lines three and four as well as “diabolic die” in line six.
There is a good example of an allusion in the last lines when the poet refers to “Cain”. This is a reference to the biblical Book of Genesis and the two sons of Adam. Cain murdered his brother and was marked for the rest of time.
‘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.
In the first lines of ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America,’ Wheatley states that it was “mercy” that brought her to America from her “Pagan land,” Africa. Despite what might first come to someone’s mind who knows anything about slavery in the United States, she saw it as an act of kindness. This is all due to the fact that she was able to learn about “God” and Christianity. Her “benighted,” or troubled soul was saved in the process. She knew “redemption” through this transition and banished all sorrow from her life.
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.
She addresses her African heritage in the next lines, stating that there are many who look down on her and those who look like her. If you have “sable” or dark-colored skin then you are seen with a “scornful eye”. This color, the speaker says, may think is a sign of the devil.
In the final lines, Wheatley addresses any who think this way. She asks that they remember that anyone, no matter their skin color, can be said by God. They can “join th’ angelic train”. The use of “th’” and “refin’d” rather than “the” and “refined” in this line is an example of syncope.
This very religious poem is similar to many others that have been written over the last four hundred years. Some of the best include ‘A Hymn to God the Father’ by John Donne (Donne is a great source for religious poetry), ‘The Collar’ by George Herbert (a less strict religious poem that includes the questioning of religion) as well as Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’. The latter is a devotion poem and elegy written after the death of a cloys friend. It is often cited as Tennyson’s best.