Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” by Phillis Wheatley

 

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, ChristiansNegros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

 

Phillis Wheatley was the first African-American poet to publish a book. Born in 1753 in West Africa, she was enslaved and sold to John Wheatley in New England in 1761. A precocious intellect, Wheatley quickly learned to read and write English and studied Latin, Greek, the Bible, and selected classics. She began writing poetry at age thirteen, garnering national acclaim for publication in major cities including Boston and London of her poem “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield.”

In 1771, she accompanied John Wheatley’s son to London, where her work was well received. In 1773, she published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, a book whose poems include elegies and poems on Christian themes and on race, including “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” the subject of today’s feature. Wheatley was eventually freed, and after John Wheatley and his wife died, supported herself as a seamstress and poet. In 1776, she wrote a letter and poem in support of George Washington, who replied with an invitation to visit him in Cambridge. In 1778, she married John Peters and with him had three children who did not survive childhood. Unable to raise funds for a second volume of her work, Wheatley died alone in a boardinghouse on December 5, 1784, at the age of  thirty-one. Many of the poems for her proposed second book have been lost. [Editor’s Note: This bio is from the American Academy of Poets website.]

 

Editor’s Note by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

February is Black History Month, and the next four columns will be devoted to work by black women writers. In today’s, contemporary poet Camille Dungy presents a poem by Phillis Wheatley. The following week, a Valentine’s Day column features “Chocolate,” a wonderfully erotic poem by US Poet Laureate emerita Rita Dove from her book American Smooth. The next Poetry Sunday column presents three poems from Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, another black woman predecessor poet from a previous century, and we’ll wrap up the month with an excerpt from Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine’s groundbreaking and powerful book published in 2014.

 

Guest Column: Camille Dungy on “On Being Brought from Africa to America” by Phillis Wheatley

In 1761, when she was about seven years old, the girl we have come to know as Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped from her home on the west coast of Africa. She was transported to Boston because she was too frail to be of practical use on the physically demanding sugar plantations of the South. She learned English, Greek, and Latin. But she remained enslaved. Twelve years later, in 1773, this same girl would become the first black person to publish a book in English. From that collection comes “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” one of the most amazing poems I have ever read.

The poem itself follows the neoclassical model—it’s concerned with order, structure, reason. We see it in the rhyme, the meter, in its controlled organization, and also its logic. There is an orderly series of four heroic couplets. There are the requisite nods to Christian ideals. In the mode of her time, Wheatley’s poem is clean, uncorrupted. Practically dismissible, it seems so perfect.

But this is not a poem to be easily dismissed. Scan it with me. In doing so, you’ll see some of the ways Wheatley uses the apparent order of the poem to reveal an entirely different line of reasoning than what might be evident at first glance. There is practically a secret code inside this poem. The “save” in “Saviour” is stressed, the “Christ” in “Christian,” the word “black” in the penultimate line, and the word “join” at the poem’s end. The word “die” at the end of a line about the “diabolic” skin tone of black people is stressed along with the “di-” in “diabolic,” and both syllables are close enough in proximity to create a shocking internal rhyme. This all has something to do with English itself, with where stresses naturally fall in particular words, but the way that these words are put together in Wheatley’s poem directs whether and how we attend to them. Wheatley knew this. She uses the logic of the structure of metrical verse as a means toward revelation and resistance.

We see this same thing throughout the poem in her use of punctuation, in her rare enjambment, in the ways she plays with allusions, and especially in the fun she has with the homonymic potential of the English language. Toward the latter two points, I will never cease to wonder at her play on the word “Cain” to indicate the potential for refinement (and, therefore, exalted status) of the darker of the two sons of Adam and Eve, as well as the expected refinement (and, therefore, salvation) of the sugar cane (and sugar cane workers) at the center of the slave trade. Wheatley revels in the ways that something can appear to have one conclusion and also another.

This neoclassical poem, written by an enslaved young woman, barely out of her teens, is rebellious even as it appears to follow all the rules. It is about the complicated blessing of being kidnapped from her home and sold into slavery in a land where she is able to learn about the order and structure of Western traditions (including Christianity), and it has at its heart words, phrases, and lines that can be read (completely logically) in a number of ways. At every turn, she undermines and complicates the logic to which she is bound. I love that! I love her.

The essay above is from “12 poems to read for black history month.” Its author, the poet Camille Dungy, was featured in this column here on 5/24/15.

 

Born in Denver in 1972, Camille Dungy received a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She is the author of Trophic Cascade (Wesleyan University Press 2017), Smith Blue (Southern Illinois University Press 2011), the 2010 Crab Orchard Open Book Prize-winning Suck on the Marrow (Red Hen Press 2010), and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (Red Hen Press 2006). She is also the author of Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History(W.W. Norton 2017), editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (UGA 2009) and coeditor of From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great (Persea 2009). Among Dungy’s honors are fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Cave Canem, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference; an American Book Award; two Northern California Book Awards; a California Book Award silver medal; and a fellowship from the NEA. Dungy is currently a professor in the English Department at Colorado State University. Author photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Trophic Cascade is available for order here.

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