Looking at the life story of Phillis Wheatley, it is really unlikely that she should ever have become a published poet. Not only was she the first black author to be a published poet, but she is a black female author who was published during a time when black people were not supposed to read and write. Wheatley lived during a time of slavery. She did not have many memories of freedom because she was brought from Africa when she was only 7 years old (“Library of Congress”). She was purchased by the Wheatley family upon arriving on shore. This was a lucky break for Phillis because the Wheatley’s were kind to her and encouraged her to become a poet by educating her. The fact that the Wheatley’s were willing to go against social norms, and actually embraced little Phillis rather than punishing her for wanting to read and write, is what ultimately led to Phillis Wheatley becoming the first published black poet: “Her first poem was published in the Newport Mercury newspaper in 1767.” (“Library of Congress”). Because of the Wheatley’s kindness to Phillis, she was able to overcome obstacles that might have held her back, even in her native country of Africa. Therefore, in Wheatley’s poem entitled On Being Brought from Africa to America, she actually seems to express gratitude for essentially being kidnapped and brought to America. One must be careful not to think that Wheatley approves of slavery by this type of praise, but she approves of the ability that she has found to read and write, but mostly that she has found God and Christianity. Left to her own devices, in Africa, she might have remained a Pagan.
It is unknown the exact date of Phillis Wheatley’s birth, but it is thought that she was born in the mid-1700’s: “Phillis Wheatley was born in Africa (probably Senegal) about 1753 or 1754. When she was about eight years old, she was kidnapped and brought to Boston.” (Lewis). Her location is even unknown, but most likely she was born in Senegal. What happened after she arrived is that she was brought here in 1761, and that she was bought by the Wheatley family as a servant for Mrs. Wheatley, However, after she was there for a little bit, she began to try things that were not acceptable for black people, such as writing. Usually a slave master would have punished any slave who tried to learn how to read or write. Slave masters did not want their slaves to know how to read and write because there was no way that kept their slaves enslaved better than keeping them illiterate. Therefore, it was dangerous for white people to even allow their slaves to become educated. It could be said that the Wheatley family was daring, because they not only permitted Phillis’ learning to read and write, but they actually allowed their daughter to be her private tutor, (Lewis).
Because the Wheatleys were so kind to Phillis, she was able to excel in ways that she might not have excelled if left in her native land. This is the context for her poem, On Being Brought from Africa to America. The first two lines make the reader think that this slave is grateful for coming to America, however: “This appreciative statement is only for God’s work. It is important that students understand that she not thanking the system of slavery or white people.” (Sullivan 178). It is easy to read the lines as though Wheatley actually approves of slavery because it ended up bringing her to know God. That is not the case. It does not take slavery to know God, but it just so happens that slavery eventually led Phillis out of her native belief system. Actually, the willingness of the Wheatley family is what truly allowed Phillis to become a poet, so the conclusion can be made that slavery was what brought Phillis into becoming Christian, but only because her slave masters treated her differently than the average slave. She was given classes, and had time to study.
Therefore, when Wheatley writes the first two lines of the poem: “’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land, / Taught my benighted soul to understand” (Wheatley 1-2). The word benighted says it all; meaning that she is morally corrupt because of unknown reasons in her homeland of Africa, but because of mercy, i.e. God, or goodness of the universe, she has found Christianity and escaped her Pagan ways. This is not to mean that she condones slavery and expects people to be just fine after becoming slaves with the fact that they are slaves. It says the contrary. It is more that out of the horrors of slavery there was a merciful light at the end of the tunnel, one that allowed a better life than without slavery. Slavery is not a means to get to this light, it was just the unfortunate circumstance that brought. Her success was due mainly because she was treated differently than other slaves: “She was not quite part of the white Wheatley family, nor did she quite share the place and experiences of other slaves.” (Lewis). The place that she occupied was somewhere in between white and black. Maybe this is why she was able to pursue poetry and publish, because nothing was a more unlikely feat for a black woman in the 1770’s.
- Lewis, Jone Johnson. “Slave Poet of Colonial America-Analysis of Her Poems”. About Education, 2016, womenshistory.about.com/od/aframerwriters/a/wheatley_poems.htm. Accessed 26 Sep. 2016.
- Library of Congress. “Phillis Wheatley: The First African American Book of Published Poetry, September 1, 1773.” America’s Story from America’s Library, 2016, www.americaslibrary.gov/jb/revolut/jb_revolut_poetslav_3.html. Accessed 26 Sep. 2016.
- Sullivan, Amanda. “Early American Literature in the Elementary School Classroom”. Undergraduate Review, 6, (176-180), 2010. vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1173&context=undergrad_rev. Accessed 26 Sep. 2016.
- Wheatley, Phillis. “On Being Brought from Africa to America”, 1773. Poetryfoundation.org. www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45465. Accessed 26 Sep. 2016.