Your Equal Genius in Softer language

Does not your soul possess the sacred flame?

Thus Phillis Wheatley wrote in the first stanza of “To Maecenas,”  a poem in which she questions Maecenas, the great art patron of the Augustan Era. Drawing parallels between ancient Rome and colonial America, she exposed glaring commonalities, namely, slavery. Referring to the ancient poet Terence, himself an enslaved man, she placed an asterisk next to his name, which led the reader to a simple footnote: “He was an African by birth.”

Challenges to slavery and inequality were a defining feature of her work. America’s first published female Black poet, Phillis Wheatley was born free, enslaved as a child, purchased by a family in colonial Massachusetts, and eventually liberated. She channeled her life experiences into poetry that reflected upon the fundamental founding principle of equal opportunity.

At age fifteen, in 1768 Wheatley wrote perhaps her most famous poem, “On Being Brought From Africa to America.” Though a mere eight lines, the poem stands as a testament to her genius as well as the revolutionary nature of her world.

Below is her poem:

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.

On Board a Slave Ship, Joseph Swain, 1835

A South-East View of the City of Boston in North America, 1730

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kidnapped into slavery from Senegambia at age seven, Wheatley survived the perilous Middle Passage on the slave ship Phillis and landed in the port of Boston in August 1761. There she was purchased by John and Susanna Wheatley, a prominent Bostonian family. Named for the ship that brought her to America and the family that enslaved her, young Phillis Wheatley impressed the family with her precociousness, learning to read, write, and speak English within the first year or so of her arrival. Consequently, the Wheatley family took the relatively unprecedented step of educating her, a young Black woman, in the liberal arts, which included the Greek and Latin classics as well as scripture.

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand

The first line of the poem introduces two major themes: religion and irony. While “mercy” and “Pagan” obviously refer to her conversion to Christianity, she italicizes “Pagan”  to remind her readers of their own assumptions, namely, the inferiority of Africans. She then notes the irony of how being “Pagan” rendered Africans susceptible to the “mercy” of enslavement by Christian Europeans.

Wheatley’s use of “benighted” showcases further her firm grasp of irony through double-entendre: “benighted” can mean “under the cover of darkness” as much as ignorance. Yet by writing that her “soul” was benighted, Wheatley subtly inserts fundamental human equality as a quality possessed by every person, enslaved or free.

Written when she was seventeen years old, “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitfield,” brought Wheatley national and international acclaim. Published in Boston and Philadelphia in 1770, Wheatley’s elegy remarked on how Whitefield hoped to see America “excel” through divinely inspired “future actions.”

Once again, Wheatley hinted that future actions may include equality, as she placed Americans and Africans on an equal level by stating Whitefield brought the “Saviour” to both groups.

 

 

Wheatley’s elegy was published in London in 1771 and a year later Susanna Wheatley began soliciting Bostonians to support a collection of her poems. Lacking support for her work in the American colonies, Wheatley traveled to London at age 20. Impressed with the young poet’s genius, there the noted advocate of abolitionism Countess Selina Hastings funded her first book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, which was published on September 1, 1773. While in London, Wheatley met with Benjamin Franklin, who was so impressed with her that he “offer’d her any Services I could do her,” and she later apparently decided to dedicate her second book to him.

 

 

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”

Despite her popularity among the London elite and founders like Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and John Hancock, the last of whom served on a committee that corroborated Wheatley’s authorship of her first book, Wheatley encountered economic precarity after being freed upon her return to Boston in 1774. As in other major colonial American cities, free Blacks faced economic hardships and racism, as many White colonists barred them from gainful employment. Wheatley persevered, though, and continued writing poetry and letters attacking slavery.

 

Focusing on fundamental human equality, she wrote to Native American minister Samson Occom (above) in 1774 that “In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom.”

George Washington, Charles Willson Peale, 1776

 

A year later, the start of the American Revolution inspired Wheatley to pen a poem in honor of George Washington (right). In praising Washington, whom she presented as the embodiment of the independence movement, Wheatley emphasized “freedom’s cause” in the “land of freedom” as the essential hallmark of American virtue. She sent this poem to Washington, who called it “a striking proof of your great poetical Talents.” He invited Wheatley to meet with him at his headquarters, where she received a “very courteous reception” in early 1776.

 

Thomas Jefferson, Charles Willson Peale, 1791

Not all the founders shared Washington’s fondness for Wheatley’s poetry. Thomas Jefferson dismissed her as a fake, stating that “compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.” Yet a number of Jefferson’s contemporaries rebuked his opinion of Wheatley, including Samuel Stanhope Smith, President of the College of New Jersey, who demanded that Jefferson “or any other man who is acquainted with American planters, how many of those masters could have written poems equal to those of Phillis Whately [sic]?” Perhaps Jefferson felt threatened by Wheatley not only because of his views on race, but also because she, too, had much to say about the self-evident truth of fundamental human equality.

 

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

The final lines of Wheatley’s poem reminded colonists of how anyone, slave or free, black or white, could become educated and excel if given the opportunity. To Wheatley, equality of opportunity allowed all human beings to transcend trivial and arbitrary distinctions, especially those premised upon supposed inferiority or inequality. Her poem evokes the founding ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: the self-evident truth that all humans are endowed with the unalienable right to pursue opportunity, regardless of condition.

Phillis Wheatley from the Boston Women’s Memorial (Sharon Mollerus, 2006)

Wheatley used her poetry as a vehicle to express what W.E.B. DuBois later called, “spiritual strivings.” Her religious conversion did not introduce her to the notion of freedom. Instead, her religious conversion reinforced what she already knew and lived: enslavement prevented equal opportunity in America, the “land of freedom.” Unfortunately for Wheatley, her own freedom was short-lived: although she continued to write poetry, she was never able to publish her second book, eventually dying destitute in 1784. Yet “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” remains her most impressive, inspirational, and timeless work precisely because it encapsulates the great striving towards equal opportunity that Americans take as their birthright.

 

 

 

Elliott Drago serves as the JMC’s Editorial Officer. He is a historian of American history and the author of Street Diplomacy: The Politics of Slavery and Freedom in Philadelphia, 1820-1850 (Johns-Hopkins University Press, 2022).

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