On Race Consciousness In Phillis Wheatleys Poetry English Literature Essay

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For almost two centuries Phillis Wheatley had been condemned for failing to refer in any way to the plight of her race and following the pattern of neo-classical European literary tradition instead. For a long time her literary output was hardly appreciated among critics and until late 1960s she was actually deprived of her status as one of the African American literary progenitors. Since the 1970s this tendency seems to have changed. On the basis of the articles in scholarly journals, academic publications and my own interpretation, I will analyze chosen poems of Phillis Wheatley in search of the markers of her deep race consciousness and antislavery message. I will attempt to show how the theoretical background she received in Boston served her as a tool to invoke her deep concern about the situation of African diaspora. Through the examination and interpretation of her frequent use of Biblical allusions I will try to reveal her abolitionist stance. Finally, I will try to answer the question whether and what kind of "Africanity" (meaning what theories of "blackness") Wheatley's poetry enacts.

The publication of the volume of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773 gave Phillis Wheatley pride of place in the history of literature as the first woman of African descent and only the second woman in America to publish a book of poems. Yet, since the publication of Poems she has been perceived to be a problematic figure in American literature and became a subject of many years of heated debate among the literary critics. Wheatley, who wrote most of her extant verse by the age of twenty, has been condemned for her dependence on and imitation of neoclassical conventions and poetics. Although Wheatley's skillful use of the poetic genre creates a poem that could be studied in isolation, the key to full comprehension of her body of work is the biographical information.

Phillis Wheatley was brought from Senegambia to America as a young slave girl in 1761. The very same year John and Susanna Wheatley purchased Phillis as a domestic servant. It was only with the insistence of her master that the slave girl was educated and later developed her craft as a poet. Wheatley's experience as a domestic servant might have seemed "pleasant", in comparison to the life of slaves working on plantations. Still it does not counteract the fact that she was a slave, who was recognized and allowed to write only because of the goodwill of her master. By dint of Susannah Wheatley's good will she became well-versed in Latin and the ancient Greek classics which became a formal background through which she could express her own ideas. Though she did write in the neo-classical style and the language of the white oppressor, it is still the story of her life, the consciousness of the history of her race and her approach to it that personalize her poetry and make it unique. She was aware and devastated because of her African peoples' situation but still as a domestic servant she could not express her standpoint directly. This poetic procedure, where she gives a subtly personal character to her poem, can be found at the very beginning of Poems, in "To Maecenas." In this piece she mentions three great poets - Homer, Virgil, and Terence. The last one is included here probably for one reason only - he is of Berber descent. By mentioning him together with two prominent literary figures, who are not only superior to him in their excellence but who also specialize in a different genre, Wheatley shows her pride and marks African presence in the history of literature:

The happier Terence all the choir inspir'd,

His soul replenish'd, and his bosom fir'd;

But say, ye Muses, why this partial grace,

To one alone of Afric's sable race;

From age to age transmitting thus his name

With the finest glory in the rolls of fame?

(lines 37-42)

Here Wheatley is clearly stating she is aware of the fact that she cannot expect to equal Terence as a writer because his position was "happier" than hers. By saying this she obviously refers to the slavery. Terence, who was also captured and taken into slavery because of his African origin, managed to gain his freedom presumably because of his excellence as a playwright. Wheatley seems to have no delusive hopes that the same story will ever happen to her.

Reading her poems one cannot help but get the impression that Phillis Wheatley considered herself enormously fortunate in being brought from Africa to America. Yet, it is not because she was well-treated here, not because she was at least physically comfortable in being a domestic servant nor because she perceived her African origin in some pejorative manner. It is obviously because America was where she discovered Jesus Christ. Concerning the role of Christianity in African American slaves' lives, LeRoi Jones has said:

One of the reasons Christianity proved so popular was that it was the religion, according to older Biblical tradition, of an oppressed people. … In the early days of slavery, Christianity's sole purpose was to propose a metaphysical resolution for the slave's natural yearnings for freedom, and as such it literally made life easier for him.

This approach is important to understand Wheatley's feelings about being black and a slave. Her most famous and straightforward poem, "On Being Brought from Africa to America", depicts the journey of her own life from "Pagan land" to the New World. For decades this poem was a matter of dispute. Some of the critics of Wheatley's writings treated this autobiographical poem as a proof supporting the thesis of her assimilationist nature and lack of any sense of bondage to her African roots. In fact, what was misunderstood here is that

the poem concerns the journey from the "Pagan land" to Christianity. In the first four lines the speaker expresses gratitude for being brought from Africa, place full of ignorance and damnation, and for becoming a protégé of the "mercy" - euphemism for Christian grace and fortune. Wheatley also establishes in this poem the parameters for her own self-naming and self‑positioning as poet and African American woman. It reflects poetess' deep understanding of her situation and shatters the theory of Wheatley's cultural assimilation. As Katherine Bassard observes, the single word "once" in the fourth line implies the consciousness not only about some primal time but also about some place of origin. The fourth line splits the poem in two parts. After the full of gratitude "conversion verse", Wheatley touches the racial matter. In the second half of the poem, the autobiographical "I" "joins communally with its socially copositioned others to become 'our sable race'". In the next line, what is also interesting, Wheatley puts herself in the position of the "other" within the framework of racialized discourse ("Their color is a diabolic die"). This poetic procedure reflects not only the relationship with the "other(s)" but the "otherness within the self": "This internal dialogue, representing relationship of difference and, at the same time, identification with the "other(s)" is a distinguishing feature of black women's writing". In the poem Wheatley encodes the system of American racialization in progress. From creating the tension and a sense of mourning resulting from the Africans' displacement from their motherland in the first four lines, she comes up with the transformation from Africans into "Negros" in the last four lines.

This phenomenon of critical discursive stance taken from the socially inferior position of a slave is firmly associated with the idea of "double‑consciousness", defined by W.E.B. DuBois:

[…] the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double‑consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The above definition implies both an identification with mainstream American culture and with constructed difference within that culture (which results in being called and perceived as a Negro, meaning marked by "Africanity"). Perhaps Wheatley pioneered the use of this literary expression of double consciousness, which may as well be the cause for continuing contestation over degree of her "blackness." What is also interesting for this poem, through the biblical reference to Cain and the combination of "Christians, Negroes" in the last two lines, Wheatley asserts the equality of all souls for salvation, and by extension, the universal humanity of all regardless of skin color.

In order to fully comprehend and appreciate the achievement of this poem's African American theorizing, we need to compare it to another poem, "To the University of Cambridge in New-England." Katherine Bassard notices that these two poems not only enable to follow the development of Wheatley's attitude toward her captivity and enslavement but she also argues that the order in which they appear in Poems makes "On Being Brough" a "revision" of "Cambridge" within the context of the volume.

To elaborate on this idea, let us first compare both versions:


'Twas but e'en now I left my native shore

The sable Land of error's darkest night

There, sacred Nine! For you no place was found.

Parent of mercy, 'twas thy Powerful hand

Brought me in safety from the dark abode.

(lines 3-7)


'Twas not long since I left my native shore

The Land of errors and Egyptiangloom:

Father of mercy, 'twas thy gracious hand

Brought me in safety from those dark abodes.

(lines 3-6)

What plays an important role in the 1773 version is obviously the omission of the line about the Muses, which appears as fifth line in the version from 1767 ("There, sacred Nine! For you no place was found"). In this line Africa is presented as a place lacking for poetic inspiration, while, contrasted with the poem's first two lines, ("While a intrinsic ardor bids me write/the muse doth promise to assist my pen"), present location, literate America, is the place full of poetic sensibility. Taking into consideration that while writing first version poetess was only fourteen years old, the omission in the six years later officially published version may imply change in Wheatley's attitude toward Africa to the less pejorative one.

In the 1767 version Wheatley describes her "native shore" as "the sable Land of error's darkest night" and together with the reference to the "dark abode" the whole idea was for a long time literally (mis)understood as stereotypical description of the gratitude for being brought from "the dark continent". In the 1767 version the "dark abode" is singular, while in the final draft it is plural and "land" is singular, thus the "dark abodes" rather cannot signify Africa (as it does in the first version). The key expression here is "in safety." Once again, poetess is offering a thanksgiving prayer, this time addressed directly to God, the "Father of mercy" for making her a survivor of the Middle Passage. It is the safe journey from Africa that she is thankful for, not the "smug contentment at her own escape therefrom", as James Weldon Johnson assumed. Here the "dark abodes" may signify ship in which African captives were hold in inhumane conditions. By carefully placing a few key expressions ("dark abodes", "transient sweetness," etc.), Wheatley is able to write her experience of months-long horror of the transatlantic crossing in the only way she could. What most critics failed to take account of is that Wheatley capitalized "Land" and so describing it as "sable" does not necessarily connote inferiority. Moreover, in the 1773 version she omits the adjective and introduces the idea of "Egyptian gloom". By linking the story of African capture and enslavement to the Old Testament Israelites, she invokes a "racial" and geographical boundaries' transgressing connection between white Anglo-Americans and the enslaving Egyptians (stressing the Egyptians' tendency to hold slaves, not particularly its "Africanity").

The conclusions of the both "Cambridge" versions read:


Suppress the sable monsterin its growth,

Ye blooming plants of human race, divine

An Ethiop tells you, tis your greatest foe

Its transient sweetness turns to endless pain,

And brings eternal ruin on the Soul.

(Lines 28-32)


Suppress the deadly serpent in its egg.

Ye blooming plants of human race divine,

An Ethioptells you 'tid your greatest foe;

Its transient sweetness turns to endless pain,

And in immense perdition sinks the soul.

(Lines 26-30)

By changing "sable monster" into "deadly serpent," Wheatley raises the "error" of slavery to the rank of biblical Original Sin. The reference to the Fall in the second stanza is thus emphasized, as the serpent recalls the Garden of Eden. In this way, Africa, the poetess' "native shore", becomes the scene of human race's fall into "error" via slavery. Wheatley's use of the abstract term "deadly serpent" in the final version confirms that she also would have felt "Egyptian gloom" to be specific enough to carry the antislavery message to the Bible-reading New England public. All the above elements serve as the context for the first line of "On Being Brought" - "'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land." What appears to be minor revisions in the 1773 version of "Cambridge" shows a development in Wheatley's thinking about the meaning of her experience of slavery and Middle Passage over the six years.

Far from being shy about her race and motherland, Phillis Wheatley is sometimes capable of special pleading on that score. This is apparent in the following lines from "On the Death of the Reverend Mr. George Whitefield":

Take him [Christ], ye wretched, for your only good,

Take him, ye starving sinners, for your food;

Ye thirsty, come to this life-giving stream,

Ye preachers, take him, for your joyful theme;

Take him, my dear Americans, he said,

Be your complaints on his kind bosom laid:

Take him, ye Africans, he longs for you;

Impartial Saviour is his title due;

Washed in the fountain of redeeming blood,

You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to God.

(lines 28-37)

Phillis Wheatley dedicates one or two lines to each of the other groups listed here but four lines to "ye Africans." Unlike the men of the world she lives in, Christ is presented as "colorblind", he "longs" to help Africans because of their unhappiness and will make them "sons, and kings, and priests to God." This passage obviously touches upon the theme of escape from leveling, which (as LeRoi Jones stated) was Christianity's primary appeal to the slave.

Another substance giving evidence of Wheatley's race consciousness can be found in the verses of "To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth." The poem is claimed to be her strongest and most forthright utterance on slavery:

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,

Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,

Whence flow these wishes for the common good,

By feeling hearts alone best understood,

I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate

Was snatched from Afric's fancy'd happy seat:

What pangs excruciating must molest,

What sorrows labor in my parent's breast!? ...

Such, such my case. And can I then but pray

Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

(lines 20-31)

Although slavery was a common practice in the 18th century, it was undoubtedly an institution which wrought tremendous sorrow for slaves and their families. In the passage from "To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth" Wheatley shows emotional ramifications of slavery. Here the speaker prays to God for no one else to feel the "tyrannic sway" she and her fellow slaves felt. Wheatley's poem provides readers with an emotional appeal of slavery, stimulating readers minds to evaluate their views on such an inhuman institution. Wheatley takes a stand on behalf of her race that seeks freedom from their oppressors, just as the colonists are fighting for their independence from British tyranny.

Wheatley's debut as African American woman literary progenitor is a historical moment shaped as much by her evolutionary role in diasporal subjectivity as by her undeniable contributions to the American literary canon. Her distinctive response to the spirit of her times was to project a reflexively race‑conscious presence in her poetry. Taking into consideration her inferior social position, she could not express her point of view directly. The "subtle war" she conducted had to be modest in the way she appropriated conventions with an understanding of their significance. Thus, in a framework of neo-classical verse she managed to achieve it by using various euphemism and references to the Old Testament, which sometimes also served as escapist motives. It is hard not to notice that in her writings she consistently refers to herself as "Afric[an]" or "Ethiop[ian]", rather than a "slave", "black" or indeed "American", which boldly suggests her deep sense of affiliation. She sometimes takes a stance of the "other in herself", offering a second narrative, implicit in the text, of subversion and conflict within multiple worldviews. In fact, Wheatley may have produced the first literary instance of double consciousness and by this significantly influence the African American literary heritage.