An Introduction to the History of Phillis Wheatley

Categories: Slavery

Phillis Wheatley was brought from Africa to America to be put into slavery. She was more privileged than other slaves because her owners taught her to read and write. Showing early signs of remarkable intelligence, her owners, the Wheatleys, fostered her talent by tutoring her regularly. Phillis took to writing poetry, which led her to become the first black woman poet in the United States. She was a genius of her time. Her poems mainly focus on the themes of nature and religion.

As a result, blacks and whites alike have criticized her for failing to refer to the plight of her race. In general, critics do not deny that she was a genius, but they are divided on the issue of whether or not she was race conscious and a protestor of slavery. Most believe she was not while very few believe she was. It is a matter of interpretation. Two prime examples that elicit contradictory views on this issue are On Being Brought from Africa to America and to the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth.

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In this paper, I will compare these views and express my own interpretation.

In the poem On Being Brought from Africa to America, Wheatley writes of being brought from her homeland to America. She lived as a domestic slave to a wealthy family in Boston where she was educated and made into a better person. In the poem, her use of such words like scornful eye and refined suggests acknowledgement on the part of the poet in regards to racial injustice.

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Scornful eye as Wheatley uses the phrase refers to the racial discrimination that exists towards blacks. Similarly, the description refined suggests that if you improve yourself you can better endure prejudices. The poet seems to say that one way of protesting captivity is to overcome the dehumanizing system of slavery by educating oneself.

The critic Arthur P. Davis agrees with the assessment. He writes that, she is definitely race conscious.(94) On the other hand, Vernon Loggins, author of The Negro Author, argues that, she neglected almost her own state of slavery and the miserable oppression of thousands of her race. (113) He then states that one looks in vain for some outburst or even complaint against the bondage of her people, for some agonizing cry about her native land. She definitely refers to Africa as her home, but there seems to be under the sentiment of the lines a feeling of almost smug contentment at her own escape therefrom. (93)

The problem that Loggins sees is that Wheatleys poetry just shows her being happy as a slave and proud of the fact that whites bettered her. In the poem To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth, Wheatley recalls the painful experience of being snatched from her home and parents to be put into bondage. This poem speaks for itself. It loudly asserts the wish that no one should ever have to experience such pain as removal from ones homeland and culture. The 1941 Editors of The Negro Caravan agree with this evaluation. They write that it is only in the poem addressed to the Earl of Dartmouth that she expresses any vexation against slavery. The poem, however, is not entirely clear-cut. In later lines the poet sees positive in her enslavement and loss of her home. She argues that finding Christ as a result of her experience was more than enough to compensate for her seeming cruel fate. Black critic, J. Saunders Redding disagrees that this poem shows her race consciousness. He feels that her use of such phrases like seeming cruel and fancied seat give her away as not believing either in the cruelty of the fate that dragged thousands of her race into bondage in America nor in the happiness of their former freedom in Africa. (125-126)

Although Wheatley looks to Christianity for some sort of contentment, it is not a substitute for happiness. She uses irony in this poem as sort of a diversion to distract her white readers into thinking that she is more content than she really is and to air her resentment. Afterall, whites needed to feel that they controlled her mind and her pen, agrees Angelene Jamison, the author of Journal of Negro Education. Loggins argues that if Wheatley did feel resentment in this poem, she did not express it. (114) You must read between the lines to find that Wheatley does express her anger towards the system of slavery.

Phillis Wheatley is an important figure in African American history because she did what whites felt blacks could not do which was read and write, because during these times all whites felt that blacks did not possess mental and intellectual capabilities. Modern anthropologers of black verse and critics feel that Phillis Wheatley would have become a more important figure other than she is now had she expressed her feelings of her position in society and her resentment if any as well as her acknowledgement of her blackness. What they all fail to realize is that she did just that. She was not unconcerned about her brothers and sisters and their plight. Wheatley expressed her anger of the plight of her people, but not explicitly.

Had she been so explicit she would not have gained the recognition she did from whites. It was very hard for a black person to gain recognition from whites for anything during that time period. She is a genius to have written poems that were accepted by the white community while at the same time had an underlying message of protest to a system and race that had her people in bondage. Critic Julian Mason Jr. feels that Wheatley certainly leaves the reader of her poems only slightly aware of her being a Negro and a slave. (114) Wheatley, in the poems On Being Brought from Africa to America and to the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth, made reference to her homeland of Africa and wrote of her opposition of the slavery of her race. This is a definite indication that she is a Negro and that she is a slave.

Though Wheatley may not have been a nationalist, which was impossible considering the time period and her position in society, she was race conscious and aware that she was a slave. Wheatley protested slavery in numerous ways. Her overcoming the slavery system by educating and improving herself was her protestation of slavery. Her search of solitude in Christianity was her protest of slavery. The early Christian bible was a book of an oppressed people waiting for salvation from evil, just as the slaves were yearning for freedom and salvation from captivity. Whether or not Phillis Wheatley was race conscious is a matter of interpretation. One can find so many meanings in her poems, that is the uniqueness of her extraordinary talent. Critics may never come to an agreement on the issue of Wheatleys poems. It is up to the reader to form their own opinion of her work. With so many different views and interpretations, one wishes that Wheatley were alive to clear the confusion and tell her readers what she really meant. She was a black poet and never pretended to be anything other than that or deny her culture.

Works Cited

  1. Mason, D. Julian. The Poems of Phillis Wheatley. Durham: University of North Carolina, 1966.
  2. Robinson, H. William. Interpretive Essays on Phillis Wheatley. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982.

Cite this page

An Introduction to the History of Phillis Wheatley. (2021, Oct 11). Retrieved from

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