A Slave’s Subtle War: Phillis Wheatley’s Use Of Biblical Myth And Symbol

Phillis Wheatley has been criticized as both a writer and abolitionist because her writing style resembles her white contemporaries and she never explicitly denounces slavery in her work. However, Sondra O’Neale, in her article “A Slave’s Subtle War: Phillis Wheatley’s Use of Biblical Myth and Symbol,” argues against this criticism, proposing that Phillis Wheatley subtly critiqued slavery and society through her use of biblical allusions. O’Neale attempts to explain that Phillis Wheatley could not explicitly argue against slavery because she was a slave herself. O’Neale supports this argument through the use of numerous expert opinions in the fields of religion, history, and literature. She also uses scriptures and excerpts from Wheatley’s poetry to logically appeal to the reader. As an Associate Professor in the English Department at Emory University and having several books and journal articles published, Sondra O’Neale is a credible author and reliable reference. Through her use of expert opinions, scriptures, and various excerpts from Phillis Wheatley’s poetry and other writings, O’Neale effectively supports her article’s claim through her use of biblical references, although a few of the excerpts used were not sufficiently explained in how they relate back to the central argument.

Sondra O’Neale begins her argument by explaining how Wheatley transformed the negative connotations associated with the color black to reference a lack of spirituality rather than skin color. To support this point, O’Neale employs various expert opinions to show the typical connotations associated with darkness and the color black. For example, she uses a quotation from Roger Bastide to explain how Calvinistic beliefs of predestination lead to the color black being used to symbolize evil. O’Neale suggests that by transforming the idea of darkness to reference anyone who has not received the gospel, Wheatley directly undermined and contradicted the main justification for slavery, which was that Africans should be treated in such a despicable manner because their skin color represents evil and unholiness. She supports this belief by referencing Eulalio R. Baltazar, who explained that the justification of the slave trade arose from the “twisting of biblical imagery rather than biblical text itself.” He also proposes that the color black is occasionally used in a positive context in the Bible and that sin is usually symbolized by a scarlet color, rather than black.

Another important point made by O’Neale to support her central idea was Wheatley’s use of the terms “Saviour” and “Redeemer” to parallel American slavery to the slavery of the Israelites, God’s chosen people. O’Neale suggests that by referring to God as a “Saviour” and “Redeemer,” Wheatley is subtly proposing for the redemption of her own people out of slavery. To support this point, O’Neale uses several expert opinions and references many biblical texts to explain what the terms “Saviour” and “redemption” meant in eighteenth-century society. O’Neale first explains what the term savior usually refers to, using several scriptures to show that it is primarily used when referring to God’s deliverance of the Israelites out of Egypt. O’Neale also uses an eighteenth-century definition of Saviour to demonstrate how people during that era might have interpreted the word. She then explains that the term redemption is frequently used when referencing indentured servants who had fulfilled their work requirements. O’Neale then offers a biblical definition of redemption which also relates back to the deliverance of the Israelites out of Egypt. O’Neal then relates the definitions back to Wheatley’s poems, suggesting that Wheatley was actually proposing for redemption from slavery.

Lastly, O’Neale explains how Wheatley used biblical identities to transform the idea of racial superiority. To support this stance, she uses many biblical references and excerpts from Wheatley's poems. However, it is in this section that O’Neale fails to explain the textual evidence used. For example, when discussing Wheatley’s “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” O’Neal fails to explain how a few of the excerpts relate back to the central idea that Wheatley used biblical references to subtly critique slavery. O’Neale often assumes the reader will derive their own conclusions through the excerpts; however, it would make her argument stronger if they were explained and analyzed in more depth. Although the claim that Wheatley used the term “Ethiopian” to describe herself and her people as a way to show that the African race is equal, nay superior to the European race is effectively supported through O’Neale’s use of expert opinion and references to scripture. Another fault in O’Neale’s article is the failure to address counterarguments during important parts of her argument. At the beginning of the article, O’Neale vaguely addresses the critics to Wheatley’s work, but never references them when actually making her points.

Overall, Sondra O’Neale effectively supports her claim that Phillis Wheatley successfully impacted her society by constructing a new identity for Africans and by forcing the slaveholders to question the ethicality of slavery in relation to the Bible. This is significant because many criticize Wheatley for her lack of explicit racial awareness and condemnation of slavery. A modern-day reader might fail to recognize Wheatley’s subtle critiques due to a lack of biblical knowledge, but in eighteenth-century society, religion was at the forefront of almost everyone’s mind, so Wheatley hoped that her biblical allusions would be understood and that the reasons behind using these allusions would also be understood.

Works Cited

  • O'Neale, Sondra. “A Slave's Subtle War: Phillis Wheatley's Use of Biblical Myth and Symbol.”
  • Early American Literature, vol. 21, no. 2, 1986, pp. 144–165. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25056621.
16 December 2021
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now