Issues With Morality In Phillis Wheatley’s Poetry

Phillis Wheatley’s poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” is centered around religion and yet reveals little about the author herself. The lack of identity in the title of the poem itself, serves to create a sense of ambiguity in the sincerity of Christian faith. The structure of the poem reveals her story through the narrative of her Christian audience which serves to highlight the racial scrutiny her race faced in society. This technique also acts as a reminder to the audience to reconsider the alignment of their own personal spiritual beliefs to that of their actions. As the tone shifts from student to teacher, Wheatley’s firm stance on these common practices and after life is revealed by the ending lines. Thus, Wheatley’s poetry uses religious references to both appeal to the predominately Christian audience and interrogate the sincerity behind their theological views.

The opening lines of Wheatley’s poem indicate that she is telling her own story through the narrative of the Christian audience. In the opening lines of the poem, Wheatley states, “Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land/ Taught my benighted soul to understand/ That there’s a God, that there’s a savior too:/”. The imagery evoked by these lines paint the picture of a person who was once ignorant but has since been taught about Christianity. It serves to reveal a tone that is ironically passive as she describes her forced conversion in a grateful like manner. The tone distinguishes the perspective from which the story is being told since it emotionless and rather thankful. Nonetheless, these lines serve to reveal her Christian audience through the use of consistent theological references. The contrast present between her “Pagan” homeland and America serves to introduce religious diction primarily associated with Christianity which was commonly practiced during her time. Through adopting the diction her audience is quite familiar with, “mercy” “God” “savior” “soul” it is clear that she’s using these phrases to tell a familiar but compelling story. For instance, the word “mercy” in theology is otherwise described as forgiveness or an atonement for sins. Besides meaning homeland, “Pagan” in theology can also be interpreted as a heathen which fits because throughout the poem the reader discovers, exactly how her colored race is viewed by the Christians. Ultimately the beginning lines of Wheatley’s poem reveal the perspective of her Christian audience which is later used to express issues with certain practices.

Lines 5 and 6 present a subtle disruption in form which is used to address issues with commonly held Christian practices. After using the stylistic approach of telling her own story through the perspective of the worshippers, the poem is able to show contradictions in theological beliefs. Wheatley states, “Some view our sable race with scornful eye,/ “Their colour is a diabolic die” /. These lines reveal an understanding of how her race was viewed in society amongst the worshippers. By revealing how a whole race was viewed as “scornful” which means dislike or disrespect, a lack of sincerity between the morals of Christian faith and the way it is practiced is further interrogated. In line 6, the Christians themselves are directly quoted revealing how they condemned a whole race to be “diabolic” solely based on skin color, which serves to highlight the immorality between associating skin color as an indication of evilness. Thus, through these two lines the poem is addressing the underlying racism the white Christian worshippers committed while also examining the sincerity behind their spirituality.

A contrasting view of Christian beliefs is revealed through the shifting of power dynamics. In the last couplet the speaker’s role within the poem shifts from ignorant student to that of an educator. Wheatley states, “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, /May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train”. These lines alter the power dynamics of the poem as the speaker transitions from passive slave to one who is able to express a fully developed opinion on the deeps of the injustice surrounding her. This shift in role also swiftly alters the passive tone to one that is more firm and powerful. The stylistic approach of italicizing the terms, “Christians, N****, and Cain” expresses a leveling of the groups under the eyes of God. It also calls attention to the hypocrisy that the worshippers commit as they attempt to practice religion in a world that nationally promotes chattel slavery. The word “Cain” is a biblical reference to a person who is born evil. Yet the speaker reminds the audience that those, “black as Cain” who were believed to have deserved their tragic fate, can go to heaven if they choose to “join the angelic train”. This new idea of heaven seeing no color, works to flip the Christian tropes on their head. Thus, by the end of the poem the speaker cunningly introduces a new biblical interpretation that God accepts all those who seek Him. Ultimately the speakers voice and ideas are subtly expressed which contrasts racist ideals surrounding afterlife.

In sum, Wheatley’s poetry uses Christian references to engage with her audience and question their own theological integrity. The form of the poem itself serves to tell her own story through the eyes of her captors. By doing this she reveals the flaws with their own morality and reminds the audience to align their societal customs with their theological beliefs. By using the opening lines to tell her story through the narrative of Christians she is able to shift from a student to educator. The last few lines, of her poem indicate how Wheatley uses her own theological knowledge to flip the power dynamics of the poem. Navigating through the authority of her own Christian audience she ultimately flips Christian tropes on their head.

16 December 2021
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