Phyllis Wheatley, the first African American to publish a book of poetry in 1773, was the author of the poem “Being Brought from Africa to America.” Wheatley represents the start of a long tradition of African American poets. She described her African ancestors as non-Christian (“Pagan”) and believed that she was transported to America by mercy and kindness (Wheatley). Wheatley saw her new existence as a part of her surrender to God, who would save her soul.
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Then, she switched her emphasis away from his personal perceptions of herself and her roots onto the perceptions of others – Western Europeans in America who saw Africans as a lower class compared to white Europeans. Wheatley ended the poem by stating that Africans might be “refined” and accepted by God by joining the “angel train” of individuals who will be with God in heaven (Wheatley). In the poem, she reminded her readers that, despite her race, anybody might join the chorus of the heavenly, regardless of skin color.
Robert Hayden’s “A Letter from Phyllis Wheatley” was published in 1978 and is about Wheatley and her poetry. Wheatley describes his experiences on a journey to England in 1773 in quest of financing to publish his book of poetry as the poem’s narrator. This poem sounds similar to the first words of “Being brought from Africa to America,” but Hayden highlights the different aspects of the trip “I yet have some remembrance of its Horrors” (Hayden). Wheatley still admires the concept that God arranged her incarceration in order for her to be rescued, yet Hayden made her reconsider her original beliefs by reminding her of the “Horrors” she had seen on the journey.
Hayden gives Wheatley room to indicate that she is well conscious of her status as a slave, not a free woman and that she removes contradictions on purpose. The narrator highlights the irony of his situation: although being a slave, she performs her poetry in front of the Countess and receives praise (Hayden). Wheatley’s knowledge of his enslaved situation is demonstrated throughout the poem by Hayden’s use of similar compositions. She is shown in Hayden’s poetry as an enslaved spectacle, a carnival exhibit that promotes the system of slavery rather than as an independent individual. The Countess and others appraise her poems, yet they send her to a different table for dinner (Hayden). Wheatley’s realization that she is neither American nor African accompanies us throughout the poem, and all she wishes for now is a pleasant existence in the hereafter.
In “Being brought from Africa to America,” Wheatley tried to demonstrate that Christianity offers redemption to all individuals, regardless of color. She presented a small yet forceful challenge against racism in America, elaborating on the fundamental human values of Christian theology but eventually accepting slavery. Hayden, in his turn, places her voice and thoughts in his own social context, imitating the person’s language in a convincing manner. Hayden reconsiders Wheatley’s optimism through her own experience, and for him, the slavery institution is to blame. He attempted to demonstrate that Wheatley’s dual personality is only a dreamlike fabrication surrounded by prejudice and that she rejects the terrible reality around her. These poems are a great reflection on the racism issue, and even now, their demand is not decreasing. Although in the modern world, the institution of slavery does not exist anymore, thousands of people migrate to America in hopes of redemption and a new life. However, most of them soon realize the illusion of dual personality; in the end, like Wheatley, they are stuck in limbo between America and their own culture.
Hayden, Robert. “A Letter from Phillis Wheatley.” The Massachusetts Review 18.4 (1977): 645-647.
Wheatley, Phillis. “On being brought from Africa to America.” The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature 435 (1773).
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