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The History Behind “On Being Brought From Africa to America”

In the Poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” by Phillis Wheatley, an in-depth interpretation will show that Wheatley contrasts dark vs. light imagery, and her use of language highlights race and religion. Furthermore, the author uses an ambivalent representation of the African race using the perspectives of white and black people. The critical concept proposed by Barnet and Cain: “literature shows signs of being products of particular ages and environments” (81) will be used as a lens to help us explore the concept of race and religion. With Wheatley’s dark vs. light imagery, we will begin by discussing religion as one of the main themes through her newfound exposure to Christianity, as opposed to paganism. Afterward, we will discuss race as another central theme and highlight dark vs. light imagery with her references to her life as a slave.

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The first theme that is presented in this poem is the religious transformation from paganism to Christianity. The author of the poem views moving to America as an opportunity to learn that “there’s a God” and “there’s a Saviour” (Wheatley line 3). Wheatley admits that before exposure to Christianity, their souls were rambling in darkness. Indeed, “benighted soul” is an allegory to express African people’s black skin color and old religious views (Wheatley line 2). She admits that her ancestors did not seek “redemption” before learning about God (Wheatley line 4). However, it appears that the poet satirizes the conversion of African-Americans into Christianity by reminding Christians that “Negros, black as Cain” joined their “angelic train” due to God’s mercy (Wheatley line 7). Furthermore, when expressing the color as “diabolic die,” Wheatley (line 6) seems to highlight the devilish nature of African paganism rituals, contrasting them with the Christian “angelic train” (line 8). Although the author openly admits that Christianity brought some kind of discipline to black people by joining them on the “angelic train” (Wheatley line 8), she hides between the lines the judgment about white people who destroyed their culture. This ambiguity in her poem elicits the skeptical attitude of the author toward forced conversion from one religion into another.

The second theme discussed in this poem is race and dark-light imagery in the context of slavery. Although Wheatley does not use the words dark and light, she expresses white people’s opinions and views about black people at that time. She openly describes her rejection of white Americans’ idea of them when she says: “Some view our sable race with the scornful eye” – expressing their view of her race as “diabolic die” (Wheatley lines 5-6). The word “die” is probably used intentionally to describe the color and depth of African culture. Furthermore, the poet claims that even if “Negros” are “black as Cain,” they are equal to white people in front of God because they are in the same “angelic train” (Wheatley lines 7-8). She is primarily using such words as “benighted”, “diabolic,” and “black as Cain” to describe the darkness of the African race from the perspective of people with light skin. On the other hand, she expresses pride in her skin color by associating the black race with sable’s precious fur. Wheatley, in her poem, was not afraid of exposing the prejudices of white people about the black race and culture, highlighting the preciousness of African-Americans to the country.

Works Cited

Barnet, Sylvan., and William E. Cain. A Short Guide to Writing About Literature. 12th ed., Pearson, 2012.

Wheatley, Phillis. “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” Shmoop.

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StudyCorgi. 2022. "The History Behind “On Being Brought From Africa to America”." August 3, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/the-history-behind-on-being-brought-from-africa-to-america/.

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StudyCorgi. (2022) 'The History Behind “On Being Brought From Africa to America”'. 3 August.

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