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The Theme of Slavery in Poetry


“On Being Brought from Africa to America” by Phillis Wheatley and “The Slave Mother” by Frances E.W. Harper are two poems that convey the harsh reality of slavery. The people of African descent had to experience inequity due to their ethnic background for centuries. In the poems, the central figures are slaves who are presented as capable of experiencing human emotions in contrast to how they were treated by their masters. The poets describe the consequences of slavery and demand the readers to respect and trust the subjects of the pieces.

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Visual Imagery

Harper’s poem explores one of the most heartbreaking aspects of slavery – the forced separation of family members. Using various literary devices, the poet describes the sadness and despair of a mother who has to give up her child. One element that is substantially used in the poem is the description of visual imagery. Harper vividly illustrates the appearance of the frightened woman: “those hands so sadly clasped – // The bowed and feeble head” (Harper lines 5-6). In addition to being scared the woman is in pain because she is being deprived of her child: “Saw you the sad, imploring eye? // Its every glance was pain” (Harper lines 9-10). Her child who is potentially the most meaningful part of the woman’s existence is taken away from her.


“The Slave Mother” illustrates how masters saw African slaves as objects. The lack of understanding that people of color were human beings who deserved happiness of freedom led to the dreadful reality of slavery. The author describes the dehumanizing nature of slavery by repeatedly stating “he is not hers” (Harper lines 17-21). In the setting of the horrors that people of color had to experience, the bonds between family members are erased. By accentuating the objectification of slaves, the poet invokes in readers a sense of despair in response to the atrocious consequences of the heartbreaking period.

Biblical Motifs

Similarly, “On Being Brought from Africa to America” demands the reader to recognize the dehumanizing aspects of slavery. Wheatley’s poem incorporates spiritual motifs to explain the problematic nature of the period and turn the reader’s attention to the unwarranted erasure of people of color from Christianity. Using Biblical analogies, Wheatley argues for building trust and respect for people of color: “Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain, // May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train” (Wheatley lines 7-8). The author suggests that unlike the common conceptions of the time, the Black community is worthy of being included in the Christian agenda, and, therefore, should be trusted as people of the same religious beliefs.

Themes of Respect

Both poems demand readers to respect people of color as human beings. Slavery depicted people of African descent as objects not worthy of respect. They experienced dreadful inequity and were considered devoid of emotions associated with family bonds. The poems, however, argue for the slaves’ ability to feel. By describing the experience of a mother, Harper invokes respect for the subject matter “She is a mother, and her heart // Is breaking in despair” (Harper lines 39-40). By illustrating the human emotions that the mother experiences, the poet demands the reader to respect her. Similarly, Wheatley states that “Some view our sable race with a scornful eye” (Wheatley line 5). The poet argues that this perception is wrong because people of color deserve to be respected similarly to other humans.


The two poems illustrate in detail the experience of people of African descent in the setting of slavery. They invoke in the reader the feelings of despair associated with the horrors of the reality of the period. Using repetition and imagery, Harper asks the reader to recognize the aspects of slavery that people of color had to experience. On the other hand, Whitley incorporates religious motifs to build trust and respect for the Black community in the reader.

Works Cited

Harper, Frances E. W. “The Slave Mother.Poetry Foundation. Web.

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Wheatley, Phillis. “On Being Brought from Africa to America.Poetry Foundation. Web.

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