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White Slave Owners in Phillis Wheatley’s Poetry

Introduction

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral is the first published volume of poetry written by an African-American author Phillis Wheatley (Mulder et al.). Published in 1773, Wheatley had an opportunity to speak out on the tyranny she and her race faced from day to day. However, there are several poems that invoke the slavery theme more than others, like “On Being Brought from Africa to America” and “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth.” Wheatley centers her poems on criticizing white slave owners for the cruel treatment of people of color, talks about being underestimated only based on her skin color and hardships of being enslaved.

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It is essential to comment on Wheatley’s life journey, as her poems are based on her experience of being a slave. However, she was lucky enough to have kind slave owners who allowed her to learn and write and with the encouragement of her family, Phillis wrote her first poem at the age of 14 (Jackson). Later, Wheatley’s book was her way of demonstrating that people of color have talent too as she is an excellent example of talent combined with intelligence. In the poems, a writer assures that black people were not spiritually dependent on their slave owners but were equal to whites. The young poet proved with her own example that an African American could be graced with the same artistic talent as a white writer.

Even though in most of her poems, Wheatley avoided writing about slavery, she could not entirely omit it. Her famous poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” (1768) represents an open critique of slave owners: “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain / May be refined, and join th’ angelic train” (Wheatley 15). Nonetheless, in the opening lines of the poem, Wheatley is grateful for being brought to the American land by God’s compassion; she faced cruel hardships on her way to the new land. Upon the arrival she discovered Christianity and became heavily invested in faith; however, regardless, she felt strongly against the racism that Wheatley came across every day. The poetess speaks on the ungodly behavior and emphasizes that each individual is equal before God; thus, the indifferent attitude of the whites towards the African-American people shows otherwise. The poor treatment and constant abuse often damaged people like Phillis.

In her gentle manner, the poetess has risen the most controversial topics of the time; thus, in the poem she speaks out on the issue that white people always look down on the people of her race. Moreover, she is deeply offended by the interpretation of their darker skin color being the sign of demonic nature “Some view our sable race with scornful eye, “Their colour is a diabolic die” (Wheatley 15). A different colored skin would be associated as a representation of a dark soul with no hope in further life (“Wellspring”). Such an aspect of a slave-owning culture summoned feeling of suppression, and Wheatley used her poetry, specifically “On Being Brought from Africa to America” to raise the voice on the injustice and misconceptions white society labeled black people based only on their skin color. The poetess aspired to bring attention to the detrimental effect of racism through her own perception of life.

“On Being Brought from Africa to America”, in some way, may seem too soft and not ensuring enough of how she feels toward her fate as a kidnapped slave, where she instead refers to her life outcome as a mercy from God as it led her to the path of education and Christianity (“Wellspring”). In her future poems, Wheatley is more assuring and strong-opinionated of the uneasy fate of African-American people; she despises the notion of slavery and courageously speaks her mind that could be dangerous for her freedom at the time.

The poem “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth” was written by Phillis Wheatly with pure hopes that the new ruler of England would overlook the tyranny African-American people previously faced (“To the Right Honorable”). With genuine faith in her befriended earl of Dartmouth, who also was a great supporter of poetess’s poetry, Phillis writes such honest and blunt appeal to the new ruler of England. Wheatley projects her hopes for Dartmouth to not be as cruel and despotic towards the slaves as his predecessor:

Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway? (Wheatley 53).

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The poetess decided to be so vocal about the concerning issue because she previously met the earl and believed to be the ally of the colonies and was thought to have the power of some kind. Poems of Phillis Wheatley often go along the line of comparing the freedom and oppression of African Americans. She puts emphasis on the vital importance of freedom for herself as well as the undying urge to help colored people to obtain it and feel it the way she did (“To the Right Honorable”). In one of the stanzas, Wheatley writes, “What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast? Steel’d was soul and by no misery mov’d…That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d” (Wheatley 53), which represent unbearable pain of her parents, when Wheatley was kidnapped. The writers’ goal was to make the readers imagine the feelings of desperation if their children would suddenly be taken away.

The reader can notice how Wheatley capitalizes the word freedom in several of her lines, “The silken reins, and Freedom’s charms unfold” (Wheatley 53), which gives it a special meaning. Being a slave in the past herself, the writer desires for the superior white people to understand how much suffering and pain the slaves face every day; the emotion of deep frustration and pure hope is followed throughout all four stanzas of the poem. In the poem “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” Wheatley cherishes the desire for the new ruler to get the message from her and give black people the liberty they deserve. Even though she took a risk by writing this poem and expressing all her concerns in such manner, she did it with the best intentions and faith of further spare of black people from the tyranny.

Conclusion

Wheatley’s poems are brave, controversial, and straightforward; her works reflect the excellent taste and pure talent she was gifted with. One should never forget that she was the first African American to write about the tyranny of slavery and, subsequently, made history as the first published Black writer in her country. She spoke out on the unjust relationship between white slave owners and her race. Wheatley had an opportunity to make herself heard before any other African American in her two of the most famous poems “On Being Brought from Africa to America” and “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth”.

Works Cited

Jackson, Sarah. “Phillis Wheatley: the First Published Black Woman Poet.” East End Women’s Museum, East End Women’s Museum, 2017. Web.

Mulder, Megan, et al. “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, by Phillis Wheatley (1773).” ZSR Library, 2013. Web.

“To the Right Honorable William Earl of Dartmouth.” Marymount University. Web.

“Wellspring: Poetry from the Journey.” St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. Richmond, Virginia, A Weekly Poetry Resource from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 2017. Web.

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Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Books on Demand, 2003.

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StudyCorgi. "White Slave Owners in Phillis Wheatley’s Poetry." July 25, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/white-slave-owners-in-phillis-wheatleys-poetry-essay/.

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StudyCorgi. 2022. "White Slave Owners in Phillis Wheatley’s Poetry." July 25, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/white-slave-owners-in-phillis-wheatleys-poetry-essay/.

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StudyCorgi. (2022) 'White Slave Owners in Phillis Wheatley’s Poetry'. 25 July.

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