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On Being Brought from Africa to America

On Being Brought from Africa to America

"On being brought from Africa to America"(1773) is a poem by black enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784). The poem is one of her most famous works. She was the first prominent and published African American woman and poet. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) is the published collection that features "On Being Brought from Africa to America".

On Being Brought from Africa to America reenactment actor portrays Phillis Wheatley On Being Brought from Africa to America StudySmarterPhillis Wheatley supported the American Revolutionary War and is often portrayed by actors in reenactments. Wikimedia Commons

"On Being Brought from Africa to America": Poem by Phillis Wheatley

"On Being Brought from Africa to America" was published in 1773 in the poem collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Phillis Wheatley was bought as a child through the transatlantic slave trade by John and Susanna Wheatley. Her country of origin is thought to be in Western Africa, likely present-day Gambia or Senegal. She is named after the ship that brought her, The Phillis, and as per tradition, took on the last name of her slave masters.

On Being Brought from Africa to America map transatlantic slave trade On Being Brought from Africa to America Poem StudySmarter The strongest and healthiest slaves were traded in the Caribbean where the plantation work was the most demanding. Then the next strongest ended up in the Southern British American colonies as it was mostly comprised of farmland and plantations. Phills, being frail as a child, ended up in New England to be sold as a chambermaid. Wikimedia Commons

Phillis Wheatley quickly learned to read and write with the tutelage of their daughter Mary Wheatley, an aspiring school teacher. She read the classics and quickly learned to read and write in Latin and Greek as well. Often Phillis Wheatley was inspired by heroic tales and incorporated techniques used by other poets. The Wheatleys encouraged her learning and gave her candles to read and write by night.

Below is the poem in full.

'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

"Their colour is a diabolic die."

Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,

May be refin'd and join th'angelic train."

"On Being Brought from Africa to America": Summary

The poem opens with Wheatley expressing her gratitude for being brought to America and learning about Christianity. The main thing she remembers about Africa is that, to her, it's a heathen land of nonbelievers. In America, she learned about Christian salvation. Christianity has shown her the light where previously she was dark. Not only is there goodness, but there is also redemption in believing in this God.

She expresses gratitude for this redemption by explaining her previous ignorance. Now that she has this gift, she is incredibly grateful. Phillis Wheatley feels she exists on a higher plane because of her faith.

On Being Brought from Africa to America portrait Phillis Wheatley On Being Brought from Africa to America Summary StudySmarterIt's believed that the artist and freedman Scipio Moorhead was commissioned for this portrait of Phillis WheatleyWikimedia Commons

The second half of the poem changes to observations of other Christians. In Wheatley's time, white Christians viewed black people disapprovingly and suspiciously. They saw dark skin color as literally reminiscent of the devil. The last line is self-referential, as Wheatley expressed the possibility of refinement, of acculturation of black people such as herself, who have readily accepted the Christian doctrine. Per God's word, everyone is welcome to salvation.

Analysis of "On Being Brought from Africa to America"

Phillis Wheatley intended this poem as a message to other Christians. The purpose of the poem is to remind Christians to practice what they preach, meaning to behave according to the Bible's central doctrine of equality.

Her ability to accept Christianity challenges the assumptions of many white Christians about black slaves. They believed that people from Africa couldn't be accepted as Christians. Phillis Wheatley shows she is completely capable of being a good Christian and expressing her faith. She sees her coming to America as a blessing.

Wheatley also wanted to remind fellow Christians that inherent in Christian doctrine is inclusion. Anyone can be a Christian. The word itself means "little Christ". If one follows and accepts the teaching of Jesus Christ, they will be readily accepted into the church. If anyone can be saved, then there's implicit equality in this sentiment. Specifically, Jesus preached about helping the poor and misfortunate, the lowest rung of society. He expressed the importance of all reaching heaven's gates and that the wealthy should help those in need.

"On Being Brought from Africa to America": Format

"On being brought from Africa to America" follows an AABBCCDD rhyming couplet format. Each couplet ends in a rhyme. The rhyming scheme gives the reader the rhythm.

Rhyming couplet - two lines that end with a pair of words that sound the same

The poem also makes use of iambic pentameter. Phillis Wheatley was well versed in classical literature. From the beginning of her new life with the Wheatleys, she was encouraged to learn. She picked up reading and writing very quickly, reading classics and began to translate them from Greek and Latin into English. She was a big fan of contemporary English poet Alexander Pope, who was known for his heroic couplets, a form of iambic pentameter used in epic and narrative poems.

Iambic pentameter - a rhythm where the second syllable is stressed of ten syllables total.

"On Being Brought from Africa to America": Figurative Language

The poem "On Being Brought from Africa to America" has several examples of figurative language despite its short length.

Personification

Personification - attributing human qualities to nonhuman things

"Twas mercy"(line 1) that brought Phillis Wheatley from Africa to America. Of course, mercy is a concept not physically capable of transporting anything physically. Thematically it refers to Christianity and God's mercy. Anyone can join the kingdom of God if they just accept Christ into their life. Phillis was expressing gratitude for the opportunity to be a good Christian and live in America. Whether she truly felt this or was performing for a Christian audience is unknown.

Allusion

Phillis Wheatley uses allusion with "black as Cain" (line 7)

Allusion - a reference to a previous work, story, or character

In the biblical story of Cain and Abel, Cain murders his brother. God allows Cain to live, but "marks" him for the rest of his life. The mark has been interpreted by white Christians as Cain appearing much darker in skin color. Phillis Wheatley knows her audience is predominantly Christian. She doesn't need to explicitly state that Cain is a reference to the Bible. Readers of her time would likely already know this. Reading the Bible was common, especially if one was a literate Christian in Phillis Wheatley's time.

Irony

Irony also plays a small part in the poem. Phillis Wheatley, a black poet, accepted white Christians in a time when white Christians would not accept the possibility of a black Christian. She praised Christianity and accepts her faith as a gift despite her rejection by white Christians.

Irony - in a literary sense, when there's a large discrepancy between what is expected and what actually occurs.

"On Being Brought from Africa to America": Tone

At first, the tone is gratitude and acknowledgement of the power of the Christian faith. Then the tone shifts to one of reprimand, reminding Christians to actually behave according to their central belief of equality and salvation for all.

The first half of the poem has Phillis Wheatley expressing gratitude for her salvation. The tone is of gratitude and jubilance, celebrating the fortune she received, as she refers to Africa as a pagan land. Paganism in her time was used disparagingly towards nonbelievers of Christianity. She's grateful for her life in colonial British America and is proudly proclaiming her faith thanks to her fortune of being brought there.

In the second half, her tone changes to one of scolding or reprimanding. She acknowledges that black people are seen as lesser, or as suspicious. Many white people in her time believed black people could not become Christians. It was rare for them to be baptized, as per Christian tradition.

On Being Brought from Africa to America - Key takeaways

  • "On Being Brought from Africa to America" is a poem by Phillis Wheatley, the first African American poet who was also a slave.
  • Phillis Wheatley was encouraged to read and write by her masters the Wheatleys.
  • "On Being Brought from Africa to America" is about Phillis Wheatley's conversion to Christianity, reminding Christians to be inclusive.
  • Wheatley uses figurative language such as allusion, alliteration, and personification in "On Being Brought from Africa to America".
  • "On Being Brought from Africa to America" has a tone shift from exultation of Wheatley's faith to the reprimanding of other Christians for their hypocrisy.

1. Cynthia Salisbury, Phillis Wheatley: Legendary African-American Poet (2001).

2. Molly Aloian, Phillis Wheatley: Poet of the Revolutionary Era (2013)

Frequently Asked Questions about On Being Brought from Africa to America

"On Being Brought from Africa to America" was published in 1773 in the poem collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773)

The message of "On Being Brought from Africa to America" is that poet Phillis Wheatley was able to accept Christianity and that other Christians should remember that equality is a central tenet of their religion.

The irony is that Phillis Wheatley, a black poet, was able to accept Christianity when Christians themselves didn't believe black people couldn't be Christians when a central tenet of Christianity is equality.

The purpose is to remind Christians to practice what they preach, meaning to behave according to the Bible's central doctrine of equality.

The tone of "On Being Brought from Africa to America" shifts from gratitude and acknowledgment of the power of the Christian faith to one of reprimand, reminding Christians to actually behave according to their central belief of equality and salvation for all.

Final On Being Brought from Africa to America Quiz

Question

When was "On Being Brought from Africa to America published?

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Answer

"On Being Brought from Africa to America" was published in 1773 in the poem collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773)

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Question

What is the message of "On Being Brought from Africa to America"?

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Answer

The message of "On Being Brought from Africa to America" is that poet Phillis Wheatley was able to accept Christianity and that other Christians should remember that equality is a central tenet of their religion.

Show question

Question

What is the irony in "On Being Brought from Africa to America"?


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Answer

The irony is that Phillis Wheatley, a black poet, was able to accept Christianity when Christians themselves didn't believe black people couldn't be Christians when a central tenet of Christianity is equality.

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Question

What is the purpose of "On Being Brought from Africa to America"?


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Answer

The purpose is to remind Christians to practice what they preach, meaning to behave according to the Bible's central doctrine of equality.

Show question

Question

How would you describe the tone of "On Being Brought from Africa to America" and does it shift?

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Answer

The tone of "On Being Brought from Africa to America" shifts from gratitude and acknowledgment of the power of the Christian faith to one of reprimand, reminding Christians to actually behave according to their central belief of equality and salvation for all.

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Question

How did Phillis Wheatley get her name?

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Answer

She was named after the slave ship that brought her, The Phillis, and as per tradition, received her slave master's last name.

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Question

Phillis Wheatley was too frail for

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Answer

manual labor.

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Question

Phillis Wheatley quickly learned to read and write

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Answer

Greek and Latin

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Question

"On Being Brought from Africa to America" uses figurative language like

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Answer

Alliteration

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Question

"On being brought from Africa to America" follows 


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Answer

an AABBCCDD rhyming couplet format.

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Question

Who inspired Phillis Wheatley to use heroic couplets?

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Answer

Alexander Pope

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Question

Phillis Wheatley compares her skin color to what Biblical character?

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Answer

Cain

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Question

Phillis Wheatley's birthplace of origin is believed to be

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Answer

Western Africa, likely present-day Gambia or Senegal

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Question

Which Wheatley was Phillis's tutor?

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Answer

Mary

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Question

Who were two famous Americans that Phillis Wheatley met?

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Answer

Benjamin Franklin

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