Americans Oppressing Americans in the Literary Works of Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley was certainly an anomaly of her time. Having shown a keen intelligence when she was bought into the Wheatley family, Phillis, despite her slave status, was granted the right to an education, which fostered in her a love of writing and, especially, of poetry. Her writing, having emerged during colonial struggles for independence, defines Wheatley as a sympathizer to the American cause against British oppression. But, as a black servant within those very colonies that called for freedom, Wheatley also reveals in her poetry a refined subversiveness towards that society that simultaneously vouched for slavery.

Wheatley‘s social standing in the colonies was an odd one to determine Having been treated as almost a daughter by the family that owned her, Wheatley was not necessarily a slave in the way one typically imagines a slave to be. However, having been purchased as a hand maid for Susannah Wheatley, the poet was still oppressed by the construct of power the family held over her.

This reality is made much clearer after Susannah‘s death when Wheatley is set free, or rather, abandoned into poverty, by the family. With this death and with Wheatley‘s freedom also came the downfall of her career as much of the support for her writing was garnered through patronage to Susannah Wheatley. While her career did thrive, Wheatley displays in much of her writing a total sense of subtlety and refinement, Mary McAleer Balkun refers to Wheatley’s writing style as a result of her gentility, crediting it to the poet’s upbringing in the Wheatley household.

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According to Balkun, Wheatley shows measured responses in much of her poetry, especially so in her elegies, and writes that these should be seen “as a mark of gentility rather than an indication of her true feelings”, Tom 0 McCulley notices the same pattern in Wheatley‘s poetry, but regards it as an act of stealth, a method observed in the writings of other slaves as well.

Although relatively well-off compared to others in her status, Wheatley was still a slave, and as such, her voice was only heard as long as the Wheatley family would allow it to be heard. Subtlety and allusion, however, allowed the poet to get her messages across with hardly any cause for alarm from the white, slave»owning population that read her work. Using these methods in her writing, Wheatley was able to display a subversiveness towards slavery and white and Christian dominance under the guises of American freedom and Christian salvation. Wheatley recognized the hypocrisy in the colonists’ desire for freedom when they were themselves condoning slavery within the land they wished to set free from British rule. In her poem directed to the Earl of Dartmouth, Wheatley makes this contradiction known by addressing the oppression of America in terms that are more closely related to slavery as it pertains to the enslavement of black people in the colonies Lines 17-19 of the poem state.

“No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain/Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand/Had made, and with it meant t‘ enslave the land” Iron chains, tyranny, enslavement: while perfectly able to stand in as allusions to the British oppression of that time, these three words also, and perhaps more accurately, depicted the reality of those slaves snatched from Africa to serve the colonists who themselves felt shackled by a foreign government, These lines are very typical of Wheatley’s subversive style and demonstrate very well how particular the poet was in choosing how to express her ideas This reference to anti-slavery sentiments becomes much more blatant as the poem continues, Wheatley describes that her “love of Freedom” comes from having been taken from Africa as a child and sold into slavery. But, in the last two lines of that same stanza.

Wheatley attempts to deflect some of the suspicion that her anecdote begins to conjure: “And can I then but pray/Others may never feel tyrannic sway?” Posing that question redirects the reader’s attention back to the topic of the struggle of the colonists’ rebellion against British rule, at least at first glance. The dualism of that word “others” may suggest those, unlike Wheatley, such as the white colonists vying against the British, but may just as well refer to other slaves within the colonies Considering herself just as American as the colonists whom she served. Wheatley must have been earnest in advocating for both liberations. So it was in this way that the American Revolution, fortunately, also provided Wheatley with a platform for addressing slavery in a way that could be shared without altogether offending the slave owners who could take away her voice Aware of the status difference between blacks and whites in colonial America, Wheatley stood as an advocate for racial equality In order to get her message across, Wheatley couches her views within religious contexts.

Her “On Being Brought from Africa to America” is a prime example While rather short, the poem succinctly expresses that black people are just as capable of redemption as white people, ending with the lines, “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain/May be refined, and join the angelic train.” Here, Wheatley alludes to that sense of superiority that the white colonists, especially slave owners, felt over their black counterparts This idea of Cain and refinement is akin to the idea that all of mankind is born with the sin of Adam and spends life repenting for that sini While it is said in terms of God and Christianity, this poem is a message to the reader that there is no difference between white and black people, that all people are inherently equal and that differing skin color should not be an indication of one or the other‘s inferiority.

This point is further emphasized in Wheatley’s poem “On the Death of the Rev Mri George Whitefield, 1770,” in which lines 3235 state: “Take Him my dear Americans, he said, “Be your complaints on His kind bosom laid: “Take Him, ye Africans, He longs for you, “Impartial Savior is His title duez” God, being the overall authority, the one judge, of all people, is said here to be impartial. Using Christian theology in this sense, Wheatley encourages the reader to reflect on the notion that blacks and whites should not be thought of as separate classes and social ranks. Supporting this idea to an even greater degree, Wheatley uses the phrase “we Americans” in line 38, inserting herself into that group in order to blur the racial connotations that tend to separate the terms “America” from “slavery’fl It is just as Balkun observes: “the speaker in a Wheatley poem often returns to the matter of race, but usually in order to make the case that it is meaningless, that the same God has made all of us, and all in God’s image and likeness”.

Despite having used religion as a way to safely express her ideas on equality, Wheatley was just as devout as her allusions suggestt However, she also knew that Christianity was one other means by which many whites held superiority over the blacks, McCulley’s interpretation of Wheatley‘s “On Being Brought from Africa to America” asserts that the poem is a subversion against, not Christianity, but the patronizing idea that white men could know what was best for a black slave, especially with something as personal as one’s spirituality. Wheatley’s separation of “God” and “Savior” in the poem indicates that there was already an understanding of god prior to the poet‘s abduction from Africa, albeit different from the Christian point of view. With the type of language she uses at the beginning, Wheatley sets herself up as one who has been enlightened by the ways of Christianity. However, she also uses this enlightened spirit to imitate the condescending nature, with which the white colonists treated the black slaves, and redirect it at those Christians who thought themselves so superior.

The last two lines are expressed with an authority that feels as though Wheatley knows something that the reader does not, but she starts it with a command to “remember,” which reduces the initial impact of her statement by implying it to be common knowledge, making the authority less detectable yet still present and allowing her message about religion and rank to be perceived in afar more subtle manner As an African American slave, WheaLley did not necessarily have a lot to live up to. Fortunately, her intellect and the rather liberal Wheatley family gave her the means to share a voice that would resonate long after her death. Freedom, equality these are not new topics, by any means But the importance of Wheatley and her poetry is that they provide an insight into a struggle that is often overlooked when thinking back to the American Revolution, and that is the overall hypocrisy of Americans oppressing other Americans during their struggle for freedom.

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Americans Oppressing Americans in the Literary Works of Phillis Wheatley. (2023, May 14). Retrieved from

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