Poet's Pick April 27
Phillis Wheatley: "On Being Brought From Africa to America"
Selected by Cornelius Eady
National Poetry Month 2016

Letter from the Editors

Dear Readers,

Our thanks to Cornelius Eady for today's Poet's Pick!

We are bringing you a special poem and commentary each weekday in April as part of our annual fund-raising campaign and in celebration of National Poetry Month. Please help us to continue our service to you and to poetry by making a tax-deductible contribution to Poetry Daily! Click here to find out how you can contribute online or by mailing a check or money order.

Thank you so much for your support! Enjoy today's special poem and commentary!

Warmest regards,

Don Selby & Diane Boller
Editors


Cornelius Eady's Poetry Month Pick, April 27, 2016

"On Being Brought from Africa to America"
by Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)

'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.

 

* Cornelius Eady Comments:
“Chosen by whimsy but born to surprise”. As June Jordan writes in her poem “Something Like A Sonnet for Phillis Miracle Wheatley”, this poem by Phillis Wheatley, published in her one and only book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773, is a text I find myself returning to again and again over the years.

Wheatley, of course, is generally regarded as the first African-American to have a full-length book of poetry published, though she was still a slave, and the book was actually published in England. She was kidnapped into slavery from West Africa when she was around 7 or 8 years old, sent to Boston on the slave ship Phillis, a journey that was to make her so ill she caught the attention of the Wheatley family, who were abolitionist. They brought her home, and in the “mercy” Phillis Wheatley writes about in the first line of her poem, they raised her gently, including teaching her, a slave and a woman, to read. The “surprise” June Jordan writes about is not only her ability to read, but to display an aptitude for writing verse.

“On Being Brought” is a tough poem to navigate, because so many of us, Wheatley’s poetic descendants, want so much more from it and her. Both Thomas Jefferson, whose critique of Wheatley’s book (“religion could produce a Phiilis Wheatley, but it could not make her a poet”) and Amiri Baraka, who dismissed her as a “Tom”, (a black person who performs for the master’s pleasure), are in agreement for the same reason: her use of poetic form, which Jefferson sees as proof of Wheatley’s (or any Negro’s) inability to understand or master it, while Baraka chides her for her symbolic alignment with her oppressors; she cannot “rise” to be a “white” poet, she must not be embraced as truly “black”.

For me, much of the pleasure of reading “On Being Brought” lies not in the neo-classical form of the poem, but in how Wheatley puts that form in service to what she was trying to express, and to whom. As much as we’d like to feel otherwise, we must respect the fact that Phillis Wheatley was not a rebel, at least not in our contemporary definition of the word. This was because she had no need; the mere sight of her, a slave, reading and writing, even in a “free” town like Boston, was rebellion enough, even one thanking God and her owners for her deliverance.

Does the Negro dream? Does the slave have a soul? In order to answer these questions, Phillis Wheatley was obliged to move into space that was up until then, not simply off limits—it wasn’t imagined at all. Her presence and poetry compelled her audiences and readers to consider what a tool (or weapon) a book could be in the hands of a slave. When I read “Poems On Various Subjects” now, I find myself less concerned with how well or poorly Wheatley succeeds poem by poem, but with what she wants her reader to be aware of—the books she’s absorbed, the ideas, and concepts she wants the reader to know she knows, the myths they all share in common. Most of all, she wants her reader to understand that this is a writer who thinks, and within that action, the reader is forced to acknowledge that her mind and their mind work about the same, which would be for many who held her book, or saw her read, the first time they had to truthfully confront and consider the idea: Common humanity.

I believe the pivotal word in “On Being Brought” is “benighted”, which underscores the true theme that Wheatley wishes to express. The word implies she was a vessel to be happily filled with grace and knowledge. The poem, however, maps out a more complicated experience, one that can only belong to an enslaved body in a free land.

Knowledge has a price; learning the word your owners use for who you used to be and what you didn’t know has a price. Becoming aware of not only who you are, but the way you’re looked at has a price. Phillis is aware of what has happened to her; there is a powerful, but short passage in another of her poems that tells us she remembers:

“I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?”

(-“To the RIGHT Honourable WILLIAM, Earl of
DARTMOUTH, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary
Of State for North America, &c.”)

And in another, “To The University of Cambridge, In New-England” (which I believe she actually read on site), she acknowledges to the audience her origins, and attempts, perhaps as a preemptive gesture, to gain their favor by reflecting back the conventional wisdom:

“Twas not long since I left my native shore
The land of errors, and Egyptain gloom”

More than a standard issue declaration of Christian conversion, in the first four lines of “On Being Brought From Africa To America” Wheatley seems to me to be also defining the “price” for this slaves experience—to become a woman made aware of books, of concepts- “God”, “soul,” “savior”, “salvation”, she also had to learn her relationship to the word Pagan. If it’s a “mercy”, as Wheatley writes, it’s a mercy with barbs.

The last four lines of the poem is where Wheatley writes what she appears to have thought through about that— the distance between what we humans say and how we act: Is a soul a soul, or, once saved, does the God she now embraces value one type of soul above another?

Many readers believe this is the one and only time Wheatley “speaks out”, but to me it appears to be a variation to an on-going trope in her book; in Poems of Various Subjects, Phillis Wheatley declares. A lot. In the Cambridge address, I feel she puts herself down in those early lines in order to later gain the right to urge her white audience against sin:

“An Ethiop tells you ’tis your greatest foe”.

In “On Being Brought” she uses that device again, only this time piety is not her target. It’s hypocrites. If her first four lines declare she’s with the program, line five is a stunning “however”:

“Some view our race with scornful eye,”

Line six feels like all the times she sat in a room, and felt invisible while people chatted around her:

“’Their colour is a diabolic die’”

In lines seven and eight she cranks up the volume-this couplet may be as loud as a slave ever yells in print in pre-revolutionary America:

“Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train”.

Slavery and religion will have a long, bumpy entwined dance in America. Here, instead of the admonishment coming from the voice of a white, abolitionist pastor, the word comes directly from the subject itself, “An Ethiop”, using her master’s tongue to speak of experience from a space that can only belong to her.

The African American poet Wanda Coleman, asked by the Poetry Society of American for an on-line interview to define what was “American” about American poetry, replied, “The unique cauldron of Protestantism and Racism in which it is defined and from which it takes shape.” I believe one can make an argument that the shape Coleman speaks of begins here, with this poem.

“On Being Brought From Africa to America” is Phillis Wheatley’s poetic answer to her observations (another element of reason believed beyond the grasp of the slave) and questions which arise from what her “benighted soul” has been “taught” to “understand” from the “Mercy” of being kidnapped from her family and homeland, being adopted and educated by another, and deciding that in the long run, it was a “blessing”. What she learns and reports is complicated, and contradicts; 243 years later, we are still afloat within them. Phillis Wheatley declaring and reminding her readers in 1773 that her soul matters, that all Negro souls matter, regardless of what she overhears, doesn’t feel that far removed from what is now being shouted in the streets in 2016 America about Black Lives. I feel “On Being Brought” is one of the most unique- and singularly American-poems we have, and each time I read who we were in Phillis Wheatley’s poem, I see a bit more clearer about who we are.

*

Recently, I met a scholar from East Africa just before a reading I was to give at a Literary Festival in Spokane, Washington. She had seen a video clip of me reading and discussing “On Being Brought” for the Favorite Poem Project, and as we talked, she lead me to consider a few things:

I thought of young Phillis, a 7 or 8 year old child, who was carrying two languages in her head— the one she was learning from her owners in America, and the one she had learnt in her village. One of them-English-got the upper hand. But did she retain any memories of that home tongue? Did she forget it over time, or simply understood that nothing pagan could be said aloud?

How much did she remember of her homeland? She mentions it in passing in a few of her poems, but as the scholar pointed out, by 7 or 8, you have collected some memories, even if they’re clouded. She mentions her parents in her poems; did she remember their names? Did she remember how to pronounce them?

We also discussed one of the best mysteries about Wheatley; when the manuscript of Poems On Various Subjects sailed off to be printed in England, the author along went with them. The minute she stepped off that ship, and on to English soil, Phillis was a free woman. Her book made her a celebrity. She was wined and dined in a way most authors today would envy.

So why, we wondered, when word of one of the Wheatley children falling ill reached Phillis, did she return? Was it love, or loyalty? Did she feel obligated to the family who “taught her …soul to understand”?  We marveled, again, at the contradictions within the poet, within the woman.

Later, thinking again of Young Phillis lead me to Margaret Walker’s poem “Ballad for Phillis Wheatley”, in which Walker has Wheatley’s parents wonder aloud, as millions of parents probably did, the fate of their stolen children who they were never to see again. I used Walker’s poem as a jumping off point for my own poetic response:

 

To Phillis Wheatley's Mother

“What will happen to our little one?
Who will see her grow?’
         —Margaret Walker, “Ballad For Phillis Wheatley”

Your daughter is a orchid.
She lives in a house on a high street.
They named her after the ship
Which bore her, wild (she says)
Across the waves.

Your daughter is a cuckoo's egg.
She walks the street in English cloth.
She did not jump into the shark's belly,
She did not land to sweep, to hoe, to breed.
She stood just once upon the block.

Your daughter is exotic tea.
Where does she travel when she dreams,
Clean head upon a starched pillow?
She holds parchment in her dark hands.
She has learnt to sing in the robbers tongue.

Your daughter is a Boston dame, almost.
Her quill makes the patriots blink.
Her black skin, which you bore,
Is paper, poem, bill of sale.
She bears your name

But can no longer pronounce it.
Now she speaks and
This shock transmutes the world,
The way that mud can float a wall,
The way a drip can split a stone.


Cornelius Eady:
Poet, Playwright and Songwriter Cornelius Eady was born in Rochester, NY in 1954, and is the author of several poetry collections: Kartunes; Victims of the Latest Dance Craze, winner of the 1985 Lamont Prize; The Gathering of My Name, nominated for the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry; You Don't Miss Your Water; The Autobiography of a Jukebox; Brutal Imagination; and most recently, Hardheaded Weather (Putnam, 2008). His awards include Fellowships from the NEA, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Traveling Scholarship, and The Prairie Schooner Strousse Award. His work appears in many journals, magazines, and the anthologies Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep, In Search of Color Everywhere, and The Vintage Anthology of African American Poetry, (1750-2000).  In 2013 he released two poetry/music chapbooks, BOOK OF HOOKS, VOL 1 & 2 (Kattywompus Press), and ASKING FOR THE MOON (Red Glass Press). He is a co-founder of the Cave Canem Foundation and is currently The Miller Family Endowed Chair in Literature and Writing and Professor in English and Theater at The University of Missouri-Columbia.


Don't forget! If you enjoy our regular features and special events like this one, please join Cornelius Eady in supporting Poetry Daily by making a tax-deductible contribution.