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June 28, 2021

Phillis Wheatley

Eighteenth-century poet Phillis Wheatley was an extraordinary person who achieved something extraordinary. Phillis became a published author while enslaved. One of three African Americans to publish while still enslaved, her writing was only possible by permission of her “owner.”

Any explicit pleas for freedom would have ended her publishing career, so she made her argument for dignity and freedom through the creative use of biblical symbolism. This would allow her both to reach a white audience and to change their thinking about slavery.

One of her more prominent poems was “On Being Brought from Africa to America.”

'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their color is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refined and join th’ angelic train.

On the surface this poem may appear a startling submission to white oppression. A closer look reveals it to be a subversion of the racial attitude of white slave owners. Some white slaveowners believed Cain was cursed with black skin for murdering his brother Abel. But Wheatley turns this interpretation on its head, telling her readers that Africans, “black as Cain” can “be refined.” Wheatley rejected all suggestions of Africans as less than human. They are humans with souls, who could “join th’ angelic train.”

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