Phillis Wheatley and Nikki Giovanni

Questions to consider while reading:

"On Being Brought from Africa to America"--
1. What are the two different readings of this poem by Phillis Wheatley (think: Angry Queen vs. Capitulating Snow White)?

"Linkage (for Phillis Wheatley)"--
2. What rhetorical strategies do you see in the Giovanni poem?

3. Define these words: breeder, clitorectomies, infibulations, feckless, feculent.

4. What are the implications of the title?

5. What allusions are in the poem?

6. The poet starts the poem with "little girl." What advantage is there in not dealing with Wheatley as an adult?

7. Pay attention to the use of questions throughout the poem (a rhetorical device, by the way). Where are they? What effect do they have? What is their function?

8. Giovanni makes connections in a variety of ways here. How many different kinds of connections do you see? Where? (One is in stanza 2 with a connection between past and present. Another is also in stanza 2 between slavery and child prostitution.)

9. What argument does Giovanni make in the poem? What appeals (emotional, logical, ethical) does she use in the poem? Be specific about the emotional appeals.

10. What are the politics of the poem?

PHILLIS WHEATLEY (c. 1753-1784)

Phillis Wheatley was either nineteen or twenty years old when her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London in 1773. At the time of their publication she was the object of considerable public attention because, in addition to being a child prodigy, Wheatley was a black slave, born in Africa (probably in present-day Senegal or Gambia), and brought to Boston in 1761. She had been purchased by a wealthy tailor, John Wheatley, for his wife, Susannah, probably as a companion, and named for the vessel that carried her to our shores. Wheatley was fortunate in her surroundings, for Susannah Wheatley was sympathetic toward this very frail and remarkably intelligent child. In an age in which few white women were given an education, Wheatley was taught to read and write, and in a short time began to read Latin writers. She came to know the Bible well, and three English poets–Milton, Pope, and Gray–touched her deeply and exerted a strong influence on her verse. The Wheatelys moved in a circle of enlightened Boston Christians and Phillis, as James Levemier [??] has recently shown, was introduced early on to a community that challenged the role of slavery as incompatible with Christian life. Wheatley’s poem on the death of the Reverend George Whitefield, the great egalatarian English evangelist who frequently toured New England, made her famous. In June 1773, she arrived in London with her manuscript in the company of the Wheatleys’ son Nathaniel. She came to England partly for reasons of health and partly to seek support for her first book. Benjamin Franklin and the lord mayor of London were among those who paid their respects. Her literary gifts, intelligence, and piety were a striking example to her English and American admirers of the triumph of the human spirit over the circumstances of birth. Her poems appeared early in September and the governor of Massachusetts, along with John Wheatley and John Hancock, were among the eighteen prominent citizens testifying that "under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town," Wheatley "had been examined and thought qualified to write them."

Wheatley did not remain long enough in London to witness their publication; for she was called back to Boston with the news that Susannah Wheatley was dying. Early in the fall of 1773 she was manummitted. Susannah Wheatley died in 1774 and John Wheatley, four years later. In that same year, 1778, she married John Peters, a freedman, about whom almost nothing is known other than that the Wheatleys did not like him, that he petitioned for a license to sell liquor in 1784, and that he may have been in debtor’s prison when Wheatley died, having endured poverty and the loss of two children in her last years. On her deathbed her third child lay ill beside her and succumbed shortly after Wheatley herself. They were buried together in an unmarked grave. Five years earlier, and only one year after her marriage, a proposal appeared for a second volume of poetry to include thirteen letters and thirty-three poems. The volume was never published and most of the poems and letters have yet to be found.

Wheatley’s poetry was rediscovered in the 1830s by the New England abolitionists, but it is no exaggeration to say that she has never been better understood than at the present. Her recent critics have not only corrected a number of biographical errors but, more important, have provided a context in which her work can be best read and her life understood. This reconsideration shows Wheatley to be a bold and canny spokesperson for her faith and her politics; she early on joined the cause of American independence and the abolition of slavery, anticipating her friend the Reverend Samuel Hopkins’s complaint that when American Negroes first heard the "sons of liberty" cry for freedom they were shocked by indifference to their own "abject slavery and bitter wretchedness." It doesn’t take a philosopher, Wheatley told Samson Occom, a Presbyterian minister and Mohegan tribesman, to see that the exercise of slavery cannot be reconciled with a "principle" that God has implanted in every human breast, "Love of Freedom." She was mistaken in thinking that the conservative earl of Dartmouth (William Legge) might be sympathetic to the American cause but correct in reminding him that there could be no justice anywhere if people in authority were deaf to the history of human sorrow:

        Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
        Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
        Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
        By feeling hearts best understood,
        I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
        Was snatched from Afric’s fancied happy seat:
        What pangs excruciating must molest,
        What sorrows labor in my parent’s breast?
        Steeled was that soul and by no misery moved
        That from a father seized his babe beloved:
        Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
        Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

With the publication of Wheatley’s Poems, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has argued, "Wheatley launched two traditions at once–the black American literary tradition and the black woman’s literary tradition. It is extraordinary that not just one but both of these traditions were founded simultaneously by a black woman–certainly an event unique in the history of literature–it is also ironic that this important fact of common, coterminous literary origin seems to have escaped most scholars."

The text used here for both the letters and the poems is from The Poems of Phillis Wheatley, edited by Julian D. Mason, Jr. (1966, rev. 1989). Wheatley’s letters retain her original spelling.

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 dye."
      Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
      May be refined, and join the angelic train.


from The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Shorter Fourth Edition (Nina Baym, General Ed.)