On Being Brought from Africa to America

The Calvinism of Wheatley’s religion comes through very strongly in this poem, in which God’s Providence (his sovereignty) rules over all events and actions, including her being brought to America as a slave from Africa. This strikes many modern readers as a difficult, even distasteful, argument to follow, since Phillis would have remained free in her home country. The poem suggests some of the motifs common even among slave-owners at this time and into the nineteenth century, in which many argued that they were performing an act of benevolence by bringing slaves to Christian America from “Pagan” Africa! Phillis’s attitude toward divine grace, at this point in her life, outweighs her dislike of slavery, and reinforces her support of the efforts by some to evangelize the slave population in America and eventually (beginning in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the late 1780s) the inhabitants of Africa. Her attitude toward her own race, however, subverts some of the apparent assimilation in this poem, for she boldly declares that her color should not be viewed “with scornful eye,” nor is it a “diabolic die,” two attitudes all too common in 1770 among whites toward blacks. She not only demands that her race be included in “the angelic train,” but she does so as a black woman, a bold statement at that time to say the least.

’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, Negroes, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Text: The Poems of Phillis Wheatley (Philadelphia:R.R. and C. C. Wright 1909), p. 12.