Phillis Wheatley and Slavery Term Paper

Pages: 7 (2010 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Mythology - Religion

¶ … Slavery:

Seen Through the Eyes of Phillis Wheatley

Sometimes the best advocates for causes are those individuals that rise from the pit of despair and can say "I have done it and you can, too." Phillis Wheatley took this to heart and put herself in the public eye discussing one of the most passionate and painful aspects of her community. While would many would be happy to complain behind closed doors, Wheatley wrote openly about the horrors of slavery and the bravery of hope. She executed something that many people cannot do: she tackled a topic of which she is passionate and tempered it with wisdom and hope. Many may call her "just a poet" but Wheatley was brave beyond words, addressing slavery, praising God, and appealing to a government official. Her experience told her slavery was wrong and it also taught her that while slavery was wrong, America was not. She also learned that if slavery does not ruin you, you could use it to help others. She had a heart that was true, an experience that was dreadful, and a hope that was fierce. These ingredients will make nothing short of an individual ready and willing to fight for the causes, he or she believes in. Phillis Wheatley represents that even today, there are people we can believe in, we must simply give them a voice.Download full Download Microsoft Word File
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TOPIC: Term Paper on Phillis Wheatley and Slavery Assignment

Voice becomes an interesting aspect of Wheatley's poems. She is not simply writing about the slave experience. She writes about from a Christian perspective and this changes how it is perceived in many ways. The speaker in her poems is "resolute" (Adeeko), according to Adeeko and of the New World. This voice is new to the slave experience in America. This voice is fresh and independent and it seeks only to be heard and understood. This voice is also one to which we can closely associated Wheatley. The experiences are hers and one poem illustrating this is "On Being Brought from Africa to America." The poem, depicting the speaker's "most symbolic spaces as polar opposites" (Adeeko), explores a journey from a pagan world to a Christian one. The pagan world is filled with "ignorance, damnation, and complacency" (Adeeko) and defines the "present Christian location, America, are knowledge, salvation, and the thirst for newness" (Adeeko). This short poem is a poem of hope while it seems to insult Wheatley's heritage. Wheatley has simply left Africa behind, as Adeeko suggests. So this attitude is one with which we must look at slavery and the New World.

The speaker in this poem refuses to see anything but hope. One of the most positive things she experienced from being brought to American was religion. She writes, "mercy brought me from my Pagan land" (Wheatley On Being Brought from Africa to America 1). Without America and what the Americans believed, she would still be worshipping pagan gods. However, American taught her that there was a Savior and a God. This is critical because it influenced her in a remarkable way. Instead of looking at America as an evil place where she was forced to go and live without family, she saw something else. Her spiritual experience allowed her to recognize the good in what happened to her. Living in the midst of meaning of racism and prejudice required strength and her spirituality allowed her to do this. People may look at her with a "scornful eye" (5) but she refuses to do the same. She does linger in regret; she finds goodness around her through religion. This spiritual experience was "neither sought nor knew" (4), which only bolsters the argument that she was meant to have the experience she did. The interesting aspect of the speaker is how she can separate those that brought her across the ocean from those that introduced her to religion. It is as if the people are two different types of individuals: one group kind and loving, interested in her soul and the other cruel and unjust, selling other people as property. In the mire of slavery, the speaker finds joy and this is extremely powerful considering the speaker remembers the ride on the ship. She believes hope is extended to those who are cruel as well as those who are not. This is the hope we all have through the love of God. With this kind of hope, it is easy to see how the speaker would believe that things could improve in America. She might not know how but this does not mean it will not happen. She chooses to believe this rather than give into negativity. Through this, we see that she is thankful and harbors no anger toward God for her circumstance. Hope is a form of survival and it becomes a different way to look at slavery. Hope leads to mercy and this is how mercy can become the "main measure of responsibility in the new land" (Gates). Mercy extends from all and the speaker looks to those harboring slaves for a measure of mercy. She "reminds fellow Christians of what they might have forgotten about their core belief; every Christian's ultimate goal of securing a place in the "angelic train" transcends natural circumstances like skin color, social placement, and national origin" (Gates). All things stem from hope and the speaker of this poem realizes that and places herself out there first. She demonstrates she is not afraid to hope against all hope because it is better than giving in to fear and oppression.

While Wheatley was a hopeful person, it should be noted that she did not have an easy life. It becomes easy to think about rising above the oppression of slavery when we are not living in the throes of it, but in her day, it was tough. Survival was something people though about every day. The stress associated with kind of worry can be devastating and coping can manifest itself in several ways. Writing has always been one way thousands of people cope with their circumstances and it should come as no surprise that Wheatley turns to poetry when things were looking their worst. In her poem, "To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth," Wheatley argues for freedom from England. Just like "On Being Brought from Africa to America," this poem is passionate and personal. In addition, we see the same theme of hope running through the poem. This poem is positive, reflecting upon images of the sun when she writes, "Hail, happy day, when, smiling like the morn,/Fair Freedom rose New-England to adorn" (To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth 1-2), noting freedom "shines supreme" (10). The speaker brings to mind these images as if to turn the readers' eyes away from negativity and look forward toward a more promising future.

Through her admiration of William, the speaker is hoping to win his favor and let these inspired people do as they wish. She states:

Elate with hope her race no longer mourns,

Each soul expands, each grateful bosom burns,

While in thine hand with pleasure we behold

The silken reins, and Freedom's charms unfold. (5-8)

This passage reveals how the speaker understands the importance of flexibility and willingness to accept change rather than fight it simply because it seems unknown. She feels hope and she also knows what hope can for a group of people. As we have noted, hope literally changed her life because she turned from the negative and chose to focus on the good. Here, she is asking a man with great power to do the same.

Additionally, America no longer has to mourn as a result of:

wrongs, and grievance unredress'd complain,

No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,

Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand

Had made, and with it meant t' enslave the land. (16-20)

Here, we see how the speaker does not try to skip around the issue of slavery. It is a real part of American history and Wheatley knew it then. There are many forms of slavery and here she is drawing a parallel between the slavery of African-Americans to that of America. She can even pull from personal experience to add strength to her argument. With images of the "iron chain" (17) and "lawless hand" (18), we get a sense that the speaker knows well of what she speaks. With this authority, she tells William, "I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate/Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat" (24-5). Scenes of molestation and a parent's sorrow emerge when she writes, "Others may never feel tyrannic sway" (31). Here we see how the speaker is not simply writing a poem, she is speaking from personal experience about the ills of slavery and it is this calm authority that gives Wheatley's poems power.

Wheatley was exposed to criticism from all sides. Publishing her book, while it did not change who she was, it did change how others perceived her. For us today, it is difficult to imagine any… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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