In 1761, when she was about seven years old, the girl we have come to know as Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped from her home on the West Coast of Africa. She was transported to Boston because she was too frail to be of practical use in the physically demanding sugar plantations of the South. She learned English, Greek, and Latin. But she remained enslaved. Twelve years later, in 1773, this same girl would become the first black person to publish a book in English. From that collection comes “On Being Brought from Africa to America” one of the most amazing poems I have ever read.
The poem itself follows the neoclassical model—it’s concerned with order, structure, reason. We see it in the rhyme, the meter, in its controlled organization, and also its logic. There is an orderly series of four heroic couplets. There are the requisite nods to Christian ideals. In the mode of her time, Wheatley's poem is clean, uncorrupted. Practically dismissible, it seems so perfect.
But this is not a poem to be easily dismissed. Scan it with me. In doing so, you’ll see some of the ways Wheatley uses the apparent order of the poem to reveal an entirely different line of reasoning than what might be evident at first glance. There is practically a secret code inside this poem. The “save” in “Savior” is stressed, the “Christ” in “Christian,” the word “black” in the penultimate line, and the word “join” at the poem’s end. The word “die” at the end of a line about the “diabolic” skin tone of black people is stressed along with the “di-” in “diabolic,” and both syllables are close enough in proximity to create a shocking internal rhyme. This all has something to do with English itself, with where stresses naturally fall in particular words, but the way that these words are put together in Wheatley’s poem directs whether and how we attend to them. Wheatley knew this. She uses the logic of the structure of metrical verse as a means toward revelation and resistance.
We see this same thing throughout the poem in her use of punctuation, in her rare enjambment, in the ways she plays with allusions, and especially in the fun she has with the homonymic potential of the English language. Toward the latter two points, I will never cease to wonder at her play on the word “Cain” to indicate the potential for refinement (and, therefore, exalted status) of the darker of the two sons of Adam and Eve, as well as the expected refinement (and, therefore, salvation) of the sugar cane (and sugar cane workers) at the center of the slave trade. Wheatley revels in the ways that something can appear to have one conclusion and also another.
This neoclassical poem, written by an enslaved young woman, barely out of her teens, is rebellious even as it appears to follow all the rules. It is about the complicated blessing of being kidnapped from her home and sold into slavery in a land where she is able to learn about the order and structure of Western traditions (including Christianity), and it has at its heart words, phrases, and lines that can be read (completely logically) in a number of ways. At every turn, she undermines and complicates the logic to which she is bound. I love that! I love her.