Racism in literature had been prevalent in both America and Europe during the era when slavery was at its peak and even up to the time after it had been abolished. Racism in literature had been written by those with racist views and those who seek to liberate slaves alike. Some rare ones like Phillis Wheatley got the chance to contribute her own writings to the vast library of works discussing racism. Even if she only wrote a single poem mentioning her life as a slave, her work is not to be disregarded. This sample custom literary essay will discuss the life of Phillis Wheatley and her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.
Phillis Wheatley as a child was considered a prodigy. She was born around 1753 in Senegal, Africa and was brought to America in the year 1761 due to the slave trade at the time. There, she was bought by John Wheatley. The Wheatleys had taken notice of her intense curiosity and ability to pick up knowledge when Phillis, a girl of only 7 or 8 years of age, had learned the English language in just 16 months. It must be taken note of that she had no prior knowledge of the language. Her writing, according to John Wheatley, was led purely by her curiosity.
At the time, Phillis Wheatley has taken interest in studying Latin and Greek along with the works of notable authors like Homer, Virgil, and Ovid. She also studied the Holy Bible and admired John Milton and Alexander Pope greatly. Their influence on her work is very noticeable. By 1767, she wrote her first religious poem On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin. But it wasn’t until 1770 that she began to attract the public ‘s attention after publishing her poem An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine…George Whitefield.
Because Wheatley was an African American slave, she had trouble in publishing a collection of her poems. At the age of 19, she attempted to have her book published in Boston, Massachusetts, where she and the Wheatleys were currently residing. Her book was turned down due to the predominant racism in her time. However, her mistress Susanna helped her find a publisher. They came into contact with Selina Hastings who then secured Archibald Bell of London to publish the book that would come to be known as Phillis Wheatley’s first and only published book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral is a collection of Phillis’ 39 poems. Not only did she experience difficulty in finding a publisher because of her race, but she also had to prove that all of the poems included in the book was indeed her work. The preface of her book contains an attestation where 18 notable Bostonians have affixed their signatures. This is to prove Phillis Wheatley’s authorship of the 39 poems. Those who signed have also served as judges on the girl’s ability to write. With Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, Phillis Wheatley became the first African American woman, and also only the second woman in America, to have her own book published.
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral
Influential, to say the least, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was a literary gem as well as hotbed of unabashed prejudice, emanating mainly from white slaveholders. It was positively received, most notably, by Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and King George III. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by and large, was a triggering factor for her emancipation. A book made of a collection of poems that radiated the innermost thoughts of a member of a prejudiced race is sure to catch the attention of both salve and slave owners alike.
However, the authenticity of her work and literary prowess were rigidly questioned by her readers, not on grounds of merit, but on her status as a Negro and a slave. The help of several upstanding Boston residents was enlisted so as to verify her ability and in turn, hasten its publication. However, one must not be swayed to think that these prominent Bostonians were completely “emotionally invested” in helping Wheatley. For even if these upstanding Bostonians readily assisted in verifying her work and testify to her defense, their collective perception of Wheatley - a female, a slave, and a Negro - was still tainted with contempt.
Fueled by covert racism and vividly demonstrated by the statement they brought forth to her defense. They reasonably believe that Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was written by Phillis Wheatley, a young uncultivated Negro girl, all but a few years younger and without refinement when she was brought to America, and is just currently “disadvantaged by her servitude” – at the time a most fantastic and almost benevolent way to view the plight of African slaves.
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in 1773, at the height of legal slavery in the United States and roughly a century before the emancipation of slavery. Phillis Wheatley’s book that was supposed to be published in the previous year reflects not only racism and prejudice, but the dominant perception of blacks in a supposedly enlightened land – barely human and unfit to be integrated into white society. However, the one published in the following year was much less political in nature.
More than a third of her works included in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral are elegies to friends or prominent figures in which she puts in praise for them. Some of her poems reflect her preoccupation with freedom from racism, her spiritual freedom along with religious questions, and a couple patriotic praises one of which is addressed to George Washington. The book’s content is rife with Phillis Wheatley’s musings on race, religion, hope, her rather peculiar social standing, and absence of a “tangible” identity, the process which she had to undergo to publish the book spoke generously of unjust vexation, and veiled racism, which deserves a brief but thorough discussion.
On Racism and Slavery
Phillis Wheatley only mentioned her origins and own enslavement once in all her works. The most poignant and instantly recognizable poem in her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral is On Being Brought to America from Africa. It is one of Wheatley’s most anthologized poems and also of the most controversial ones in African American literature, as well as American literature in general.
While devoid of explicit language, it is reasonably safe to assume that the speaker is young Phyllis, aged 7 or 8, reflecting on the “reason” for the physical torment she endured, so as to eventually be converted to Christianity. If the reader should want to dispute the analysis on basis of the speaker’s exclamation of newfound faith, not only will they downplay the evils of slavery and racism, but also defile the memory of a woman who set the literary precedent for dignity-stripped slaves:
‘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 fought 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.
The first half of the poem On Being Brought to America from Africa speaks of gratitude towards a benevolent Christian deity and worship is presumably owed to her white masters who practice the Christian faith, whom she saw as saviors. These masters, despite the unspeakable horrors of the transatlantic voyage that carried slaves to America, presumably led her to believe that they had snatched her from the shackles of ignorance and paganism on her home continent.
Here she reiterates her belief in Christianity. That despite being a member of an oppressed race, she seeks no redemption, and attributes such attitude to her faith. She views her survival of the voyage as divine providence that directed her to her faith, almost to the point that she sees racism towards blacks as corrigible. The last line is obvious concession to what she may have been taught by her masters, for the purpose of quelling any strand of rebellion that may have been in her heart.
The racism is represented in the latter half of the poem, wherein the speaker retrospectively illustrates the utter disregard that white slave traders have for the African slave. Adding that African slaves are treated as nothing more than beasts of burden, like chattel, like merchandise, lower than subhuman. Looking back, the hypocrisy and racist notions of the whites in American society, primarily the slave traders, should be brought to question. For while they have already been bestowed with knowledge from the Enlightenment Age, which would give birth to the United States of America, still could not come to terms with the “Negro slave” question.
Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral is proof that African Americans are not intellectual inferior to white men. Her contribution to American literature effectively proved otherwise to those who doubt it. Phillis Wheatley lived a peculiar life trapped between being enslaved and experiencing the life of the privileged. Even so, she did not forget her roots and instead chose to touch on the subject or racism and slavery while maintaining what respect she has for her masters to who she owes her education.
Phillis Wheatley was indeed a remarkable woman. Being able to talk about her faith in God while admonishing those with racist beliefs is a feat to be admired. In her work, she illustrates that while she recognizes how severe the case of racism is in the country, she also believes that it can still be corrected. That someday, the perception of African American people will be better than what she knows it to be. Her unique position as a slave had never been reason enough to hinder her from addressing a problem as sensitive and controversial as racism and slavery.
There are many types of literature that your teacher will probably make you work with. It should be kept in mind that not all of the works you would have to read is straightforward and easy to understand. At times, you would have to analyze poems that are hard to understand because of the choice of words and the figures of speech employed by the author. If you are working on a really tight deadline, then you may have to seek a professional writer’s help. Fortunately for you, here at CustomEssayMeister, our professional writers are extremely versatile and well-versed. They are sure to produce a plagiarism-free custom essay just for you. Just send us a message.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Phillis Wheatley.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 1 Dec. 2020, www.britannica.com/biography/Phillis-Wheatley.
Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London, Archibald Bell, 1773.