Phillis Wheatley

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Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley was born probably in 1753, perhaps along the Gambia River in West Africa. She is thought to have been of the Fulani people. Wheatley was captured and brought across the ocean to America in a slave boat. Some reports say she was nearly dead by the time she arrived in Boston. She was about 7 or 8 years old when Susanna Wheatley, wife of John Wheatley, purchased her July 11, 1761.

Wheatley soon distinguished herself in the Wheatley household by learning to read and write English when she was only about 9. The Wheatley family encouraged her education and young Phillis learned Latin as well and began to write poetry. In 1768 Wheatley wrote the original version of what would become her best-known work, “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” This piece was first published in 1773 in her first full-length collection titled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

Wheatley’s 1773 volume was the first full-length published work by an African-American author. No one except the family she worked for believed that Wheatley had written the poems. To prove that she had in fact written them, Wheatley had to go before a group of 18 of the most respectable white men in Boston and answer a series of questions. No one knows exactly what they asked her, but her responses were sufficient. The men signed a letter to the public assuring readers that Wheatley did write the poems. The letter was published with the collection.

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 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.

  • Phillis Wheatley, 1773


  1. How was Wheatley’s life as a slave different from that of Frederick Douglass?

  2. Read the poem above and write down your initial reaction to the poem.

  3. In addition to being Wheatley’s most popular poem, “On Being Brought from Africa to America” may well be her most controversial work. Why do you think this poem would be controversial?

  4. In your own words, summarize the message of the first four lines.

  5. How does the message of the piece change in the second half of the poem?

  6. Why is the use of the word “our” in line 5 important?

  7. Research the biblical allusion in line 7 and briefly explain the story of Cain and Abel. Does comparing her race to Cain help or hurt Wheatley’s argument? Explain.

  8. Now read the attached excerpt of June Jordan’s essay “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America.” Record your initial thoughts about the piece.

  9. Did Jordan’s essay change your opinion of Wheatley and her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” or did it affirm your interpretation of the poem? Explain.

  10. Though this excerpt is from an essay, Jordan uses poetic devices such as a refrain. Identify the refrain used in the essay. What effect do you believe Jordan tries to create with this refrain? Is it successful?

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