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American Slavery Was Christian Slavery(Phillis Wheatley's On Being Brought From Africa (A Marxist/Feminist Critique))

Updated on April 21, 2011

"On Being Brought from Africa

‘Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand.

That there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some View our sable race with scornful eye.

“There color is a diabolic dye.”

Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,

May be refined, and Join the angelic train."(Wheatley 2007)


The one thing that has frustrated and blocked my understanding of American slavery, and over slavery in general is the question: Why didn’t the slaves rebel? Haiti did. The slave owners were completely outnumbered. Rebellion was the logical thing to do. If we take for example Phillis Wheatley’s poem, “Being Brought from Africa to America”, we find a slave who has under the (forced?) instruction of her slave masters internalized Christianity and used it to justify slavery.


The first dichotomy in the poem is America defined as: savior, non-pagan, godly, a place where redemption is located, a place where ignorance is removed, and where a dark place is lit; and Africa as: the other, the pagan, the non-Christian, a place you are brought from as opposed to taken from, a place you are saved from, a place where ignorance is located, a place which is dark without light, and godless.

Wheatley’s position is that she was once located in ignorance, and has arrived at understanding. She takes no position on the movement between lands; as far as the actual transit, simply she was in one place and now she is in another. She does not mention for example, the horrors of the slaves ships. This censorship serves two purposes; first, in supporting the overall argument the poem presents by ignoring the pure horror of how she arrived in America, she is stating that this unchristian event is not important, effectively it is irrelevant, that what is important is that her transition from pagan to Christian, and her argument by analogy that since she can be Christianized so can the rest of the African-pagans. Secondly, it also censors her class status in the poem, nowhere in the poems argument is the mention of slavery, as a reader you would have to look outside this poem to find a slave. Wheatley calls this censored position “mercy”. Mercy is what materialized to America from Africa. Mercy is the defining term which says that this cultural rape that has not been named is the absent sacrifice she made to become a Christian.


The second dichotomy is the Christian metaphor of light versus dark and knowledge verse ignorance. Wheatley defines herself from two positions. First, she was the dark, ignorant, and “benighted”(Wheatley 2007), but after her Christianization she becomes “taught”(Wheatley 2007), filled with light, a seeker of “redemption”(Wheatley 2007), and as something which can be refined. In the last two lines Wheatley asserts, “Black as Cain may be refined”(Wheatley 2007), which is to say even those tainted by sin most cruel, and break God’s laws can seek redemption. 

What is strange about this is how wholly she has internalized the perspective the slave master wants the slave to have. What I mean by this is Wheatley does not stand up against the condition she finds herself in she accepts it as a definite proclamation of mercy put forth by a merciful deity. Wheatley projects into this poem the ideal slave, the one that accepts their condition as divinely inspired. The slave who thinks God wants them to be a slave, which slavery was positive force which “brought”(Wheatley 2007) a slave from the dark pagan hell of Africa to the light of knowledge in America.


The third dichotomy is between Africans and Americans as people. There is no middle ground in this syllogism. There is only African or American, and no combining of the two into African-American. Wheatley speaks of African in Christian/Capitalistic terms: the African is a product you purchase which is tainted by paganism, but which can be “refined” by “redemption”(Wheatley 2007) into a product with a higher value.

This poem then can be taken as economic advice to slave masters. The slave master speaks though the slave, saying to the other slave masters, “Look at the return on the investment I got with this slave! First, I Christianized it, second I taught it to write poems, and now I can collect money for all the writings my slave produces! I have turned my slave into capital! And it’s not that hard even you can do it too!”


The fifth dichotomy is between two perspectives: the scornful and the non-scornful. The “scornful eye”(Wheatley 2007) is the eye that perceives the “diabolic dye”(Wheatley 2007), or rather, it is the non-Christian who sees the slave as tainted, and the Christian sees the slave as tabula rasa, as a mined mineral to be refined, as a potential Christian. On first reading this may seem like a rather positive statement, which says something like good Christians see the good in everything. But we must remember the context that this poem was written in. Christians at this time did not consider the slave to be human. As opposed to the Greek slavery which was not defined racially, the American Christian created an entire ideology of cognitive dissonance, whereby they could say that the slave is not this human creature that is differentiated solely by color, but the African is entirely something other than human because it is not Christian. This poem endorses humanization by Christianization, which is a crime of logic.

To start with, it assumes because the African is not human, that it is a something wholly other that human, and in order to change the inhuman-African into human, Christianity is forcefully introduced into the African. This forced choice into Christianity works on two levels; first it makes the slave owner feel better about his purchase by adding a potential value to his product that it can be converted; secondly, it attempts to redefine the Christian perspective towards slave by incorporating this perspective through peer pressure. The poem, calls the slave master out on his Christianity, it says, if you are a Christian, then you will see the Christian potential always-already in the slave.

Who is not the intended audience?

The intended audience for this poem is not the slave. Why? Because slaves could not read. (All things being equal, Wheatley is an exception that proves the rule.) Obscenely, this poem is written specifically to and for, (and by), slave masters and potential slave masters. It serves a purely Christian and Capitalistic goals, to produce more money with your slaves and feel good about it in the process, because you have purchased a tainted soul and have shined it into a Christian.

I can see where there could be a modern audience, who could take this poem as if it was a Jewish author writing about the holocaust as a purification process. That slavery, and cultural rape was the burnt offering needed in order to Christianize a race of people, but this reading corrupts the understanding of history, and adds a kind of historical materialist slant on the whole process, that, the event of slavery was required for a races Christianization.


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      Claudia 5 years ago

      Yes, you are right, Christianity argued for the worth and equality of others they also deemed Christians. Wheatley knew that and understood her primarily white, Christian audience. That is exactlywhy,in her poem, Wheatley reminds her audience that African-Americans could be saved and Christianized as well (not only whites)and therefore they are valuable and worthy like whites (her main audience).

      Her last two lines emphasize this when she says "Remember Christians, Negroes, black as Cain//May be refined and join the angelic train". Note that she doesnt' clearly define who can be refined. She leaves an ambiguity as to who. I say she is referring to both Christians and Negroes being able to be refined because she makes no dash,colon or other distinction between Christians and Negroes (Ex: "Remember, Christians-Negroes, black as Cain . . . ). However, if you still think she is only referring to only blacks needing to be refined and that she is talking about their economic value, what do you think of the last part, "May be refined and join the angelic train"? Doesn't that give us a clue that she is talking about a spiritual renewal and the angelic train is heaven?

      Therefore, if you believe she was only referring to Negroes being refined, you may have to agree she was reminding those who called themselves Christians (her white audience), that Negroes could be saved as well (becoming Christians) and would eventually join her audience in heaven (being equals).

      Now, people may not like the fact that she attempted to convince her audience that blacks were worthy only because they could become Christian as well, but the truth of the matter is that was what her audience believed and therefore she was going to use that angle and turn it on them. All I'm trying to say is that I do not believe Wheatley disliked her own race or argued the value of slavery. Her seeming gratitude and humility for being brought here is part of a rhetorical strategy that she used in the beginning of her poems to bring in her audience and make her audience comfortable (she didn't want to alienate then right away) only to turn the tables on them in the middle of the poem all through the end.

    • Izombiheartzoey profile image

      Izombiheartzoey 5 years ago

      Claudia: Christianity argued for the equality and worth of those deemed christian. Christianity did not have the nicest things to say about human who were not christian. You might want to go and read the arguments between the capitalist slave owners and the Abolitionists. It simply was a theological argument between two christian perspectives.

      Also Christianity is not a Universalist religion. Slavjo Zizek probably said it best - "This is how one should answer the standard critique of the Christian universalism: what this all-inclusive attitude (recall St Paul's famous "there are no men or women, no Jews and Greeks") involves is a thorough exclusion of those who do not accept to be included into the Christian community. In other "particularistic" religions, there is a place for others, they are tolerated, even if they are condescendingly looked upon. The Christian motto "all men are brothers," however, means ALSO that "those who are not my brothers ARE NOT (EVEN) MEN." Christians usually praise themselves for overcoming the Jewish exclusivist notion of the Chosen People and encompassing the entire humanity- the catch is here that, in their very insistence that they are the Chosen People with the privilege direct link to God, Jews accept the humanity of other people who celebrate their false gods, while the Christian universalism tendentially excludes non-believers from the very universality of human kind..."

    • Izombiheartzoey profile image

      Izombiheartzoey 5 years ago

      Toobsucker: Christian nations are not the ONLY nations that have stopped practiced slavery. Nor was Christianity the ONLY reason why christian nations stopped practicing slavery.

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      Claudia 5 years ago

      Wow! You could not be further from the truth! Wheatley, as a matter of fact, used Christianity to argue the equality and worth of African Americans and to argue against slavery in this poem. You need to reread the poem and read this "Phillis Wheatley's Construction of Otherness and the Rhetoric of Performed Ideology" by Mary McAleer Balkun. Seriously.

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      toobsucker 6 years ago

      Christian nations are the only nations that have stopped practicing slavery. Slavery still persists all throughout the middle east

    • Izombiheartzoey profile image

      Izombiheartzoey 6 years ago

      I agree they were flawed humans that twisted words, but so was the other side. Its all well and fine to retrospectively judge the past by the standards of the present. (but that's historical revisionism) We currently think slavery was a bad idea so, those who thought the same in the past were more right. But, the case is that both Slavery and and Anti-slavery can be twisted out of the bible. I agree the bible was the source for the abolitionist movement, but it was also the source for the pro-slavery movement. And since we cannot know what is in a Christians heart, we cannot say who twisted the words the right way. Christianity wasn't the source for slavery capitalism was. Christianity was the source for the ideology of hatred it brought to slavery.

      I also agree she did write things that could sell. My question was why did she write this poem the way she wrote it. Who was she selling to? And what Ideology was she selling along with it. She was selling slavery through Christianity.

    • feenix profile image

      feenix 6 years ago

      Izombiheartzoey, with all due respect, the American institution of slavery was not "Christian slavery". No, not at all. It was installed by flawed human beings who frequently twisted words and passages contained in the Holy Bible in order to justify their wicked enterprise. Furthermore, the primary opposition to slavery was largely comprised by Christian individuals and Christian organizations. Christianity in and of itself was not at the root of the enslavement of blacks. The institution stemmed from the very sins that are cited throughout Christian doctrine and teachings. And so far as Phyllis Wheatley, she often did what a great many writers do and have done-- she composed works that would "sell".

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      6 years ago