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