On Being Brought from Africa to America
by Phillis Wheatley
Change, change, chaaaaaange! Wait, we're thinking of the Aretha Franklin song "Chain of Fools." Okay, so we're a bit off, but what Wheatley is singing about here is her change, both physical and spiritual through God's love and mercy. She's all about being Christian, and her poem is all about shifting her beliefs, and changing the beliefs of her readers. If the title "On Being Brought from Africa to America" doesn't suggest change to you, but maybe the subtle hints throughout the poem will help change your mind.
- Line 1: Simply put, the speaker says she was "brought." In other words, her location was changing, from Africa to America. But there's more: it's "mercy" that's bringing her. So she moves physically, but how can she be brought by mercy? What we have here is personification, which reflects a spiritual change that brought her from Paganism to a new religious belief. And that's a pretty major change, which she'll spend the rest of the poem discussing.
- Line 2: After being brought, she was "taught." Again, personification abounds. It's mercy doing the teaching, and it's her soul that's doing the learning. The change here is a new relationship with God, and a new system of beliefs. It's so dramatic that it's changed her soul. Going from country to country is one thing, but changing your soul is another ballgame.
- Line 4: Okay, so she doesn't say anything about changing in this line. But she does talk about her past. The implication is that she never knew or sought redemption, but now she does. So, presto change-o! She's been changed. It's significant because her message is all about the power of changing belief systems, thoughts, and actions. She's appealing to an African audience that was also brought over from Africa, so they can relate to her immediately on that side of things. But she also wants to tell them that their souls can be changed too, and so she's searching for common ground by talking about her personal experience.
- Line 8: Is "refined" the same as changed? We know Wheatley was "refined" through her education. She could read and write and studied Latin, Greek, and the Bible. She was raised by a prominent family in Boston. She was the first black poet in America to publish a book. Yeah, we'd say she was "refined." But what she's talking about in this line is being refined through faith in God. So, even if others think of her and her race as "diabolic," she's living proof that mercy and conversion can refine the souls of faithless people. And that's ultimately her message. Black or white, change is possible for everyone.