On Being Brought from Africa to America
by Phillis Wheatley
No, we're not talking about nighttime. And we don't mean the dark hours before the light. In fact, we think it's super-fascinating that our speaker never actually uses the word "dark," but she does use several images of darkness throughout the poem to represent both physical and spiritual darkness. Our speaker is black, and the poem revolves around racial and spiritual issues of being black in America. So, even though the actual word "dark" isn't used, we've got a talented speaker on our hands, and she finds several other brilliant ways to create a sense of darkness throughout the poem.
- Line 2: The speaker says, "my benighted soul." That's benighted, as in, "unenlightened" or ignorant. Her soul was in a dark place, like before the light of God entered into it. This was when she was in Africa, which could be seen as a "dark" place, meaning that it isn't Christian. Have you heard that expression, "being kept in the dark," as in someone doesn't know something? Well, that's what we're talking about here. Her soul was benighted because it had been kept in the dark about Christianity, until mercy came and let the light of God inside.
- Line 5: The speaker refers to "our sable race." She's talking about the African race, but it's unclear if she means it in a negative or positive sense. Sable could mean wrapped in dark clothes—imagine a funeral and all the mourners dressed in black. But there's also the animal sable (cute!), which was considered valuable because of its pelt (sad). That's a stretch, but the point is that the speaker's trying to place a value on how others see black people in America. They're physically "dark," but there were also a lot of negative associations with being black in America, and our speaker is using a figurative phrase to capture that.
- Line 6: This whole line is a quote, except we don't know who's saying it. We don't mean it's a voice out of the dark, but the quote is all about color—the color of the speaker and the color of other slaves in America. The darkness here is a physical darkness, literally referring to black skin. But it's also figurative, because the speaker associates darkness with a spiritual darkness. She's saying that others view black people as evil, or without God. However, her conversion contradicts this mentality. It kind of sounds like the speaker of this quote might be in the dark, herself.
Also, is it die or dye? We honestly can't be sure. We definitely know she didn't mean die as in one of the dice you throw when you're playing board games (or Yahtzee). But she could've meant "dye," as in her skin color is "dyed" black. Still, the association with "die," as in death, is another darkness that can be understood as someone without God. In this case, it might refer to a former, unenlightened self that died after the speaker converted to Christianity in America. Hmm. We admit that we're a little in the dark ourselves on this one. But one thing's clear: the speaker has created another great image of darkness without using the word "dark."
- Line 7: Alright, we still have no mention of the word "dark" (it ain't gonna happen, people), but the speaker does use the word "black." It's not just any black, either, but "black as Cain." Again, she's talking about a literal and spiritual blackness. Cain was marked by God, so he had a dark stain on his skin that marked him as different from others. But he was also spiritually marked because he'd murdered his own brother. So why does the speaker want to compare her race to a murderer from the Bible? She's telling them that, no matter how others see them, and whatever they might have done, they can be changed by faith in God. The darkness of their plight as slaves in America, just like the darkness of not knowing God, isn't permanent.