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On Being Brought from Africa to America

On Being Brought from Africa to America


by Phillis Wheatley

On Being Brought from Africa to America Theme of Identity

Who is I? You read that right. We mean, who is Wheatley's I in the "On Being Brought from Africa to America"? Is it an anonymous speaker? The poet? A slave? A white woman? An eighteenth-century preacher? Some mystery guest? We don't actually get the speaker's identity, but we do know that this poem is one of the few autobiographical poems Wheatley published. And what's interesting is how identity is treated as something problematic that can be resolved through faith. Being a slave in Wheatley's day was obviously a difficult burden, but by using a sense of black identity in her poem, Wheatley creates an inspiring message of hope against racism.

Questions About Identity

  1. How is the speaker's identity linked to images of darkness? How has her identity been changed? 
  2. How does the title and the idea of being "brought" play into the speaker's sense of identity? 
  3. Does the speaker see her identity as a black person a good thing or a bad thing? Does she need to be saved from being black?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Ever felt torn in two directions (as opposed to One Direction)? The speaker in this poem does. She's caught between two competing identities—African and American, pagan and Christian—and it's her redemption through faith that ultimately creates a sense of self in the speaker.

Do you like geometry? Too bad, because the speaker addresses three levels of identity in this poem: physical, spiritual, and mental. It's in this triangle of existence that she finds a way to draw both white and black audiences to her poems.

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