On Being Brought from Africa to America
by Phillis Wheatley
Lines 5-8 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die"
- First she uses "benighted," and now she's using another confusing word like "sable." Who is she trying to impress, anyway? No, she's not talking about this sable. She is talking about sable as the color black—but not a full body wrestling outfit. She means something more natural, as in, her skin. Just like her soul was benighted in Africa before she was saved by God's mercy, here she's referencing her race.
- Notice how she says "our" sable race. She must be talking to other Africans brought over to America, right? And she's acknowledging a few things. Could be that she's trying to convince other slaves to convert to Christianity, but in a subtle, rhetorical way. So she's not putting her crowd in a headlock and hitting them over the head (like the other Sable might do), but she is using her own life as an example of how to change from a pagan African, without God, to a saved Christian.
- Still, she's also acknowledging the racism in America. She's saying, "Look, I know people view us with disdain." And "scornful eye" is another poetry power-move, which we'll call synecdoche, using a part (the eye) to represent a whole (the people). People probably did literally look scornfully at her, but she's also talking about the figurative mean-mugging that saw slaves as less than human because of their skin color.
- She puts the second line in quotations, as if it's spoken from a white, racist American. She doesn't come out and say that, of course. She says that it's only "some," but she is admitting that there are others in society who view black people negatively. Ever heard your English teacher tell you to use examples to back up your arguments? If not, well, you should do it anyway, but if you have, this is our speaker being a studious rhetorician, and using a quote to support her point of view.
- But why "die"? It doesn't really make any sense. We know that "die" is awfully close to "dye." So this could be a play on words, in that the color of the speaker's skin is an evil ("diabolic") color. It's as if she's tainted with evil and godlessness, just because of her race. At least, that's how African-Americans were viewed back in her day.
- "Die" is also death (as in, you know, to…die). No question about that. She could be saying that people think her skin color has condemned her to death—but could this be more of a spiritual death, maybe? Perhaps this is saying that she's inferior because she's black, and outside of God's grace.
- To be honest, though, the pun of "die" with "dye" works so much better, so we're gonna place our money on that bet.
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.
- It sounds like the speaker is giving a lecture here, almost like she's trying to teach the audience something. Remember! It's like running out the door and your mother saying, "Don't forget your lunch." Only our speaker is talking about Christianity, race, and heaven. Lunch. Heaven. Same thing, right? Well, not really, but the point here is that the speaker's tone is authoritative, as if addressing an audience that doesn't believe quite what the speaker believes.
- So, who is the audience anyway? Red Alert 2! We've got all kinds of italics up in here: Christians, Negroes, and Cain. First thing's first: the speaker is addressing all Christians. That part is easy. But then, there's a comma, and the word "Negroes." If there was a period, or a semicolon, and the speaker wanted to separate Christians and Negroes, we'd think she was talking about two different groups of people. Then the line would read: "Remember fellow Christians, the Negroes in the world can be refined." However, our speaker is using Christians and Negroes interchangeably. Just like she referred to God as "God" and "Saviour," she's including Negroes as Christians. Everyone is being lumped together here.
- So, why is this important? The speaker is equating black people with all other Christians in the world. It may not seem like it to us modern readers, but that's a huge statement. This poem was published in the late 1700s in the United States, and the author was a former slave. Racial inequality was the norm in society, and whites definitely did not consider blacks to be their equal. But our speaker, with the subtle use of a comma, is saying, "Look, remember, Negroes can be, and are, Christians." This could also suggest that if Negroes are equal in God's eyes, then they should be considered equal in society.
- Finally, we get Cain. Again, let's be clear. This is Cain from the Bible, not this guy. Here's a short summary of who Cain is. Ever heard that question, "Am I my brother's keeper"? That's Cain's question to God after he kills his brother Abel. (Of course, the answer is "yes," but it's a little too late for that, Cain ol' buddy.) God gets upset with Cain for committing the first homicide in human history and leaves upon him a mark as part of his punishment.
- And so, just like the speaker uses "benighted" to describe the dark state of her soul, she could be referring to people "black as Cain" because they are separated from God. There's good news, though. Just as the speaker was taken from Africa, all Christians—black or not—may be lost, but they can also be saved and accepted by God.
- The last line of the poem refers to the speaker's spiritual awakening. Just as mercy enlightened her earlier in the poem, all Christians can be "refin'd and join th' angelic train." In other words, God's saving grace reaches out to all Christians, and they can join "th' angelic train" (most likely, Heaven). Here our speaker is using a metaphor to equate this train with Heaven.
- Know why that's extra cool? Metaphors are a kind of motion, an intellectual movement between two things. So, as Heaven becomes this angelic train, there's a movement of sense-making that the reader gets (in thinking through how "th' angelic train" represents Heaven) that is unique to metaphorical language.
- What's super-extra-cool is that the speaker is talking about another kind of motion, too: being taken from Africa ("Pagan land") to the enlightenment of Christianity, via mercy. All this motion and transformation lets us know that, if sinners—black or not—can be converted and saved, then surely there can be some sort of change possible on Earth as well, right? Our speaker could even be alluding to a change in the way we view people of different races. Now that there's the good stuff of poetry.
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