On Being Brought from Africa to America
How we cite our quotes:
'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand (1-2)
Right off the bat, the speaker gets holy. No beating around the burning bush in this poem—we've got mercy, Pagan, and soul. All these are words often associated with religion, but there's more to these stanzas than just some nifty vocabulary. The speaker says that it was mercy that was responsible for her conversion from being a pagan. She's had a spiritual experience, we could say, and this change in her life has a particularly religious bent to it, because it came through her conversion to Christianity. The physical change from Africa to America and the spiritual change from pagan to believer parallel each other nicely as well, so that speaker can talk about race and religion at the same time.
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew (3-4)
Enter more religious language: God, Savior, and redemption. Again, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize the importance of religion in Wheatley's poem. She's up front about her faith and her conversion. The significance for the speaker in this poem is that she's been changed and this change has opened her eyes to new truths about her life. Just like she changed from living in Africa to America, she changed from someone who never knew about redemption to someone who now believes in a saving God. This religious experience is vital to her new faith and intertwines her identity as a black woman with her identity as a Christian. And it's that intertwining that the poem so expertly handles to express the speaker's feelings about equality and faith.
Remember Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refined, and join the angelic train. (7-8)
These lines can be read multiple ways, sort of like a prism that reflects light in several different colors. It's the same beam of light, but we get to see it in different ways. So, is the speaker telling Christians to "remember" and speaking of Negroes as separate from Christians? Or is she calling slaves both Christians and Negroes?
The lines can be read both as an address to white Christians to remember that blacks can be "refined," but it's also punctuated in a way that sounds like "Negroes" are the "Christians" she's talking about, and that since she was converted and believes in redemption, other slaves can be converted, too. Her subtlety in meaning and emphasis on religion becomes a gateway for her statement against racism: if she can be converted and saved like any other Christian, then every other slave should be equal on earth as well.