Critics have differed on the contribution of Phillis Wheatley's poetry to America's literary tradition. Most do agree, however, that the fact that someone called "slave" could write and publish poetry at that time and place is itself noteworthy.
Some, including Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, wrote their positive assessments of her poetry. Others, like Thomas Jefferson, dismissed her poetry's quality. Critics through the decades have also been split on the quality and importance of Wheatley's work.
What can be said is that the poems of Phillis Wheatley display a classical quality and restrained emotion. Many deal with pietistic Christian sentiments.
In many, Wheatley uses classical mythology and ancient history as allusions, including many references to the muses as inspiring her poetry. She speaks to the white establishment, not to fellow slaves nor, really, for them. Her references to her own situation of enslavement are restrained.
Was Wheatley's restraint simply a matter of imitating the style of poets popular in that time? Or was it in large part because, in her enslaved condition, she could not express herself freely?
Is there an undertone of critique of slavery as an institution, beyond the simple reality that her own writing proved that enslaved Africans could be educated and could produce at least passable writings?
Certainly, her situation was used by later abolitionists and Benjamin Rush in an anti-slavery essay written in her own lifetime to prove their case that education and training could prove useful, contrary to allegations of others.
In the published volume of her poems, there is the attestation of many prominent men that they are acquainted with her and her work.
On the one hand, this emphasizes how unusual was her accomplishment, and how suspicious most people would be about its possibility. But at the same time, it emphasizes that she is known by these people, an accomplishment in itself, which many of her readers could not share.
Also in this volume, an engraving of Wheatley is included as a frontispiece. This emphasizes her color and, by her clothing, her servitude, and her refinement and comfort.
But it also shows her as a slave and as as a woman at her desk, emphasizing that she can read and write. She is caught in a pose of contemplation (perhaps listening for her muses.) But this also shows that she can think, an accomplishment which some of her contemporaries would find scandalous to contemplate.
A Look at One Poem
A few observations about one poem may demonstrate how to find a subtle critique of slavery in Wheatley's work.
In just eight lines, Wheatley describes her attitude toward her condition of enslavement-both coming from Africa to America, and the culture that considers her color so negatively. Following the poem (from Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773), are some observations about its treatment of the theme of slavery:
On being brought from Africa to America.
'TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew,
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.
- Wheatley begins by crediting her slavery as a positive because it has brought her to Christianity. While her Christian faith was surely genuine, it was also a "safe" subject for a slave poet. Expressing gratitude for her enslavement may be unexpected to most readers.
- The word "benighted" is an interesting one: It means "overtaken by night or darkness" or "being in a state of moral or intellectual darkness." Thus, she makes her skin color and her original state of ignorance of Christian redemption parallel situations.
- She also uses the phrase "mercy brought me." A similar phrase is used in the title "on being brought." This deftly downplays the violence of the kidnapping of a child and the voyage on a slave ship, so as to not seem a dangerous critic of slavery-at the same time crediting not the slave trade, but (divine) mercy with the act. This could be read as denying the power to those human beings who kidnapped her and subjected her to the voyage and to her subsequent sale and submission.
- She credits "mercy" with her voyage-but also with her education in Christianity. Both were actually at the hands of human beings. In turning both to God, she reminds her audience that there is a force more powerful than they are-a force that has acted directly in her life.
- She cleverly distances her reader from those who "view our sable race with scornful eye"-perhaps thus nudging the reader to a more critical view of slavery or at least a more positive view of those who are slaves.
- "Sable" as a self-description of her color is a very interesting choice of words. Sable is very valuable and desirable. This characterization contrasts sharply with the "diabolic die" of the next line.
- "Diabolic die" may also be a subtle reference to another side of the "triangle" trade which includes slaves. At about that same time, the Quaker leader John Woolman is boycotting dyes in order to protest slavery.
- In the second-to-last line, the word "Christian" is placed ambiguously. She may either be addressing her last sentence to Christians-or she may be including Christians in those who "may be refined" and find salvation.
- She reminds her reader that Negroes may be saved (in the religious and Christian understanding of salvation.)
- The implication of her last sentence is also this: The "angelic train" will include both white and black.
- In the last sentence, she uses the verb "remember"-implying that the reader is already with her and just needs the reminder to agree with her point.
- She uses the verb "remember" in the form of a direct command. While echoing Puritan preachers in using this style, Wheatley is also taking on the role of one who has the right to command: a teacher, a preacher, even perhaps a master or mistress.
Slavery in Wheatley's Poetry
In looking at Wheatley's attitude toward slavery in her poetry, it's also important to note that most of Wheatley's poems do not refer to her "condition of servitude" at all.
Most are occasional pieces, written on the death of some notable or on some special occasion. Few refer directly-and certainly not this directly-to her personal story or status.