Poetry is ambiguous. That is the appeal of it usually. The answer is not just handed to the reader. The reader has to care enough to work for it. There is value in what has to be earned and is not just given. It’s like what Thomas Paine writes in The American Crisis, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.” Understanding poetry is typically not cheap. Phillis Wheatley’s poetry is largely straightforward, but there are some things that make the reader pause and wonder if there could be another way of reading her writing. To be able to analyze the author’s writing it is important to know the author on some level.
Phillis Wheatley was an African American woman taken from her home in Africa and sold into slavery in the United States. She was uprooted and placed in a white home to work. Her masters were kind and offered her Christianity and fostered her talents once they recognized them. She writes a poem about being plucked from Africa and the mercy that was on her life. It is titled “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, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
One reading of this poem is that she viewed Africa as a lack of opportunity as suggested by the term “benighted” and the reference to a “pagan land”. In America she was exposed to Christianity and given the opportunity to learn and be educated. She is not saying she is grateful she was taken away from her family and what she knew, but that she can see the mercy in the opportunity she has been given to know God and cultivate her gift. She ends the poem by saying that her skin color does not make her of the devil, but that she is Heaven bound even with the color of her skin.
If her masters’ views and how this poem would make slavery look are taken into account, there is another possible reading. By writing that it was good for her to be taken to America, it justifies what slave traders are doing. This poem could just be what has probably been told to her over and over in her life. She’s lucky. She could have been left in Africa with nothing. She has opportunity and a good life that she should be thankful for in America, but was she really viewing what happened as merciful, or was she kind of mocking the common justification of her day for slavery? The ending lines are a jab at white Christians; could the other lines have hidden tones of scorn? Did she truly view the path she had been forced to take as merciful, or was she writing what had to be written in order to be able to sell it and buy her freedom? Did she believe it, but was also just writing it because it had to be written? Did she mean that the mercy was God’s mercy and not the mercy of men which would make this poem truth to her, but a different perceived truth to the general audience that would read it and support what slave traders were doing?
So the question is: Can we know what Phillis Wheatley’s intentions were behind the words she penned? Maybe what is taught to us about poetry in high school is not necessarily true. Maybe there is more than one interpretation to poetry; maybe more than one interpretation can be correct.