On Being Brought from Africa to America Poem Summary line by line
On Being Brought from Africa to America is a sonnet by Phillis Wheatley, a poet from Africa who was held as a slave in the eighteenth century. In addition to examining religious themes, this poem recounts Wheatley’s experiences of being forcibly transported from Africa to America.
On Being Brought from Africa to America Poem Summary
- ‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
- The speaker starts off by admitting that she was sent from Africa to America by an act of mercy rather than by choice. She refers to her native country as “Pagan,” implying that it is a location connected to non-Christian ideologies.
- Taught my benighted soul to understand
- The speaker emphasizes the transformational power of Christianity by saying that mercy was what taught her. The speaker implies that she has learned through her newfound faith, and the term “benighted” implies spiritual darkness or ignorance.
- That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
- The speaker affirms the existence of God and a Savior, highlighting the key beliefs of Christianity. The significance of religious enlightenment in her life is emphasized in this line.
- Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
- The speaker confesses that before coming to America and encountering Christianity, she did not seek or understand the concept of redemption. This emphasizes her spiritual transformation.
- Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
- The speaker acknowledges that there are people who look upon her race, described as “sable” (meaning black), with a scornful or contemptuous gaze. This hints at racial prejudice and discrimination.
- “Their colour is a diabolic die.”
- The speaker quotes the disdainful views of those who consider her race’s skin color as something diabolical or devilish. This line illustrates the racial bias and negative stereotypes prevalent in the society of that time.
- Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
- The speaker appeals to Christians to remember that black individuals, often referred to as Negros, are as black as Cain. This reference to Cain, known biblically for his wrongdoing, may imply a plea for compassion despite perceived sinfulness.
- May be refin’d, and join th’angelic train.
- The speaker expresses the hope that despite their skin color, black individuals can be refined and join the angelic train. This suggests a desire for spiritual elevation and acceptance into the heavenly realm.
- Celestial powers, if ye my death decree,
- The speaker addresses celestial powers or divine beings, acknowledging the possibility of her death being decreed by them. This may reflect the harsh conditions and mortality faced by enslaved individuals.
- Pray give the Pagan here short clemency,
- The speaker requests mercy or clemency for herself, referred to as a “Pagan” here. This plea reflects the speaker’s awareness of her own spirituality and her hope for divine leniency.
- That ye my sins may judge, and sentence me.
- The speaker accepts the possibility of being judged for her sins and asks for a fair sentence. This line reflects a profound sense of piety and submission to divine authority.
- Your sinful hands my heart can ne’er engage,
- The speaker declares that her heart cannot be engaged or controlled by sinful hands, emphasizing her commitment to righteousness. This may also be interpreted as a resistance to the oppression she faces.
- Nor take your much lov’d image from my breast.
- The speaker asserts that her love for the divine, represented by an “image,” cannot be taken away from her. This line underscores her unwavering faith despite external circumstances.
- The Lord has mercy on you, wretched elf,
- The speaker shifts to addressing an unnamed individual, referring to them as a “wretched elf.” This may be a response to those who scorn her and her race.
- And cur’d you of this intellectual death.
- The speaker proclaims that the Lord has shown mercy and cured this individual of an “intellectual death,” possibly referring to a lack of spiritual understanding or enlightenment.
- But slaves of every rank, to you are dear—
- The speaker generalizes that slaves of every social status are dear to this individual, possibly highlighting the Christian duty to care for and love one’s neighbors, including those in servitude.
- The poorest supplicant that begs your ear.
- The speaker continues by saying even the poorest supplicant who seeks this individual’s attention is dear to them. This emphasizes the speaker’s plea for compassion and understanding.
- Refine and rarefy your fusil soul,
- The speaker advises this individual to refine and rarefy their soul. This may suggest a call for spiritual growth and enlightenment.
- Through the keen medium of the sacred scroll.
- The speaker recommends using the sacred scroll, likely referring to the Bible, as a means to achieve spiritual refinement. This underscores the transformative power of religious teachings.
- For now, it lies as fair within your power,
- The speaker notes that the opportunity for spiritual growth and understanding lies within the individual’s power. This emphasizes personal agency and responsibility.
- As new born infants in their natal hour.
- The simile of newborn infants suggests that the potential for spiritual rebirth and enlightenment is as accessible as the vulnerability and openness of a child at the moment of birth.
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.
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Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America” stands as a powerful testament to her experience as an enslaved African American navigating the challenges of race and religion during the 18th century. Through the sonnet, Wheatley addresses the scornful views of her race, challenges racial prejudices, and emphasizes the transformative power of Christianity. The poem serves as both a personal expression of faith and a broader commentary on the intersection of race, spirituality, and societal perceptions.
Wheatley’s invocation of Christian themes, coupled with her poignant descriptions and appeals to celestial powers, creates a layered narrative that explores her journey from Africa to America. The poem not only highlights the societal prejudices she faced but also underscores her resilient faith and hope for spiritual redemption.
The speaker’s plea for mercy, understanding, and the recognition of shared humanity transcends the immediate context of Wheatley’s life and speaks to universal themes of compassion, enlightenment, and the potential for redemption. By appealing to Christian values, Wheatley challenges the dehumanization of her race and asserts the possibility of spiritual growth and equality.
1. Who was Phillis Wheatley?
Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753–1784) was an enslaved African American poet who became the first published African American female poet. She was brought to America as a slave from West Africa and, despite her enslaved status, gained recognition for her literary achievements.
2. What is the central theme of “On Being Brought from Africa to America”?
The central theme of the poem is the intersection of race and religion. Phillis Wheatley addresses the scornful views of her race, challenges racial prejudices, and emphasizes the transformative power of Christianity in her life.
3. How does Wheatley use Christian imagery in the poem?
Wheatley employs Christian imagery by acknowledging her conversion to Christianity and emphasizing the transformative power of the faith. She appeals to celestial powers, quotes the disdainful views of others, and calls for spiritual refinement through the “sacred scroll” (likely the Bible).
4. How does Wheatley address her audience in the poem?
Wheatley addresses both Christians and those who hold scornful views of her race. She implores Christians to recognize the potential for spiritual growth in all individuals, regardless of race, and challenges the derogatory perceptions held by some.