Thursday, February 8, 2007

The Troubling Ambiguity of Identity in Wheatley

Is Phillis Wheatley a sell out? When one reads her poems it is very easy to come to the conclusion that she enjoys or at least celebrates her being captured and being saved. But is this the whole story? I believe that Phillis Wheatley may be one of the first documented cases, if we assume that her works reflected her actual viewpoints in even some minor ways, of a truly brainwashed/self-hating African-American. One of the first documented cases of American slavery's ability to steal, not only the body of the African, but her heart, mind, and identity also.

In "On Being Brought from Africa to America", Wheatley praises her captors for releasing her from a "pagan" land and bringing her into "salvation". And yet, in the same line she criticizes those Americans that hate blacks and she tries to remind them of blacks' own humanity, but only through the lens of Christianity. She says,"Remember Christians, Negroes black as Cain/ May be refined, and join the angelic train". Here Wheatley is trying to reconcile one of the inherent contradictions and weaknesses of the justifications for American slavery and, by extension, American racism. If a reason for slavery is the christianizing of Africans, then why are they not seen as human or "saved" after they convert and have proven their faith? This poem is Wheatley begging America to accept and love her as one of its own.

There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be accepted in one's adopted society, even a slave can have and probably should have that desire. What is disturbing in Wheatley's works is the denial of the value in her African-ness. She believes in the American lie of African inferiority, but she desires to be accepted by America and to be seen as a human. But, in order to be read by the publi she must publicly declare her inferior status. It is a catch-22 of epic and dangerous proportions. Wheatley, in her desire to recognized and accepted must deny the self. She must cast off her blackness, her supposed savagery, her paganism, and she must pick up the affectations of her white overseers and owners. But, in the end, she is still black.

This sentiment becomes even more telling when she decides not to mention race. For example, in "To S.M., A Young African Painter, On seeing His Works", Wheatley mentions nothing of race or the shared African heritage that the two artists share. The total lack of a mention of race is very jarring, especially since she has little reservations in talking of Africa in other works, usually under a negative context. Now, does it not seem a bit weird that Wheatley would explicitly not mention race in a poem dedicated to another talented artist of African descent in America? Why does she deny or outright ignore not only their shared race but also their shared condition? It is this omission which is most startling and saddening to me.

Wheatley is so brainwashed that she cannot or will not recognize the shared condition of a fellow African artist. Combine this with her negative portrayals of Africa, her desire to be accepted in a society that excludes her because of a trait she cannot change, and her inability to truly speak up for justice for other black Americans, and one can only conclude that Wheatley suffered from immense self-hatred and confusion. In this sense, she becomes an even more tragic figure than the one that is already portrayed by the general community.

1 comment:

Kelly said...

You've chosen a provocative and thorny topic. I like how you bring in several poems that weren't assigned but that speak to this issue and complicate the picture of Wheatley's race that we got in "To the...Earl of Dartmouth" and "To the University of Cambridge in New England." "On Being Brought from Africa to America" in particular is a complex poem that deserves further investigation.

Another way of looking at Wheatley's stance, of course, is to emphasize the strategic nature of her rhetoric and her depictions of African-Americans. One might argue that, rather than being brainwashed, Wheatley is quite adept at manipulating her audience for her own ends. How would you respond to this counterargument?

I think this post would be a fine basis for your explication paper, but in that paper remember that you want to choose a very small section of a poem to unpack in great detail. You could explicate all of a compact poem like "On Being Brought...", but if you choose to write on one of her other poems, choose a stanza or less to work with.