It doesn’t matter how remarkable a slave was, that person was still just property. The poet Phillis Wheatley was no exception. As a slave who was taught to read and write by her Mistress, it’s easy to forget that to the slave master, she was still just another slave to be exploited. An advertisement for the sale of a slave girl who was used to farm labor, amplifies this concept. This ad for the sale of a person was normal at the time; just a part of the economy of the USA. Looking at Wheatley’s poems in tandem with this advertisement solidifies the notion that she was just as exploitable as the slave girl on the ad.
Wheatley’s poem “On being brought from Africa to America” demonstrates that her writing was targeted to a specific audience. Her audience wasn’t other slaves for obvious reasons that the majority could not read nor write, nor was her audience lower class whites who were also illiterate. It was specifically the literate, landowning whites of the late 18th century in the colonies and in England. Wheatley conveys this through her depiction of Africans. She portrays Africa as a “pagan land”, Africans as “benighted”, and as a“sable race” (13). These depictions serve as a hook for Wheatley’s audience. The privileged do not want to hear how they’re horrible for allowing slavery to remain a practice. The wealthy want to remain on the pedestal of righteousness they have placed themselves on. They use Wheatley to do exactly that. The poet’s intention with images isn’t always to elicit an emotional response, the images also dictate the politics of the poem. Artists and poets often create work that serves as a sign of the times, bringing to light attitudes which society often ignores. Wheatley does this when She states “Remember christians, negroes, black as cain, maybe refin’d, and join th’angelic train” (13). This line of verse establishes a lens for her audience to look at themselves and evaluate their beliefs. It reminds them that they’re Christians; that they have a moral obligation to be better people. At the same time, it works to evoke a sense of pride out of her audience. People like to hear praise for their deeds, even when it’s not literal. This gets upper-crust Christians hooked. The fact that a slave is writing this poem, only adds fuel to their curiosity. Likewise, the for-sale ad for a slave girl augments the notion of Wheatley’s exploitation, by revealing how normal it was to exploit any slave.
The for-sale advertisement is for a slave girl in her teens who is used to the intense labor of farming. The advertisement looks like a clipping from a newspaper. The paper is even made of the same material and the ink looks relatively similar to the newsprint of modern times. This ad is most definitely not one of a kind. The ink looks worn like the paper’s been handled frequently or exposed to bad weather conditions The fact that it’s an advertisement for the sale of a person, and also the fact that one even exists, is proof enough that slaves weren’t valued for their personhood. So then one might ask, what makes Wheatley so special. The answer is, that she’s a slave who can write so well. Her reference to the Bible with the phrase, “black as Cain” is powerful, because it literally demonizes black people; makes them seem in need of the salvation that the privileged provide. Wheatley uses images and language that a white audience would find appealing and understand. She demonizes her own race using the language of the enslavers/colonizers and that’s how they profit from her. Meanwhile she sees none of that profit.
Wheatley dies broke and having only been published once. To her audience, she was just another negro, and her fancy wordsmithing powers didn’t bring her any kind of salvation. Those powers earned her a ticket to freedom, but what good is freedom when you’re still just another negro? She might as well have been the girl from the for-sale advertisement. Her fate wouldn’t have been any different.