Fight or Flight
The transatlantic Slave Trade birthed this nation, but it left a nation of colored people confused and damaged. These repercussions on the people of Africa can be seen by the lack of identity in black culture, the path to equality that is covered in bloodshed, the future generations of poverty, and the sense of detachment from this nation by the people who built it. We can look back at the 1700s and read literature from black enslaved and emancipated writers who are troubled by their existence and find difficulty in understanding questions regarding who they are. These writers of the 18th century, such as Phillis Wheatly have been caught in a world with bias towards a person’s origins and skin color. Faced with the difficulty of assimilating to survive, many slaves lost the identities of where they came from when they became victims to the plague of colonial exploitation.
Phillis Wheatley is a writer who was born in 1753 in West Africa, and brought to Boston and sold into slavery in 1761. Wheatley was purchased by Susanna Wheatley who allowed her to learn education with her children who were being home schooled. It is obvious that “Phillis Wheatley” is not her birth name, but this was one of the identity-destroying tactics used to strip slaves of their power and origins. Through her education, Wheatley found a passion for poetry writing that Susanna and her husband hoped to exploit, and in doing so, managed to publish many of Phillis’ poetry. While many of Phillis Wheatley’s poems were published and sold, she still managed to leave this world poor and alone before that of her sons and husband.
Wheatley’s Poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” encompasses the psychological implications of slavery as she describes her delight in being brought from “Africa to America”. This poem sadly depicts the view of a victim of slavery who has a perception that is flawed because of the manner in which she was raised. Being someone stripped from her land, and forced into believing the word of Christianity as her religion, Wheatley viewed everything she was given as a blessing, when in fact it was a curse. The poem has a warm and triumphant sound of a lost soul who is in the dark and finds the light across the sea in a land that is unfamiliar, but this unfamiliarity presents the confusion inside Wheatley. Wheatley had not the chance to understand her land, and find an identity with whom she is and where she comes from before she was torn away from her country and forced to assimilate to the religious and cultural beliefs of this land as if they were her own.
When you read through the poem, you see that it has two tones to its message. The first tone is written for the benefit of the enslavers who were reading it to show that the people who were being taken from their land can become “refin’d” just as she had become, “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train” (Wheatley). Here we see Wheatley speaking to the enslavers and reference biblical figures in her comparison of Cain to Africans. The second tone, however, is for the African people who are coming over to this land. While most of them cannot read, it’s obvious the side Phillis has chosen, and the depth of her assimilation as she describes her kidnapping as “mercy” and describes her land as “Pagan”, “Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land, Taught my benighted soul to understand” (Wheatley).
When I read this poem, and I think about how confused and psychologically damaged she must be, I think about an image I saw in the New York Public Library’s the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture: “In Motion: The African American Migration Experience” entitled “The Triumphant Amistad”. When I look at this illustration, I feel a fury of triumph that is different from the feelings I felt when I read Wheatley’s poem in that the illustration depicts enslaved men that were ripped from their land fighting for what they believe in and resisting the assimilationist practices of their capturers. This illustration also gracefully shows the terrible world of confusion that Phillis lived in. It showed two different types of slaves. The slaves who were plagued with fear and resisted the urge to fight back because of that, and the slaves who were never enslaved, who never lost their identity, and were up in arms fighting for their freedom.
The layers of psychological deterioration to Phillis Wheatley’s identity caused her to speak for a community of people she no longer represents. If the men who fought bravely to free themselves aboard the Amistad were to ever come face to face with Wheatley, I feel they would feel saddened by her development in this land, and feel even more emboldened to free more people from the clutches of slavery. Unfortunately, it is difficult to be upset with Wheatley because she is unaware of her flawed perception of the world around her because it is all she knows. While I mentioned “assimilation” quite a bit throughout this paper, Wheatley didn’t have much to assimilate from. She was raised in this environment; therefore it is all she knew. This is one of the harsh realities of systematic racism that we are still plagued with today. In this nation, people of color have no identity because they have a history that is embedded in another land, but in this land we are continuously being taught that our history started at the inception of slavery. Even at the college level, I still find myself writing papers about enslaved authors instead of African Kings and Queens that invented the number system, and cultivated music for celebration and communication, and built structures upon this earth that have existed for generations. At what point do we stop learning this land’s version of our history, and begin learning our own?