#BlackLivesMatter: The Black Atlantic Matters

My aim is to consider the ways in which the “black Atlantic” and its combined focus on music and literature redefine the field of Romanticism and how this redefinition translates into the classroom. One pedagogical approach is to examine how Wheatley maps time, space, and memory through meter. Through attention Wheatley’s use of syncopation, it’s possible to see how her verse subverts the colonialist notion of mapping, accounting for and claiming ownership of internal and external space as well as rhythmical spaces of lines of poetry and typography. Her versified maps have spaces and places that are unaccounted for, that are merely implied and must be imagined, like a pulse that is felt but not heard. Such interstitial spaces are represented in her poetry by syncopation’s silences, omissions, ambiguities, ironies, reversals, (un)stressed syllables, and the music theory surrounding “on beats” and “off beats.” "On Imagination" and "On Being Brought from Africa to America" metaphorically re-plot the coordinates of her memory of the middle passage, as a metrically mapped journey from earth to heaven. Before Wordsworth and Coleridge, Wheatley’s autobiographical pentameter testified to the spiritually and politically transformative power of the Imag-I-Nation(s), remapping national, spiritual, emotional, racial, and spatial coordinates to challenge the understanding of the Enlightenment’s legacy in her day as well as the present.

#BlackLivesMatter: The Black Atlantic Matters [1] 

Jean Allain, “Remembering the Slave Trade”

Figure 1: Jean Allain, “Remembering the Slave Trade”

S. Roghers, Geotagged “#ICantBreathe, #BlackLivesMatter
                                and #HandsupDontShoot on Twitter.”

Figure 2: S. Roghers, Geotagged “#ICantBreathe, #BlackLivesMatter and #HandsupDontShoot on Twitter.”

1.        Juxtaposing a color-coded map of nations involved in the transatlantic slave trade with a 2014 map of "Geotagged Tweets mentioning key hashtags"—“#ICantBreathe,” “#BlackLivesMatter,” and “#HandsUpDontShoot”—reveals similarities between the patterns of highlighted countries. The Black Lives Matter Coalition’s Platform delineates connections between the slave trade and twenty-first century discrimination, and in so doing makes clear to us a reason for the similarity between the two maps: the oppressive legacy of slavery. Black Lives Matter calls on educational institutions to address the institutionalized racism it has identified and demands:

Reparations for the Cultural and Educational Exploitation, Erasure, and Extraction of Our Communities in the Form of Mandated Public School Curriculums That Critically Examine the Political, Economic, and Social Impacts of Colonialism and Slavery ("Reparations").
As teachers and scholars of Romanticism, we are in a position to address these suggestions in our classrooms and publications. One important story left largely untold to students of the long eighteenth century and Romantic age is that of Phillis Wheatley and her versified journeys across “the color line.” There is an urgent need to develop teaching techniques to counter the legacies of segregation and erasure. One such approach involves reclaiming the notion of “mapping” from its colonialist and imperialist past, and deploying it as an anti-racist technology that charts the erasures, silences, symbolisms, and double meanings and consciousnesses in a diverse array of texts, from Wheatley’s poems to hashtagged phrases on Twitter.

2.        The above hashtags, for instance, are calls for equality reverberating across the world that have resonance beyond the literal. Indeed, the power of the phrases even affects the hashtags themselves, imbuing them with a double-voicedness and making them not just markers to categorize tweets, but also symbols. From this perspective they are tiny graphs or miniature maps. Their longitudinal and latitudinal lines chart the legacy of the slave trade by mapping human rights violations of the past onto those of the present. The off-kilter gridlines of the hashtags symbolize the fact that education’s mapping of history did not involve (the) right angles, but skewed perspectives: “School curriculums often whitewash the history of slavery and the state’s role in oppressing Black people.” As a miniature map, a hashtag has the subversive power to rechart conversations, connecting those tweeting on a topic across the world. Symbolically, the points where the lines of a hashtag meet represent intersections that connect the blank spaces bordered by the lines. Reading against the grain and between the lines of hashtags, song lyrics, and poetry, however, leads to the opposite notion: that it is also the seemingly empty spaces, silences, and omissions that connect the lines.

3.        This essay suggests just such “mapping” as an interpretive and pedagogical strategy to address the pressing need to create “Curriculums That Critically Examine the Political, Economic, and Social Impacts of Colonialism and Slavery.” Doing so necessitates charting the places, texts, oral histories, artifacts, and traditions that were left off the map and changing its orientation to expose the lines the colonizers erased, distorted, and/or never delineated. The blank spaces between the hashtags’ lines represent “erasure”: “Stories of African American history are often left untold or are under-told, and many individuals have no understanding of the extraordinary sacrifices that were made and hardships that were overcome” ("Reparations"). One such under-told narrative is that of Wheatley’s radicalism. Lines have been drawn around the lines she has written that—like the borders of the Atlantic rim’s still-segregated cities—do not become abundantly clear to all until viewed on a map.

4.        Credo Reference, “an information skills solutions provider that serves educational institutions worldwide,” has created a tool that allows researchers to see ideas pictographically represented. Credo’s “Mind Map” gives its users “a visualization of a topic, including specific people, places, events, and ideas, and helps [them] find related concepts” ("Mind Map"). The user-friendly platform includes an informational video that explains to researchers just how the “Mind Maps” are drawn up:

It all starts with a search term. You’ll see a map showing relationships between concepts. Concepts appear based on how frequently they occur together in your licensed content from Credo’s database of more than a hundred publishers’ reference works. ("Mind Map")
Given the worldwide web that is spun by digital and print literacies and knowledges, it is easy to imagine an exponential number of connections between any two topics; however, juxtaposing the “Mind Maps” of “Romanticism” and “Phillis Wheatley” yields not even a single connection between the two. Segregation—one of the lasting effects of slavery—is not limited to the housing of people, but also the living spaces of ideas and (a)venues of thought.
Credo Mind Map of “Romanticism.”

Figure 3: Credo Mind Map of “Romanticism.”

Credo Mind Map of “Phillis Wheatley.”

Figure 4: Credo Mind Map of “Phillis Wheatley.”

Connecting these two seemingly separate fields of study does not involve mapping Wheatley to Romanticism, but the opposite. Simply adding a Wheatley poem to a course on the Romantics is not enough. Wheatley’s work merits a central spot in the syllabus and a concomitant examination of the ways her centrality forces a reconsideration and reconfiguration of the field, remapping its borders and boundaries. See Appendix D for an example of a syllabus that examines Black Atlantic Romanticisms, connecting early writers of the African Diaspora with canonical Romantics as well as present-day musical artists.

#EmancipateYourselFroMentalSlavery (Marley): Mapping Fragments of Union (Manning), Silence, Syncopation, Double Consciousness, E-race-ure, Place, and the Space(s) Between in "On Being Brought From Africa to America"

The bedrock nature of space and time and the unification of cosmos and quantum are surely among science's great ‘open frontiers.’ These are parts of the intellectual map where we're still groping for the truth — where, in the fashion of ancient cartographers, we must still inscribe ‘here be dragons.’

— Martin Rees, 2011 Templeton Prize Acceptance Speech

It is his purpose in this Work, on the one hand, to exhibit, he does not say, a correct map, but a tolerable sketch of the human mind: and, aided by the lights which the Poet and the Orator so amply furnish, to disclose its secret movements, tracing its principal channels of perception and action, as near as possible, to their source: and, on the other hand, from the science of human nature, to ascertain with greater precision, the radical principles of that art, whose object it is, by the use of language, to operate on the soul of the hearer, in the way of informing, convincing, pleasing, moving, or persuading.

— George Campbell, The Philosophy of Rhetoric

5.        Susan Manning’s Fragments of Union, particularly the final chapter: "Mapping the Language: A Scottish-American Stylistics of Consciousness," examines how Scottish authors used punctuation and syntax politically to disrupt the King’s and Queen’s English and colonial authority, dividing and unifying not just sentence structures, but also political ones. Manning’s contextualization and positioning of the Scottish-American rhetoric of the American Revolution helps clarify Wheatley’s subversive relationship to the Enlightenment and Romanticism. It reveals a reading of "On Being Brought from Africa to America" that radically departs from previous interpretations and connects Wheatley to Romanticism. It illuminates how her verse subverts the colonialist notion of mapping by accounting for and claiming ownership of internal and external space. Wheatley’s conceptual maps have spaces and places that are merely implied and must be imagined.  Such interstitial spaces are represented in her poetry by silences, syncopations, omissions, ambiguities, ironies, and reversals. Some of the most interesting moments occur when she metaphorically re-plots the coordinates of her memory of the middle passage, as a journey from earth to heaven. In her poetry, Wheatley remaps spiritual, emotional, racial, and spatial coordinates, challenging the understanding of the Enlightenment’s legacy for readers then and now.

6.        When teaching "On Being Brought from Africa to America" I ask the students to meet in groups and request that they scan the poem, paying attention to which words are accentuated by the meter and which are not; note the rhythm of the verse and how it’s affected by punctuation; and interpret the poem word for word, being sure to map how Wheatley represents herself through elisions, silences, double meanings, voicedness, and consciousnesses. The most intriguing technique employed by Wheatley is her mapping metrically through syncopation, which can form the basis of a class-wide analysis of the way she uses iambic pentameter in this poem. In order to implement this classroom activity, students will need chalk (or dry-erase) boards or computers with screens that can be made visible to the whole class via projection. In order to build the ideological foundation, they will also need a basic understanding of iambic pentameter and the notion of syncopation in poetry and music. Once they have a working knowledge of these ideas, it will be possible to see how she not only syncopates poetic beats by using apostrophes to contract words, but also uses this grammatical syncopation to bring about a musical one through her use of iambic pentameter.  In the first line of "On Being Brought from Africa to America," for instance, any reference to herself occurs on a weak or unstressed beat.  In order to examine how the poem’s stressed and unstressed beats reveal the radical ideas of the poet/and or speaker, students will also need to be grounded theoretically in W. E. B. Du Bois’s concept of “double consciousness” and Paul Gilroy’s notion of the “Black Atlantic.” If students copy the poem onto a dry-erase board and circle all of the stressed words and/or syllables, it will become apparent at a glance that although “me” occurs on an unstressed beat in the first line of the poem, in subsequent lines Wheatley begins to refer to herself, God, and fellow black people on stressed beats, thereby utilizing syncopation to illuminate metrically and rhythmically the beatitudinal notion that the “weak” shall be strong and the last shall be first. It is important here to point out that in musical syncopation the weak beat becomes the strong one, which is absent. In the essay that follows, I will attempt to reconstruct this classroom activity in a reading of the poem that maps the double-voicedness of each line of the poem, highlighting a more radical interpretation as well as historical context along the way. As a pedagogical and interpretive technique, mapping combines close reading with critical race theory to examine and interpret subversion in texts written by authors who did not have the freedom to be openly radical.

7.        A course on Romanticism(s) that begins with Black Atlantic writers and abolitionists as a precursor to the American, French, and Haitian revolutions as well as other revolts against slavery and colonialism provides an important starting point for students’ understanding the modes of revolutionary discourse available to radical writers, like Wheatley. Although Wordsworth and Coleridge are credited with penning autobiographical pentameter that testifies to the spiritually and politically transformative power of the imagination, Wheatley’s poetry makes it abundantly clear that she helped originate a style (that subverted Enlightenment poetry in ways) that the big 6 Romantics have been credited with creating. A useful pedagogical concept for teaching Wheatley and Romanticism(s) is “Imag-I-Nations”: a term that denotes the ways Atlantic thinkers represent themselves and construct identity along (trans)national lines as well as the way the imagination embroiders the representation of self through metaphors that map authors’ and readers’ journeys across nations, realms, and borders (geographic, physical, spiritual, temporal, transcendental, and mental) (Pace 238).

8.         What Manning refers to as “The Cartography of Consciousness” (12) becomes the cartographies of double-consciousness (Du Bois 2–3) when applied to Wheatley, whose support for the American Revolution is linked to her own sense of identity in New England and the way the “integrity and structure of selfhood (or its disintegration) mirror those of the nation: both are unions of potentially disjunctive parts. Disintegration of the nation threatens integrity of personal identity” (Manning 12). The double consciousness in Wheatley’s poetry will become evident to students as they draw parallels between America’s struggle for freedom from British rule and her own fight for liberty from slavery. To understand how this poem functions as Wheatley’s declaration of independence, it is necessary to map the poem’s double voicedness in the context of Atlantic revolutionary rhetoric. Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) was printed in London three years before America declared independence. The book begins with a "Copy of a Letter sent by the Author’s Master to the Publisher," in which John Wheatley notes that “Phillis was brought from Africa to America in the Year 1761, between Seven and Eight Years of Age.” Phillis echoes this language in the title of "On Being Brought from Africa to America." In order to map the double consciousness of the poem and its subversion of her “master’s” narrative, students should look up each of the poem’s nouns and verbs in the Oxford English Dictionary; ask them to search, on the one hand, for definitions that would have proven amenable to pro-slavery readers and, on the other, ones that would have challenged the racist ideologies and rhetoric that undergirded the slave trade. Mapping the double-voicedness of each and every noun and verb gives students the opportunity to see how the title’s seemingly innocuous passive verb phrase becomes subversive when “Being” is read as a noun. Mapping the space between the double meaning of “Being” as a helping verb, and also as representing the idea that slave ships are carrying not only human beings across the Atlantic, but also the philosophical notion of being and its concomitant notions of human rights indicates the double consciousness of the author and/or speaker. In the context of the transatlantic discourses of liberty that the Declaration of Independence arises from, Wheatley’s notion of “Being” carries the import of a “living creature, either corporeal or spiritual; esp. a human being, a person” (OED), who thus has inherent rights: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” ("Declaration of Independence" 127).

9.        As Manning points out, Jefferson’s Declaration is drawing its notion of human rights from Scottish Enlightenment philosophy’s reaction to René Descartes and others. In his language of self-evident truths, Jefferson is also influenced by a philosophical tradition indebted to Descartes’s notion of thought as the foundation of being: “Cogito Ergo Sum”:

What then am I? A thing which thinks. What is a thing which thinks? It is a thing which doubts, understands, conceives, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, which also imagines and feels … For it is so evident of itself that it is I who doubts, who understands, and who desires, that there is no reason here to add anything to explain it. And I have certainly the power of imagining likewise; for although it may happen (as I formerly supposed) that none of the things which I imagine are true, nevertheless this power of imagining does not cease to be really in use, and it forms part of my thought. (Descartes 37)
The unwritten motto of Wheatley’s book of poems can be summarized as, “I write therefore I have rights.” Her mastery of language and rhetoric makes her equality self-evident to readers and remaps their thinking causing them to imagine a world and afterlife built on this principle, which is why Jefferson is threatened enough to disparage her in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1786):
Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry.—Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism. (Jefferson 234)
Were he to admit the merit of her poetry, Jefferson would have to concede the equality of African Americans and concomitantly abolish slavery, as his opponent Benjamin Rush is quick to point out (Rush 2n). Descartes and Jefferson hinge their notions of innate and divinely appointed rights, respectively, on the presence of the godlike capacity of imagination. To declare her equality, Wheatley pens a poem "On Imagination." In a rhetorical move that anticipates Coleridge’s writing an "Ode to Dejection" (that declares his lack of ability to write in a beautifully written poem), Wheatley double-voicedly proclaims her lack of imagination in a poem that subtly points readers to its (and her) divine origin. With a radical politics and poetics of liberation theology, she uses her moral compass to set a course (away from the duality that underwrites slavery) towards salvation, and she employs the telescope of verse to “measure the skies, and range the realms above. / There in one view we grasp the mighty whole, / Or with new worlds amaze th’unbounded soul” ("On Imagination," ll. 20–22). Rather than bodies arriving in chains to the “new world,” the soul arrives in the “new worlds” of heaven “unbounded,” or free. Instead of endorsing the slave trade and echoing her master’s passive diction about her being brought from Africa to America, Wheatley maps a middle passage between earth and heaven to illustrate a godlike perspective of unity that exposes the artificial binaries intact in the Anglo-American discourse that underwrites the slave trade.

10.        A beneficial classroom activity is to compare Wheatley to spoken word or hip hop artists, such as Lauryn Hill or Kendrick Lamar, who directly and forcefully denounce racism, and then to ask students to imagine how the poem would have read if Wheatley were free to speak her mind. Reading the poem alongside her 11 February 1774 letter to the Native American minister Samson Occom and its open condemnation of slavery and oppression draws attention to the radicalism of the missive and function of silence (on this topic) in the poem. In "On Being Brought from Africa to America," Wheatley also maps silence and omission: missing from the title, but present in the minds of her readers, is what connects Africa to America: the Atlantic. The presence of the Atlantic is more powerful for its absence, and the poem continues to make use of elision to map interstitial spaces and conceal powerful presences in the first line of the poem: “’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land.” Just as the passive verb form of the title removes herself and any agency, so too does the opening character of the poem. The apostrophe is turned outward, a closing single quotation mark facing a letter printed in invisible ink. It erases Wheatley’s presence by metonymically standing in for the “I,” which should be the first letter of the poem. The “I” has been removed, displaced.

11.        Another way to make this poem more accessible to students is to teach it alongside relevant songs by Bob Marley. For instance, although the following lines from his “Redemption Song” were written more than two centuries later, they explain the metaphorical significance of the missing “I” in Wheatley’s first line:

Old pirates, yes, they rob I;
Sold I to the merchant ships,
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit. (Marley)
In one possible reading of this double-voiced poem, the passivity of the title and opening character remove “being” and selfhood, as does slavery; however, remapping the negative space, the selves and concomitant rights are powerfully, self-evidently present. Eliding the first letter of the poem is a literal silence in this opening line of iambic pentameter. The unstressed/stressed cadence of the iamb gives the poem a musical pattern. A Black Atlantic analysis of Wheatley’s use of iambic feet and her “sounds of silence” (Simon) stretches back further in space and time than Pope’s, or even Chaucer’s, use of heroic couplets in England. Syncopation, like an iambic foot, depends upon the interplay between stressed and unstressed to create a rhythm. In poetry, syncopation is the “contraction of a word by omission of one or more syllables or letters in the middle” (OED), which is exemplified by the first word in the poem.

12.        In music, syncopation is the “action of beginning a note on a normally unaccented part of the bar and sustaining it into the normally accented part, so as to produce the effect of shifting back or anticipating the accent; the shifting of accent so produced” (OED). African syncopation found its way into European music via the Mediterranean, Greece, and Rome, as well as through the Berber tribes in southern Spain and Italy (Strange), before it crossed the Atlantic and fused with already-existing syncopation of Native American tribes and civilizations, as well as English and Irish folk music in the unaccounted for roots and routes of African American spirituals and jazz (Radano). Wheatley musically syncopates poetic syncopation by contracting the word at the beginning rather than the middle. In closing the typographical and sonic space between “It was” and removing the “I” in “’Twas,” Wheatley is subtly remapping her (readers’) journey across space and time and using syncopation as a chronotope. By demonstrating her ability to alter space and time in the world of verse, Wheatley is not only echoing the power of the Judeo-Christian God of slaveholders, but also subtly asserting her own divine origin and destination. She anticipates the Coleridgean primary imagination and the “infinite I am,” implying (Supreme) “Being” in the title as well as the unnamed bestower of the first line’s “mercy.”

13.         One pedagogical approach is to break the students into 8 groups, one for each line of the poem. Then, ask each group to map the rhythm of their line by writing it on a dry-erase board with the stressed beats or words in bold, encouraging them to look up each word in the OED and to examine Wheatley’s use of meter, which (parts of) words she chooses to stress or not. Moving line by line through the poem with attentiveness to its shifts in tone from self as passive recipient of action to the imperative tone of the final couplet affords students the opportunity to plot the coordinates of their journey as readers and the poem’s abolitionist self actualization. The poem begins, however, by deemphasizing or concealing the self:

’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan
land, (l. 1)
The words “me” and “my” are carefully placed on unstressed syllables of the iambic feet, and despite the active verb, the self is acted upon, (as in the title), but does not act and is not emphasized. However, if the “I” of the poem’s first word were restored (to read “It was” rather than “’Twas”), the poem would scan differently with “me” and “my” being stressed rather than unstressed. Wheatley uses iamb to declare “I Am.” Also, in the typography of the first edition, the word “land” appears alone, in its own line, and thus metaphorically positioned as the slave ship (which is not mentioned in the narrative poetry) moving between the first and second line of the poem and floating in an Atlantic of blank space (McKenzie).

14.        The second line takes a significant, but subtle, step forward in emphasizing the self by accenting the first-person possessive pronoun:

Taught my benighted soul to understand (l. 2)
In accenting the word “my,” the poem functions like syncopation in music, emphasizing that which has been de-emphasized. The first three emphasized syllables taken together (without the unaccented ones in between) read “my night soul.” These words can be thrown into relief by their appearance in bold on the board, and also by leading a class-wide recitation of each line in which the students also clap while articulating the accented syllables. These three little words celebrate both Wheatley’s blackness and fly in the face of the theology of slaveholders, who claimed that black people did not have souls and thus could not be saved. Wesley and Whitefield moved a step beyond this racist theology by preaching to black people, slave and “free” alike; however, their theology still accommodated the existence of slavery. In Wheatley’s theology, she transcends the theology of the preachers of the Great Awakening: she holds that her soul has understanding, anticipating the Coleridgean distinction between reason and understanding.

15.        Although in the first couplet, the speaker still does not perform actively as the subject of a verb, her soul is the indirect object of “taught” and the implied subject of the infinitive “to understand.” Also, “soul” moves a small step closer to subject-hood in the third line, for it is (the direct object of) “taught”:

That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too: (l. 3)
As in the first syllable of the first line, the apostrophe (of “there’s”) removes the “i” in both accented occurrences. Significantly and importantly for the theological implications of typography and scansion in this poem, “God” is accented, indicating a consciousness of the importance of emphasizing divinity and paralleling the divine being with the spiritual being of Wheatley’s soul in the previous line and title. This third line also maps double consciousness: the single consciousness “That there’s a God” is twinned by the awareness “That there’s a Saviour too.” The repetition creates parallelism by contrasting the wrathful god of the Torah (seemingly placating readers who held the racist view that dark skin is the “mark of Cain,” but then subtly subverting this view) with the presence of the merciful Jesus of the Christian New Testament, not implying damnation, but rather salvation for black people.

16.        In order to map the subversive qualities of the rhythm in the opening three lines, it’s necessary to prepare the class with lectures or student presentations on the presence and history of syncopation in music. In traditional African American and Black Atlantic music from spirituals to jazz to reggae to hip hop, syncopation is subversive: it accentuates the usually unaccented beat, referred to as the “and” of the beat, while the accented “strong” beat is left silent or unaccented. This aspect can be exemplified by dividing the class and leading them in clapping their hands to a 4/4 rhythm with one half clapping on the “on beat” and the other on the “off beat.” There’s also the possibility of analyzing the rhetoric of why we refer to these beats as “on” and “strong” as opposed to “off” and “weak.” Wheatley’s removing herself from the beginning of the poem is symbolic syncopation, a performative poetics and logical reversal, in accord with the Biblical injunction, “So the last shall be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16).

17.        The connection between syncopated rhythms, the history of slavery, and disenfranchised people is made clear in Bob Marley’s reggae “riddims,” which accentuate the “weak” beat throughout as he renders this musical reversal political by singing, “Now the weak must be strong” (Marley "Them Belly Full…"). Playing reggae aloud in the classroom will allow students to hear how the chucking of the guitar and bubbling of the keyboard land on the “weak” beat, which is made strong by these instruments emphasizing it in unison. In classical music, a beat is divided into an accented “downbeat” followed by unaccented “and” of the beat. However, the rhythm of an iamb, exactly like syncopation, reverses this emphasis by beginning with the unstressed syllable, followed by the stressed one. In a more abstract way, a similar reversal occurs over the first half of the poem. Continuing to map the poem’s marked shift in the first four lines from deemphasizing the passive self to emphasizing the active self, the next coordinate is where the “I” is finally accentuated:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew (l. 4)
As in musical syncopation, the poem uses rhythm to make the “weak” “strong” implying a theological reversal of fortunes. Wheatley masks this revolutionary moment syntactically with the “neither/nor” construct; now the action of self is negated, or only implied by what the “I” does not do. In the first line, all references to Wheatley land on unaccented syllables, but in the fourth line “I” lands on an accented syllable. The beat is reversed, so to speak, as is the line from and emphasis from "Amazing Grace": “I once was lost.” Thus what was once unstressed becomes stressed; similarly, syncopation accents the previously unaccented part of the beat. This line is rhythmically double voiced: it can scan two ways. It is possible also to scan the “Once” as stressed, creating an accent shift that syncopates the iambic foot by making it trochaic. In-class listening to African American spirituals with attention to the reversals of being damned or saved and the function of water (anticipating or perhaps influencing Coleridge’s "Rime of the Ancient Mariner") is an illuminating way out from Wheatley to wider contexts of interplay among rhythms, words, and liberation theology.

18.        Two contexts emerge as equally important to understanding the subtle gradations of meaning and concomitant power shifts in the poem: musical syncopation and Atlantic revolutionary rhetoric. The latter is established in Manning’s chapter on "Mapping the Language," the perfect reading to assign to the class as a way to bridge the European American and Black Atlantic rhetoricities of revolution. Wheatley’s shift in this poem models, according to Hugh Blair’s 1759 Lectures in Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, the linguistic progression from “primitive” to “civilized” cultures. Manning discusses Blair’s racist understanding of the relationship between civilization and syntax:

Primitive peoples like the American Indians order their sentences according to instinct and imagination, first naming the object of attention, then indicating their desired relationship to it. As civilizations progress, their use of language inverts this order, placing the self at the head, and distancing the thing, the object, further into the syntax of the sentence. This new order ‘may be called the order of the understanding.’ (247)
Manning provides the perspective to see what is at stake for Wheatley in exemplifying this shift to prove her ability with language, as she had to do before the group of Boston rimy-wigged statesmen who interviewed her to certify that she actually wrote the poems. In the first four lines, Wheatley mirrors this progression. Take, for instance, the first line: “’Twas Mercy brought me from my Pagan land,” which seemingly names the object of attention “Mercy” and states her relationship to it. However, Wheatley again subverts established revolutionary rhetoric: rather than moving herself further from her object (election) she juxtaposes the two of them, moving as close as possible to salvation: “Once I redemption” (4).

19.        In 1778, the Anglo-Scot James Beattie articulated just what was at stake for the colonized in adopting the language of the colonizer and indicated that the practice of slavery was supported by Atlantic English; transatlantic rhetoric had glossed over the horrors of slavery, naturalizing it in metaphor:

We are slaves to the language we write, and are continually afraid of committing gross blunders. [….] An English author of learning is the master, not the slave, of his language, and wields it gracefully, because he wields it with ease, and with full assurance that he has command of it. (Forbes 17)
In order to overturn the slave trade, Wheatley had to subvert it linguistically, poetically, and theologically. Manning comments on Beattie’s words by noting that “self-consciousness about style had an edge of fear which elided the social and the eschatological. Somewhere within it was a belief that to get it wrong was not simply to risk derision but damnation” (242). The poem accommodates a pro-slavery reading as well as an abolitionist one, ultimately reflecting the readers’ views in their interpretation and perhaps changing readers’ minds with the possibility of the more radical interpretation that extends the principles of the Enlightenment to all. In this way, the poem functions as a map to salvation, potentially charting a course for equality in the reader’s mind. This context maps how Wheatley reversed the roles of the colonizer and colonized in her poem: she wields language so carefully that she becomes the master and her reader in need of emancipation “from mental slavery” (Marley, "Redemption Song"). Wheatley’s poem, to paraphrase Blake, cleanses the doors of perception, removing the “mind-forg’d manacles” (line 8) so the slavery advocate can become an abolitionist. John Newton leads his readers on a similar journey from passivity to agency in words that are as close to Wheatley’s in meaning as they are in date of composition (1772):
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now I am found,
Was blind, but now I see. (Newton)
This hymn, like Wheatley’s poem, maps a route to heaven.

20.         Just as the class is able to map the double voicedness of each word’s meanings as well as the metric binary of stressed and unstressed beats, it is also important that the class map the split between the first four lines of the poem and the last. Before arriving at salvation, Wheatley pauses to reflect on earthly limitations. The second half of "On Being Brought from Africa to America" contains a shift from the past to the present tense. Wheatley’s identity emerges through the use of the word “our.” She identifies herself as black and separates potentially racist readers from her and her people:

Some view our sable race with scornful eye
‘Their colour is a diabolic die’ (ll. 5–6)
The heraldic “sable” linked with “race” is positive, subverting the negative view of those who believe the racist theology of dark skin as the mark of Cain. The “I” disappears again in the sight of the prejudice in the “eye” of the slaveholder, but “sable” shows that beauty is in the “I” of the be(-k)nighted poet and quill holder. In heraldry, “sable” is symbolized as a shield that is half black and half white with black gridlines over the white background, symbolizing being protected by the aegis of blackness. This symbolism creates a counter-reading to the racist theology about dark skin, with a scriptural allusion to the mark of Cain as a sign that its bearer is unable to be killed, a hint at afterlife and reversal of “die” and death. The other half of the shield with the gridlines represents an almost yin-yang deconstruction of the Manichean duality that undergirds slavery, mapping a journey across opposites. Wheatley’s fifth line also reflects the mapping of the journey of slave ships, since “sable” is also defined as “by sea” and “race” as a “journey” (OED).

21.         The final couplet contains the most powerful language. The verb tense undergoes a giant shift from passive in the first line to imperative in the penultimate one:

Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join the angelic train. (ll. 7–8)
Whereas the lines appear as a plea for the possibility of slaves in the afterlife, the fact that “me,” “Christ,” “black,” “join,” and “train” are all accented hints at a reading far more radical in the context of Puritanical Boston than at first appears: Wheatley and her fellow black people occupy the seats among the elect that the Puritans had reserved for themselves, for they are with Christ among those predestined for salvation. The implied subject of the imperative “Remember” is “you,” although her hortatory auditors are “Christians”; thus, Wheatley commands the subjects of her (death) sentence to recall that they (the pro-slavery readers) may also “be refin’d.” The emphasis on “Christianity” puts the “I” (sound) back in the word, mapping the difference between Christ-ians (those who are Christ-like) and Christians (those who support slavery). The slaveholders, however, “may [possibly] be refin’d, and join the angelic train” should they follow this poem’s map to salvation correctly.

22.        According to the hegemonic reading, the final couplet seems to be using what Manning refers to as hypotaxis, use of syntax to imply a hierarchical relationship, seemingly making the black people subordinate to the elect, independent white people; however, the punctuation also allows for a subversive reading that reveals the opposite: “so the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen” (Matthew 20:16). This reading goes significantly beyond Whitefield and Wesley to a Greater Awakening of abolitionist theology. A third reading reveals parataxis, the “placing of propositions or clauses one after another, without indicating by connecting words the relation (of coordination or subordination) between them” (OED). Susan Manning notes how parataxis eliminates hierarchy, making the items in the list equal and interchangeable, and in this instance Wheatley maps the spaces between them. This indicates the potential sinfulness and subsequent salvation for all through the process of being “refin’d.” In this reading, the politics of punctuation become crucial; focusing on the commas that separate “Christians, Negros, black as Cain” makes the items listed interchangeable, thus opening up the possibility that it is the slaveholding Christians whose souls are black as Cain” and in need of refinement, and not the opposite as the hegemonic reading would yield. The possibilities the poem’s parataxis opens up require that students examine the ways the poem is freighted with double meanings and double consciousness. Wheatley uses syntax to levy a tax on sin. With one reading it becomes the duty of the reader to critique the customs of society steeped in the Atlantic slave trade and acknowledge that even the souls of slave traders and owners can be saved. Even the other far-less-radical reading posits that black people have souls and may be among the elect, ideas not accepted widely (or even outright denied) among pro-slavery Christians.

23.        Scholars, such as Philip Gould, have noted the final couplet’s metaphorical resonance with the refining of cane sugar on plantations (Gould), but have not discussed how the imagery of this process sustains the metaphor, with the cut stalks of cane appearing as bones and referred to with such words as “black, white, and ivory bone char” that are placed in boiling houses through seven smaller and increasingly hotter kettles (baptismal fonts) only to emerge as the stardust of white sugar crystals, or as molasses syrup decolorized through filtration. The molasses and sugar were shipped across the Atlantic and sold in England and other countries with the profit going toward purchasing more slaves. Quaker leader William Fox noted the mock transubstantiation of sugar plantations and the taste for sugar that sustained them, noting that every pound of sugar consumed may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh. Wheatley’s final couplet likens the processes by which cane is cut, refined, and transformed into sugar to death, resurrection, and ascension, thereby charting the coordinates of the voyage from earth to heaven, as opposed to the journey from Africa to American slavery. The intimation that the suffering of slaves on plantations is comparable to Christ’s suffering, crucifixion, and death is made clear in the juxtaposition of “Christians, Negros.” Adding “Black as Cain” reverses the idea that enslaved black people have the mark of Cain and, instead, marks them as Abel, murdered by their brothers. This anticipates a similar juxtaposition by Coleridge in the title of his poem Christ[-]abel.

24.        According to the Credo "Mind Map," Wheatley’s poetry and Romanticism do not even contain “related concepts.” As a classroom activity, students can work in groups to draw up more inclusive mind maps that link African American literature with British Romanticism, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American literature, writers of the black Atlantic, and other oral traditions and writings of the Americas, Canada, and the Caribbean. The Credo Mind Maps for Wheatley and Romanticism can be placed side by side, and class-wide brainstorming can chart continua as well as points of contact, contestation, and connection between them. Some of the many connections that should be present on the Credo "Mind Maps" for “Romanticism” and “Phillis Wheatley” are Wheatley’s critiques of Enlightenment ideology, which anticipate Romanticism. Wheatley’s poem is a refinery of its readers’ sensibilities about slavery, each line subtly removing impure connotations surrounding blackness (“Their colour is a diabolic die,” l. 6) and replacing them with regal ones such as those associated with “sable.” Wheatley maps the ways in which, to use Hugh Blair’s terms, “linguistic authority” becomes a substitute for “spiritual authority” (Manning 247). She also purifies the language and spirituality of the emerging Republic in the hope that it will affect the government and vice versa, a sentiment evident in her poem to George Washington and echoed by John Adams in his 1780 letter to the President of Congress:

As eloquence is cultivated with more care in free republics than in other governments, it has been found by constant experience that such republics have produced greater purity, copiousness, and perfection of language. It is not to be disputed that the form of government has an influence upon language, and language in its turn influences not only the form of government, but the temper, the sentiments, and manners of the people. (qtd. in Manning 251).
Memory and imagination are the processes through which Wheatley’s experience is refined into democratic poetry. Her images function as more than words, as reminders to her readers in her spiritual logos-centric poetry that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Her poetry crosses the Atlantic (from publication in London to be sold in America) as a commodity, reversing the route of the slave ships showing the power of the book trade to defeat the slave trade with the voice of a prophet to eliminate the profit of “Being Brought from Africa to America.” In the last two lines of the poem, Wheatley extends Cartesian innatism beyond the self by alluding to her knowledge of her readers’ divinely implanted knowledge, for she bids them “Remember” something they once knew and have apparently forgotten: “in every human breast God has implanted a principle, which we call love of freedom” (Wheatley "Letter to Rev. Samson Occom" 226). Wheatley links the enslaved and the free not with chains, but by using rhetoric and syncopation to map hearts beating as one across oceans of space, time, race, class, and gender. Her poetry calls to mind the advice of Black Panther’s T’Challa, who echoes an ancient African proverb: “In times of trouble, the wise build bridges and the foolish build walls.”

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[1]I’d like to thank Joselyn Almeida-Beveridge, Kelvin Black, and Paul Gilroy for their helpful feedback on a conference paper version of this article, as well as Jodie Arnold, Jon Rykhus, Charles J. Rzepka, Matthew Scott, Wendy C. Nielsen, Lisa Venticinque, and Christopher Stampone, and the anonymous reader for Romantic Circles for their formative comments on this piece in draft form. BACK


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