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Slavery in “To Sir Toby” and “On Being Brought From Africa to America”

Freedom and slavery are mental states in which, with awareness, individuals can perceive positivity. The poems of Philip Freneau’s “To Sir Toby” and Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America” focus on the issue of slavery and its implications. Wheatley paints a positive side of slavery by suggesting that through enslavement, the speaker gained mercy by becoming a Christian and getting refined. According to her, slavery was a stepping stone to a better life. It is why she became a Christian, forgoing her pagan ways. She does not critique the negativity of slavery but perceives the benefits it brought to her. On the other hand, Freneau criticizes slavery from the first line, terming it as brutal and an evil act accorded to its victims. His perspective is that the wrongs of slavery, such as the purchase of human beings, torture, and branding, are violations against human beings. For Freneau, the branding of human beings made them look like items instead of people, which translates to inhuman treatment. The two poets rely on imagery to offer readers vivid descriptions of slavery, its benefits, and shortcomings. Similarly, the poem’s tone differentiates the poet’s points of view and stances, as Wheatley is optimistic while Freneau is pessimistic. Therefore, Wheatley’s poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” and Freneau’s “To Sir Toby” showcase how slavery was a necessity and also dehumanizing.

Wheatley’s poem explores how slavery changed the speaker through learning Christianity. When the speaker claims, “Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,” the implication is that life in a pagan land compared to the present nation is incomparable (1). The speaker indicates that although enslavement is a violation of human rights, it is a necessary evil that leads to a better life. The colonial masters did enslaved people a favor by helping them become enlightened and also share in the promises of God as Christians. By becoming acquitted with Christianity, the speaker feels it is the most important thing for her when the speaker claims, ” May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train” (8). Wheatley suggests that learning Christianity made her equal to the dominant race. Thus, the enslaver’s mercy ensured she changed her lifestyle and lived a Christian life. According to Smith in “Phillis Wheatley: A Non-Traditional Slave Narrative,” the “Wheatley family took an interest in her inclination to learn and write, tutoring her in various subjects” (1). The privilege served as the basis of her becoming a renowned poet and gaining freedom. The poem shows her appreciation of how slavery changed her life since she may not have learned such skills and capabilities in Africa. At the age of seventeen, Wheatley had her first poem published, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin” (Smith 1). Many enslaved people had no opportunities to read or write, but Wheatley had the freedom to do so and even publish her work. Despite being the family’s servant, she is privileged. As a result, it makes sense why she sees the need to praise slavery, for it changed her life. Therefore, Wheatley acknowledges the goodness of slavery in her life due to the privilege it offered her, suggesting that people can learn to see positivity amidst negativity.

In Freneau’s poem, the focus is on how slavery is a violation of human rights. The speaker indicates that “If there exists a hell—the case is clear—” to imply that being in slavery equals living in hell (1). The statement sets the mood of the poem as a pessimistic one while also noting Freneau’s stance in the poem. He disapproves of slavery based on its ability to dehumanize people, inflict pain, and deprive them of equality in society. When the speaker asserts “Where all we see is pregnant with distress/Angola’s natives scourg’d by hireling hands” they mean that in slavery there is no joy but pain due to hard work and torture (36-37). Sir Toby makes wealth by overworking and denying freedom to the enslaved people. Apart from working and facing injustices, the enslaved people have no other life. According to Freneau, such a manner of treating individuals is brutal. It is a poem rich in imagery as Freneau outlines the ways the enslaved people toil in the foreign land for the benefit of their master, who, instead of acknowledging their efforts, inflict more pain. The speaker laments “Though Nature here has every blessing spread/ Poor is the labourer—and how meanly fed!” (41-42). The image of nature helps readers perceive the excellent work of the enslaved people, where the land forms a beautiful natural scenery. Nature is a sign of peace, but in this case, there is none for the enslaved people, showcasing a contrast of morality with the enslavers’ disregard for humanity. However, despite such beauty, Freneau paints an image of a deprived laborer who fails to obtain a satisfactory meal to maintain perfect health. Hence, Freneau disapproves of the ill-treatment of enslaved people through the imagery by implying that the enslaver is inhuman and unappreciative.

The poems explore the central theme of slavery and its implications through imagery and tone. Wheatley outlines that the poem’s speaker had to leave her pagan land not by choice but by circumstances. She gives insight through visual imagery that “Some view our sable race with the scornful eye,” meaning that in the foreign land, her race reminds others of her paganism and other shortcomings as a race (5). Nonetheless, Wheatley uses an optimistic tone to create awareness that despite such differences in racial composition, all people are equal before God and Jesus Christ, who accepted the speaker like the rest of the people. Similarly, Freneau presents slavery in his poem as a means that separates people from their natives and also from themselves. The speaker argues, “Sir Toby’s slaves enjoy that portion here,” showcasing the master and the enslaved people who form an unbalanced interpersonal relationship (2). Slavery is the unequal relationship that exists between Sir Toby and the enslaved people. They are first purchased like commodities and further exposed to inhuman acts due to the perception that the dominant group is far more enlightened and entitled to civilize them. Nonetheless, the poets differ in their point of view about slavery as Freneau utilizes a critical tone to condemn slavery and vivid imagery of brutality when the speaker laments, “Here, whips on whips excite a thousand fears” (7). While Wheatley presents a caring type of enslaver who allows the speaker to practice Christianity, Freneau paints a picture of enslaved people facing torture and brutal treatment to showcase violations of human rights. Based on such depictions, it is evident that people experienced slavery on differential measures, instilling various points of view about slavery. Thus, Freneau criticizes slavery, possibly due to his experience witnessing the brutality, while Wheatley, whose career depended on slavery, gives credit to it for its benefits.

The poems are informative, showing that slavery had benefits and shortcomings depending on the experience of enslaved people. According to Wheatley, having an opportunity to read and write was rare among enslaved people, which prompts her appreciation through the poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” Wheatley does not assume the ills of slavery but focuses on its positivity, which suggests her ability to remain objective on a highly controversial topic. However, readers understand why she chose as her career depended on her slavery experience. However, Freneau’s poem “To Sir Toby” suggests his experience with slavery was quite different and painful. He is a witness to humans being sold like items, overworked, tortured, flogged, and denied basic needs such as food. Enslaved people are humans just like the owners who deserve fair treatment. Nonetheless, such does not occur, leading Freneau to term slavery as being hellish. He does not for once suggest any positive aspect about slavery, meaning he is overly biased against it. Their use of imagery showcases their focus on slavery being a necessary evil and undesirable. Their tone equally showcases their perception of slavery, which is helpful for readers to understand their poems’ primary focus and message. Therefore, Wheatley and Freneau show that based on an author’s perspective about slavery, it is possible to showcase its necessity and undesirability.

Work Cited

Smith, Jaden. “Phillis Wheatley: A Non-Traditional Slave Narrative.” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, vol. 44, no. 1, Jan. 2023, pp. 1+. Gale Academic OneFile Select, Accessed 22 Jan. 2024


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