The Natural Pigmentation: “‘Diabolic Die'”
Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” illustrates the natural or physical pigmentation through poetic devices such as metaphors and hyperboles to create some of her most general observations toward slavery, and the relationship between skin tone and salvation through clever syntax.
Wheatley clouds social and moral undertones by way of “white” and “black” by contrasting the sentence structure in the last two lines of the poem: “Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain / May be refin’d” (7-8). Wheatly’s use of Christians (7) is primarily referring to the white race. Instructing one to “Remember” (7), Wheatley might be suggesting she is deceptively conceding to a prior authority available to her independent of her poem; a so-called “authority” that might be licensing her poetry. However, it also suggests the black race is a recipient of spiritual refinement and can also be interpreted to suggest that Christians ought to remember, in a spiritual sense, that both white and black persons are the sin-darkened descendants of Cain. The prior viewpoint refutes the idea that Cain, marked by God, is the only ancestor of the black race. Wheatley’s revision of the myth possibly emerges in part as a result of her representation of italics, which equates Christians, Negros, and Cain (7). It is even more likely that this revisionary sense emerges because of Wheatley’s positioning of the comma after the word “Negros” (7). Though grammatically correct, the comma creates a syntactic vagueness that quietly states both Christians and Negroes are the mutual offspring of Cain and subject to refinement by divine grace. The ideology implied in the last line of the poem indicates that each race reveals there is a common birthright of Cain, the “benighted soul” (2). Concerning the divine, the “sable race” (5) is considered the white and black race, but both cultures can be smeared and reduced by the “‘diabolic die'” (6); that is, using the permanent stain to mark original sin. Under the watchful eyes of God, should a white or black person receive a permanent stain using “‘diabolic die'” (6), it will confirm that everybody is considered equal.
The ideology implied in the last line of the poem points out that sinners, “May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train” (8). In the last line, Wheatley skillfully manages to include a biblical reference to Isaiah. Her use of dogmatic language and allusions decreases colonial assumptions about race and her fondness for the Old Testament. The first hint occurs with “refin’d” (8). Speaking for God, Isiah said, “Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction” (Isaiah 48:10). In the poem, there is a suggestion that the meaning of being white (silver) is not a sign of privilege — spiritually or culturally — because those chosen by God are refined, purified, and made spiritually “white” through the afflictions Christians and Negroes have in common as mutually “benighted” (2) descendants of Cain. Moreover, Wheatley skillfully suggests a slave’s affliction includes their work in making dyes, (i.e., “‘dies’ (6)), and working in the sugarcane, (i.e., “Cain” (7)), plantations. The biblical references cleverly support her arguments against persons who attach the perception of a “‘diabolic die'” (6) only to Africans.
The creative and biblical subtleties form Wheatley’s illustration of purification and also establishes that she too is no philistine from a “Pagan land” (1) who raises Cain (a double entendre for disobedience to humankind and God). Wheatley’s biblically-legitimate claim that Cain’s offspring “may be refin’d to join th’ angelic train” (8) metamorphoses into her self-authorized artistic ability regarding her desire to raise Cain concerning the impartiality and prejudices critical of her race, which is refined into the ministerial “angelic train” (8), (through the biblical and artistic train of reflection), of her poem.
The poetic expression of refinement is both a cultural and spiritual sense in “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” Wheatley expresses that she is not a savage from a “Pagan land” (1) “raising Cain” — a euphemism to avoid saying or writing “Devil” or “hell,” especially for a young lady during the 1700s. The biblical claims that children of Cain “May be refin’d to join th’ angelic train” (8), morphs into Wheatley’s self-sanctioned artistic quality. Phillis Wheatley’s strong feelings and desire to raise Cain regarding hostile or critical inequalities about her race is refined to the holy orders of the “angelic train” (8), is a dramatic display of sophistication in both a societal and spiritual sense.
The Natural Pigmentation: “‘Diabolic Die'”