Sunday, October 24, 2010

Phillis Wheatley and Racial Equality


Here’s a special Bible verse from Hebrew scripture, the book of Exodus--the great treatise on freedom for God’s people--that you may want to begin including in some of your recurring devotional readings:

When a slave owner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner's property (Exod. 21:20-21).

Things weren’t improved by the time of the New Testament era as this excerpt from the book of 1 Peter reveals:

Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval (1Pet. 2:18-29).

So, what the slaves were being told was to endure their punishments when the master corrected them for some wrong doing AND to endure with equal patience and lack of objection when the master punishes them just because he, the master, is in a bad mood and needs someone to catch the brunt of his frustration.

One of the few first-person accounts of a slave recollection of how she or he got from there, Africa, to here, the Americas, came from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, published in 1789.

At last, when the ship we were in had got in all her cargo, they made ready with many fearful noises, and we were all put under deck, so that we could not see how they managed the vessel. But this disappointment was the least of my sorrow. The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship’s cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable. Happily perhaps for myself I was soon reduced so low here that it was thought necessary to keep me almost always on deck; and from my extreme youth I was not put in fetters. In this situation I expected every hour to share the fate of my companions, some of whom were almost daily brought upon deck at the point of death, which I began to hope would soon put an end to my miseries. Often did I think many of the inhabitants of the deep much more happy than myself; I envied them the freedom they enjoyed, and as often wished I could change my condition for theirs. Every circumstance I met with served only to render my state more painful, and heighten my apprehensions, and my opinion of the cruelty of the whites.

Ironically, and I wish I could take credit for how all of these things come together as they do, one of the headlines on the front page of today’s newspaper reads: “The ugly truth of slavery and church.” The church defended slavery in this country to the end. There was no revival or spiritual awakening causing them to reconsider their evil views; it was only a matter of brute force in a war that had brothers and other relatives fighting against each other for the ability to make the decision on the country’s behalf.

Earlier this year, there was quite a round of discussion going on among Delawareans, from the Governor on around, about the degree to which present-day citizens owed apologies to slaves and their descendants. Many people were saying, “I can’t help what my ancestors did, and though I disagree with what they did an apology from me means nothing.” Others were saying, “While it’s clear that my forebears made decisions to enslave people, something I have opposed my whole adult life, there is something at least symbolic when I say to the descendants of those whose ancestors suffered at the hands of mine, “I’m so sorry that happened, and I will certainly live my life doing all I can do to undo the residue of such a horrible set of decisions so in that regard my apology does mean something.” If you don’t willingly apologize, Mrs. Clarence Thomas might phone you very early in the morning to demand an apology from you on behalf of any persons of color she may know.

If slavery were strictly a phenomenon of the past, suitable for study only in history lectures and textbooks, you could decide whether you’re up for a history lesson this morning before deciding how to plan your nap during the Gathering time. Before you go, though, let me remind you that slavery is still a reality in our world, and if you think it has nothing to do with you, well, you’re wrong. If you buy chocolate that isn’t made of Fair Trade cocoa beans, you are supporting the slavery of children in the Ivory Coast. The Ivory Coast is one of the few places in the world where cocoa beans can be grown with consistency; it is the number one export for the small nation, and poverty plagues the country. The combination of poverty and the demand for chocolate-makings from the First World often cause parents, to keep the rest of the family alive, to sell one of their children to cocoa bean industry as slaves.

The three worst offenders are Hershey, the M&M/Mars Company, and Nestle. All of these companies buy cocoa beans from companies that plant and harvest cocoa beans with child slave labor. When we know the truth, the word “chocolholic” takes on new meaning.

The issue of the Harvard Gazette released online yesterday, reprinted a February 19 article covering a speech given by Luis CdeBaca, who directs the U.S. State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Before taking on the job he now has, CdeBaca was a Federal Prosecutor. In the course of his speech, he revealed that slavery is alive and well on Planet Earth today.

Examples of modern-day slaves could be the workers who make our cotton shirts, pick cocoa for our chocolate, and harvest shrimp for our dinner plates while imprisoned aboard ships at sea. Enslaved prostitutes--more than 1.3 million worldwide--also provide the labor force for much of the world’s sex trade.

While in that prosecutorial role, CdeBaca had a hand in sending 100 sex traffickers to prison and freeing 600 sex and garment workers who’d been kept in involuntary servitude. This is unimaginable for most of us!

Quoting CdeBaca,

Trafficking in humans is a crime akin to murder. It’s a crime akin to rape, and to kidnapping. Worldwide, there are more than 12 million people who exist in some form of slavery, part of a shadow economy that turns a $32 billion annual profit for traffickers. About a tenth of those are in what experts call commercial sex servitude. Yet in a typical year, nations around the globe initiate only 3,000 prosecutions against traffickers, an unforgivably low percentage.

He insists that countries worldwide, if they want to stem the tide of slavery or do away with it altogether, have to get to the root causes of what makes human trafficking flourish. There are some 192 countries in the world, and at this time 136 of them have signed the United Nations’ ten-year-old protocol against slavery, but he says that nothing much will change until criminal prosecutions escalate around the globe.


In 1761, Phillis, a little African girl about seven years old, was purchased as a personal slave in Boston by Susannah Wheatley, whose husband, John, was a tailor. Evidently, Phillis’s only memory of Africa was of her mother performing some kind of water ritual as the sun was rising one morning.

Her biographers have speculated that she came from Senegal or the Gambia; her native people may have been the Fula who were Muslim. Because she was so young, historians of African slavery believe Phillis was kidnapped and brought to what is now the United States aboard one of the dangerous, putrid slaving ships. More about that in a moment.

Little Phillis learned English quickly--reading, writing, and speaking. Phillis, obviously, was naturally intellectually gifted; and her teacher, Mrs. Wheatley’s 18 year old daughter, Mary, a whiz as a tutor. It is reported that Phillis could read any part of the Bible, even those tough sections, in a little less than a year and a half.

Without in any way applauding the institution of slavery, the Wheatley family must be complimented for recognizing Phillis’s gifts and giving her opportunities to develop them. In that vein, they arranged for Phillis to begin studying Latin and English Lit when she was 12 years old. She was particularly intrigued with the poetry of Pope, Alexander that is, and Phillis took it upon herself to attempt her translations of the poetry of the Roman writer, Ovid.

Given the Wheatley family’s religious leanings, Phillis was thoroughly indoctrinated into Puritanism. Again, not to praise any aspect of the institution of slaveholding, the Wheatleys at least regarded Phillis as a human being worth leading into relationship with God; not all slaveholders had such a high view of slaves--tending, more often, to equate them with soul-less animals for whom a relationship with God was impossible.

Phillis was 20 years old when she was sent to England as the servant to the Wheatleys’s young adult son, Nathaniel, who had to be in London on business. While there, her talents could not be kept secret. Lady Huntingdon became her patron, and this support allowed Phillis to get together a poetry collection for publication, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. This made Phillis Wheatley the first African American woman poet ever to be published.

One of the most beloved hymns in the English language is “Amazing Grace.” Folk singers have sung it as have the great stars of the Metropolitan Opera. Congregations large and small have sung its words for centuries, typically inspiring congregants to sing forth with great gusto. Here come Progressives like me to botch it up for everyone who was singing the hymn just fine until we came along with our criticisms. Soon, it will be time for my annual reminder that the wise men could not have made it to the manger and, in fact, didn’t see Jesus until he was about two years old; but I won’t spoil that fun now. We’ll wait until Christmas hits.

The film, “Amazing Grace,” one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen, tells the story of the process of British abolition of slavery and shows us how this widely known hymn is directly related to the liberation of slaves. Captain John Newton, eventually the Reverend John Newton, is the key figure in the story and the composer of the words to the hymn. The words that offend bleeding hearts like me are much more palatable when we understand why Newton chose the words he chose for his hymn.

Newton was born in London in 1725, the son of a commander of a merchant ship, which sailed Mediterranean waters. When John was eleven years old, he went with his father on one of journeys and would make six voyages altogether with his father before the father’s retirement. In 1744 John got a job on a the H. M. S. Harwich. Finding conditions on the ship absolutely intolerable, he deserted. Since he’d signed on for service he couldn’t leave until the journey was over. Newton was recaptured in some port town, publicly flogged, and demoted from midshipman to seaman, the lowest position on the rung.

He continued hating life aboard the Harwich and arranged to have himself traded to serve on the crew of a slave ship. This ship went to Sierra Leone, and for reasons never made absolutely clear as far as I know, Newton signed on for a term of service as a servant to a slave trader. Not surprisingly, the slave trader treated him like like a slave; this included beatings any time he displeased his master.

Again, details are sketchy, but early in 1748, Newton’s freedom was secured by captain of another ship who’d known Newton’s father. Afterwards, Newton worked his way up in the seafaring world and eventually became the captain of his own slave ship.

You can imagine that he wasn’t all that drawn to religion, though his mother had given him some religious instruction when he was a little boy. Once on a trip back to England with a ship full of slaves to be sold, a horrible storm relentlessly attacked the ship. Newton had never been more frightened. He was certain the ship would sink, killing him and all of his crew and cargo.

Not on speaking terms with God for very long time, he cried out and begged for God’s mercy in the crisis. Whether or not his desperate prayer had anything to do with the final outcome or not, we can’t know, but the storm did calm; and all were saved. Newton, for the rest of his life, called this his “great deliverance.” By that, he meant not only his physical deliverance, but also his spiritual deliverance. He continued in the slave trade for a little while after his conversion; however, he saw to it that the slaves under his care were treated humanely. Eventually, he gave it up altogether.

He made his way into the Christian ministry, and as the years went along he eventually became blind. This did not keep him from preaching regularly and becoming a writer of hymns. One of those hymns was “Amazing Grace,” and when you understand the background of his life and the impetus for writing hymns in the first place, “Amazing Grace,” makes perfect sense--theologically and otherwise. The final stanza that begins, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years...,” was not written by Newton and was added later by an anonymous writer.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Now, you may not want to think of yourself as a wretch, but Newton could not get over the part he’d played in human trafficking and suffering. He was blind when he wrote the hymn, but claims in the words to be able to see. Of course, he’s talking about the truth of the value of all human beings.

T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

How ironic that God’s grace both taught Newton’s heart to fear and relieved those fears. Naturally, he talking about fearing something more than a storm at sea; more properly, he should have feared the fact that he nearly missed out on the meaning of life altogether.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
'Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

He’s not making up dangers or exaggerating his retelling of his life’s experience. He might have died at sea or been beaten to death. He might have contracted one of the diseases that plagued and killed some of the slaves aboard one of his ships. But the same grace that taught him to fear what is really fearsome and the same grace that relieved his fears got him home in more ways than one.


Here is a prosaic reflection on her views of slavery. We will come to her famous poem shortly.

...the divine Light is insensibly chasing away the thick Darkness which broods over the Land of Africa; and the Chaos which has reigned so long is converting into beautiful Order, and reveals more and more clearly the glorious Dispensation of civil and religious Liberty, which are so inseparably united, that there is little or no Enjoyment of one without the other: Otherwise, perhaps the Israelites had been less solicitous for their Freedom from Egyptian slavery; I do not say they would have been contented without it, by no means, for in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call love of Freedom; it is impatient of oppression, and pants for Deliverance--and by the Leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert that the same principle lives in us. God grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time, and get him honor upon all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help forward the Calamities of their fellow Creatures. This I desire not for their Hurt, but to convince them of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically opposite, How well the Cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive power over others agree I humbly think it does not require the penetration of a Philosopher to determine.

Now, let’s hear her poem on the subject once again, “On Being Brought from Africa to America”:

'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

“Their colour is a diabolic die.”

Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,

May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

Some few Africans eventually did well for themselves here on these shores, some even while they were still slaves; more, of course, when they were freed. Phillis Wheatley was one of those who did WHILE she was a slave, and if this poem is any indication of her overall view of her life, the greatest blessing that came to her, having been forced out of Africa, was an introduction to God shown the world in the ministry and teachings of Jesus from Nazareth.

Wheatley claims that she knew neither God nor Jesus nor redemption, a way to be in relationship with God. Of course, we have to remember that she was only seven years old when the slave traders kidnapped her from the loving arms of her parents and sold her to Mrs. Wheatley; under the circumstances a turn of good fortune for sure. That, essentially, is the message of the first half of her poem.

The second half of her poem about being brought from Africa to America is concerned with racial prejudice and how white people known to her, most of them anyway, treated her with disdain and even hatred just because her skin color was not white. It was “sable” in hue, she said. Sable is a beautiful color, but to the racists, the “colour” of the sable race is a “diabolic die.” Just because of the color of their skin, they are regarded by many as diabolic, as evil.

The poem ends with a reminder to Christian racists, if there can really be such a thing, that persons of color, those much more black than sable too, are afforded by God all the privileges white folk are offered and some day will be on their way to heaven, same as the finest and most influential of whites.

Let’s not overlook that little phrase there, “black as Cain.” That could be a play on words, but it isn’t necessarily. Cain and Abel were the first two sons born to Eve and Adam. Cain was jealous of his brother, Abel, and he killed him. In that sense, Cain could be black like a bad guy, black with guilt.

In the eighteenth century, however, another view was widely held. When Cain slew Abel, God stepped in and told the rest of humanity that it wasn’t up to them to punish Cain; it was up to God to take care of that. God, thus, places a mark on Cain so that people who might want to do him in for killing off his innocent brother would be reminded that Cain was God’s problem and God’s project. Somehow, someone came up with the idea that the mark of Cain was God’s making Cain’s skin black, a physical trait that would be passed on to Cain’s descendants.

Wheatley knew that theological point of view. She didn’t debate it; she simply reminded detractors who thought she deserved to be a slave because of the color of her skin that people of all colors will be a part of God’s family in the next realm. If you were so racist that you’d say, “If black people are going to be in heaven, I don’t want to go there,” that would be your call and your freedom to make such a call. Imagine dark skinned people like Jesus and Paul and Mary Magdalene making it to heaven despite the color of their skin, which no one in their era raised as a possible preventative.

Imagine Juan Williams on a plane bound for glory with fully-garbed Muslims, and imagine NPR as the only option for your listening pleasure. Oh my!

No comments:

Post a Comment