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Phillis Wheatley and Paul Gilroy’s Overview of the African Slave Trade

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Paul Gilroy emphasizes the important role that the ship played during the African Slave Trade in The Black Atlantic.

They were mobile elements that stood for the shifting spaces in between the fixed places that they connected. Accordingly they need to be thought of as cultural and political units rather than abstract embodiments of the triangular trade. They were something more – a means to conduct political dissent and possibly a distinct mode of cultural production. The ship provides a chance to explore the articulations between the discontinuous histories of England’s ports, its interferences with the wider world. (16-17)

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The ships were considered to be the middle ground, a space neither here nor there, rather invisible. However, Gilroy makes a claim that they were “cultural and political units”. He says this because they acted as the means in which slave traders were able to physically move bodies across water. Gilroy acknowledges that without these physical vessels, slaves would not have been able to be transported from Africa to the new lands where they would perform free labor. The ships presented conflict amongst the Africans. They intruded upon innocent land and prevented the African people from prospering and extending their ancestors legacies.

Gilroy uses the term “discontinous histories”; which can be thought of as histories that were unable to go because they were broken by these vessels. Slaves who were once considered African were then considered to be an animal once they boarded these ships. Their history conquered and put on pause when unknown, White men came into their native land and stole them from their homes and placed them on these ships. The African people would now have to continue their histories in foreign land. In these foreign lands, cultures unknown to the African people are formed. The displaced Africans would now take on unfamiliar cultural practices which would further separate them from who they once were.

In her poem titled, “On being brought from AFRICA to AMERICA”, Phillis Wheatley has internalized whiteness as a result of the ship bringing her to America. Gilroy’s discontinuous histories is evident within Wheatley’s poem as she speaks in accordance with the White man. She states that mercy brought her from her “pagan land”. The use of “pagan” is important because Wheatley emphasizes this is of her past. She separates herself from her former land and tells the reader that she has been given a second chance to redeem herself of her sinful beliefs prior to her move. Wheatley was not Christian before because that is not what her ancestors believed. Her history was interrupted when she was captured to be a slave. Wheatley states that her soul was once “benighted”. She considers it to have been dark and ignorant. Her internalized whiteness is again evident because she is shaming herself for who she once was. She has converted to Christianity due to the counter culture that exists in America. She would not have known of this new religion without the ship’s involvement in her transport.

Although she has black skin, the culture that she was forcefully immersed into is White and Christian. The counter culture has erased part of who she was. If not her dark skin, she would be white passing due to the way she thinks about her transition. Wheatley considers her spiritual shift to have been positive. She sees America’s involvement in her spiritual well-being as a good thing. Wheatley recognizes her black traits when she describes how some view “our sable race”. She uses “our” which joins her personal with the rest of Africa. However, she quotes the White man when describing the skin’s “diabolical die”. She speaks to the Christians directly and tries to get them to relate to her words by comparing Negros to Cain. She states, “Remember, Chrirtians, Negros, black as Cain, May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.” (lines 7-8) She makes a biblical reference so the White man can understand what she is trying to say. She speaks to them the way she knows how so they will receive her words. She wants the Christians to know that just like her, other Africans can be refined and made better if they understand the word of God. The Africans that she separates herself from can also “join the angelic train” like she has done. Wheatley considers herself to be better because she practices Christianity. She shames her past in Africa because she has now seen what Christianity has done for her. She wants the White men to know that they can continue to bring Spiritual healing to those who are suffering regardless of their skin color.

Phillis Wheatley alludes to the inferiority of Africa and it’s religious practices to that of the Western World in her poem titled, “To the University of CAMBRIDGE, in NEW-ENGLAND”. Wheatley tells the students that it hasn’t been long since she has left the shores of Africa. She refers to it as “The land of errors, and Egyptian gloom.” (line 4) Wheatley implies that it is full of errors because the African people do not know God. Therefore, the African people are sinners. “Egyptian gloom” refers to the corrupt ways of thinking in Egypt. She states that God saved her by taking her from her native land. The ship that Gilroy mentions above provided her transport and saving because God placed her on it with his hands. She claims that God, “Brought me in safety from those dark abodes.” (line 6) Again, she deems Africa to be full of darkness, Wheatley is now enlightened by Christianity. If she hadn’t boarded the ship, she would have never found her savior. She loses her Black identity in this religious way by accepting the White man’s religion as her own. She accepts it as her own and then speaks down upon her native lands. She thinks she has seen a new way of thinking but it a new way that has been forced upon her to do so.

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