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Connecting past to present, revealing the ripple effect of discriminatory systems — and the fixes.

Poetry and the struggle for justice

Early abolitionists saw the power in poetry to dismantle White supremacist thinking

An engraving portrait of poet Phillis Wheatley Peters, circa 1773.Wikimedia Commons

A Dream of Freedom and the Nightmare of Slavery

When nature, with such grief as mine opprest,
  Demand a little while to rest in sleep;
My frantic soul that cannot be at rest,
  Quick wings its way across the stormy deep.

These lines appear near the beginning of “Far in a gloomy desart, waste and wild,” a poem included in the April 1820 issue of the original Emancipator, the first American newspaper devoted entirely to abolition. In this poem by an anonymous writer, an enslaved man who had been “a prince on Afric’s coast” escapes his joyless life in bondage by dreaming that he has returned home. By allowing readers to hear the voices of enslaved people, poems such as this humanized the case against slavery.

“Far in a gloomy desart” has two speakers: the enslaved man and an unnamed person who overhears him speaking to himself. That the enslaved man’s story is overheard and is in verse flags it as a soliloquy, which has two effects: Since poetry was widely seen as elevated and refined, the lines raise the speaker’s stature; since the remarks are spoken privately, they seem honest and intense.

Missing his “friends, wife, and children dear,” his “frantic soul” returns to Africa in his sleep. Once there, his dream develops cinematically, moving in from a wide-angle landscape to villages and then his own home. Because this is a first-person narrative and not a scene from a movie, everything he says tells us who he is.

At first appears the lofty mountain’s blue,
  The morning sun just o’er her summits peep,
Then next the ascending smoke from towns, I view,
  Where wives and mothers for their kindred weep.

The grandeur of the scene reflects an appreciation of natural beauty. Once inside his home, we see the speaker not as an enslaved man but as an affectionate husband, father, and friend:

With transport then, my consort I embrace,
  I clasp each little cherub to my breast,
With joy I recollect each well known face
  Whose friendship has my social moments blest.

Back in the “gloomy desart” of slavery, when the speaker is awakened by the light of the rising sun and sound of the “lowing herds,” the misery of his condition snaps back into focus painfully:

But soon my sense returns, then I behold
  No prattling babes to dandle on my knee,
No bosom friend to soothe my gloomy soul,
  No vestige of my former LIBERTY!

The speaker’s use of mixed diction — juxtaposing poetic words such as “lofty,” “transport,” “consort,” and “cherub” with domestic terms such as “prattling babes” and (delightfully!) “dandle on my knee” — conveys the warmth of his sensibility and importance of his ideas.

Fully awake, he asks questions crafted to appeal to pious readers:

If heaven designed this bondage to our kind,
  And doom’d our nation to be slaves at first,
Why in these bodies is there placed a mind,
  Why with the love of freedom are we curst?

The implication is clear: Either God is cruel or slavery is a sin. So it is no surprise the awakened speaker, broken-hearted and angry, calls out to heaven for vengeance, saying, “Let mercy veil herself, till o’er this land / Thy fury blows a gale of woe and death.”

Because the dream provides a vision of a better life, it looks forward to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech. Because, when the dream ends, and the awakened speaker returns to the nightmare of his life in bondage, it takes its place beside other horrific depictions of race relations, running from abolitionist Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography providing a rare first-person account of the Middle Passage to the Gothic terrors of filmmaker Jordan Peele.

The subtext of this soliloquy could not be clearer: We are listening to a human being who feels what any husband, father, or friend would and who understands that the institution of slavery defies Christ’s teaching. In these ways, “In a gloomy desart” refutes the toxic assumption of race-based inferiority.

Back in the 1770s, when Phillis Wheatley Peters was trying to publish her book of poems, a group of sympathetic Bostonian men were asked to attest to her authorship, which they did. At his most unbecoming, in “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Thomas Jefferson addressed the question, writing: “Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. —Among the [B]lacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. 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.” Whether Wheatley was discussing slavery directly or writing eloquently on other subjects, she stood as a compelling Exhibit A in the case against this supremacist ideology.

Placed atop the hierarchy of literary genres, poetry was perfectly positioned to challenge racial bias. Whether written by Black authors or spoken by Black characters, poems provided persuasive evidence for the race-neutral equality of heart and mind. Writing in her own voice in “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” Wheatley explained her support of the American Revolution this way:

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

By making readers feel the cruelty of the enslavement system from the position of the oppressed, antislavery poems added intimacy and intensity to the fight for freedom.

Paul Lewis is a professor of English at Boston College and editor of “The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789-1820.”