27 Febuary 2019

Photo by British Library on Unsplash

On March 11, 1774, Phyllis Wheatley, an enslaved African girl, wrote a letter to Reverend Samson Occum in response to his disapproval of Christian ministers who owned slaves. She strongly agreed with the argument put forth by Rev. Occum, writing that she was “greatly satisfied with your Reasons representing the Negroes” and thought “highly reasonable what you offer in Vindication of their natural Rights” (Wheatley). While she implored God’s liberation from “those whose [greed] impels them…” she then followed up with, “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”. Throughout the letter, Wheatley talks about how Africans not only want their freedom but also their religious liberties. She asserts that Africans have, by the grace of God, the same rights as any other people, such as the once enslaved people of Israel, who were slaves in Egypt. Wheatley uses many rhetorical devices in order to convey her message to Rev. Samson Occum. She uses allusion, tone, and imagery.

Wheatley uses biblical allusion when she is talking about the Egyptians. “…Israelites had been less solicitous for their Freedom from Egyptian slavery”. She uses this biblical allusion to compare the enslavement of Israelites in Egypt to the enslavement of Africans in America. Wheatley also uses this letter as an occasion to point out the contradictions between the colonists’ demands for freedom from Britain and their determination to uphold slavery. She wrote, “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”.

Throughout the whole of the letter, Phillis Wheatley maintains a strong and powerful tone and uses imagery to further her point. She says, “Those that invade [natural rights] cannot be insensible that the divine Light is chasing away the thick Darkness which broods over the Land of Africa”. By using this imagery, Phillis Wheatley is referencing the ongoing missionary attempts to bring Africans into the center of Christianity. Overall, rhetoric makes Phillis Wheatly’s letter to Rev. Samson Occum more persuasive, effective, eloquent, and ethotic.