In 1780, the notion of being American meant different things depending on one’s identity. To Thomas Jefferson, among the architects of the new nation, it meant deserving one’s liberty, and he believed that certain people were ill-suited for what he considered the demands of an enlightened society.
In particular, he believed blacks and whites could never coexist because of slavery’s legacy, citing: “Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by whites [and] ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained” (Binder, 1968, p. 55-56). In addition, he considered them intellectually inferior.
He considered America an improvement over other nations, and while he felt ambivalent about slavery and sympathetic toward blacks, he did not envision a multiracial America. For poet Phyllis Wheatley, an African-American who spent years in slavery and lived in poverty, being an American meant barriers and contradictions based on race. Wheatley, whose poetry Jefferson thought “below the dignity of criticism” (Robinson, 1982, pp.
42-43), was well aware of America’s racial contradictions (a nominally free nation which still embraced slavery) but nonetheless asked white America for tolerance and acceptance. In “On being Brought from Africa to America,” the narrator is optimistic about America and grateful for being part if it – “’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land” – but also admits, “Some view our sable race with scornful eye, /’There colour is a diabolic die’” (Robinson, 1975, p. 60). However, her closing appeal is not for liberty and full equality, but simply a reminder that blacks can at least be equal as Christians, in God’s eyes.
To Jefferson, part of America’s elite, being American meant freedom for those who met his standards, while Wheatley, aware of America’s racial situation, makes an appeal for at least spiritual equality. Being American meant being free – though race was used as a means of denying freedom to all.
Binder, F. M. (1968). The Color Problem in Early National America. Paris: Mouton. Robinson, W. H. (1975).
Phyllis Wheatley in the Black American Beginnings. Detroit: Broadside Press. Robinson, W. H. (1982). Critical Essays of Phyllis Wheatley. Boston: G. K. Hall and Company
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