Positive and Negative Liberty. On how Phillis Wheatley used the Pen as a Sword in "On Being Brought from Africa to America".
Hidalgo Aparicio, Janire
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In recent times a growing interest and recognition of the liberation poetics of Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) has been identified by many scholars. Historically acknowledged as the first African American woman being published, she was, more than a poet, a symbol of a whole age marked by colonialism and slavery trade. Taking advantage of her personal characteristics – her African tradition and female gender – together with the historical context she experienced very much in person, Wheatley stood up against a White skinned male dominated world and used her poetry as a means to support the Negro struggle. For that purpose, Wheatley principally utilised irony and sarcasm to escape the authoritarian censorship of the time; this tendency of double meanings and implicit ideas, however, complicated her readings for a large proportion of society, and gave rise to several conflicting readings of her poetry for centuries. On account of this fact, in the present study I propose an interdisciplinary approach to Phillis Wheatley’s poetry by connecting literature and philosophy, scrutinising one of her most anthologised poems “On Being Brought from Africa to America” (1768) and employing, for this purpose, the two concepts of liberty provided by Isaiah Berlin in Two Concepts of Liberty (1958). The present paper, therefore, is based on the contrastive analysis of the principal notions of positive and negative liberty, their various interrelationships, and the manner they appear implicitly portrayed in Wheatley’s poetry. The study of the aforementioned poem reveals that the writer’s personal circumstances have been of significant importance with regard to its interpretation, since it implicitly illustrates numerous tensions within Wheatley’s personal reflections which appear to be closely related with two different ways of comprehending the idea of liberty – these conflicts would be conceptualised, two centuries later, by Isaiah Berlin as positive and negative liberty. After being captured, Wheatley was educated by her masters in Massachusetts, receiving a unique opportunity to cultivate her capabilities as individual and define herself. This imposed education was, undoubtedly, a restriction of her negative liberty which paradoxically resulted in her accomplishment of positive liberty and offered her the opportunity to conceive herself as a more independent human being. The author of “On Being Brought from Africa to America” was entirely aware of this contradiction which, in some occasions, could interfere with the idea of liberty – it is precisely at that point where the expressive force of the poem resides. Bearing this in mind, my intention is to acclaim Wheatley’s poetic persona as one of the pioneers publically acclaiming racial identity, ethnicity and equality, among others. Finally, the paper concludes with some future research suggestions in pursuance of a more detailed conception of Phillis Wheatley.