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Essay: Equality in American literature

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  • Published: 15 October 2019*
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A recurring theme very evident throughout American Literature was equality. Equality between races seemed to be a topic that was so widely debated by many. Former slave Phillis Wheatley used her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” to describe her life as she was brought from Africa to America at the mere age of seven or eight years old and sold into slavery. Wheatley finds that the same people who “brought [her] from [her] pagan land” were also degrading her kind and perceiving them in a way that did not represent them in a way she felt was not correct (764). Wheatley believed that everyone was equal because in the eyes of God everyone was the same. From another perspective, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin believed the United States was a country where everyone was equal to one another. He used his “Information to Those Who Would Remove to America” to express his thoughts on America being a land of opportunity, where anyone of any color had the potential to amount to anything they set their mind to. Though from very different backgrounds and upbringings, both Phillis Wheatley and Benjamin Franklin shared very similar thoughts and ideas on equality throughout America.
Phillis Wheatley’s life was full of hardships and struggles. She was kidnapped at the young age of either seven or eight years old and was then taken to Boston on a slave ship. Almost one out of four of the other enslaved Africans died aboard the Phillis ship on their way to Boston in 1761, therefore seven-year old Phillis was very lucky to have survived (Carretta). Phillis’ life began in America when the Wheatley family purchased her as their slave. They began educating her and teaching her to read and write. With the assistance of the Wheatley family, Phillis was able to learn the English language, Greek, Latin and become very familiar with the Bible.
Benjamin Franklin is well known as one of the Founding Fathers of America. He is also known for his help in drafting the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Some of his scientific attributions include aspects of electricity, mathematics and mapmaking. Benjamin Franklin was also responsible for the invention of bifocal glasses. He is often called the “First American” because of his great representation of American life and achievements.
Phillis Wheatley’s uniqueness and distinction lie in the fact that she was the first African American, the first slave, and the third woman in the United States to publish a book of poems (Odeh). Wheatley is most known for writing about Christianity and slavery, and relating them both to equality. She felt very strongly about religion and racial equality, and she very much despised the overall act of slavery. One of her most famous short poems was “On Being Brought from Africa to America”. The poem delved into the realities that Wheatley was no longer in Africa, but she was instead in America upon force as a slave. The poem looks into an even deeper reality that her people, those the same color as her, were not rightfully treated by the white people. The poem sort of contradicts itself, in a way, because while Phillis says, “’Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land”, she is, in a sense, portraying this “mercy” as the white people, because they are ultimately who kidnapped her and brought her to America (764). However, in lines 5 and 6, she then addresses the white people yet again by referring to them as “some” when she says, “Some view our sable race with scornful eye, / “Their color is a diabolic dye” (764). It was very evident that in this time period white people looked down upon blacks because they were slaves. Wheatley, now being exposed to life in “redemptive” America as a slave, was keen to the fact “that there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too” (764). To her, however, this meant religious rights and redemption for everyone, even for blacks. The lines “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, / May be refined, and join the angelic train” were Wheatley’s outcry to the white people as her way of saying that everyone is entitled to redemption, those already proclaimed as Christians, the blacks and slaves, and even the darkest of sinners.
Benjamin Franklin was often paraded as one of the least racist of the Founding Fathers (Dierks). Although as a young man he once owned a few house slaves, Franklin began printing antislavery tracts in 1729. He often spoke out against the propositions that blacks were innately inferior to whites and were incapable of assimilating into American society (136). Much like Phillis Wheatley, Franklin also felt strongly about equality and was very much against slavery. Franklin wrote several pieces about America and life as an American. One of his writings included “Information to Those Who Would Remove to America”, in which he addresses the United States being a country where people are equal. He is speaking to Europeans that are seeking to come to America, while addressing their misinterpretations that they have of the country. Franklin writes, “Strangers are welcome, because there is room enough for them all, and therefore the old inhabitants are not jealous of them; the laws protect them sufficiently, so that they have no need for the patronage of great men; and every one will enjoy securely the profits of his industry” (473). Similar to Wheatley, Franklin also thought anyone was welcome to America. In the previous quote, he is writing about his beliefs that America was open to everyone, including slaves and foreigners from other countries. Even though slaves were only considered as merely “property” to most white people and slave-owners, Franklin also had a mindset much like Wheatley’s that included blacks and slaves being capable of amounting to anything that they set their minds to because the were entitled to these freedoms. He is claiming that with hard work, anyone is capable of achievement.
In conclusion, both Wheatley and Franklin were very outspoken about their thoughts of equality and slavery. Phillis Wheatley, being a soft voice, had her own perspective of slavery because she experienced it first-hand. It is evident as to why she would feel so strongly about it being abolished and why she so badly would want equality to be adopted because she truly understands the pain of being a slave. However, Benjamin Franklin on the other hand was once a slave owner, therefore as a loud voice he  now speaks out against something that he very much so supported at one time. Overall, it is interesting to compare the same belief and viewpoint from someone in a minority group to someone in a majority group.

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