Dunbar-Nelson mocks the expectation that women should be submissive and silent when it comes to their mistreatment. Of course women can’t be compared to an omnipotent God, nor are they plants or animals. Yet they are held to the standards of God (silent suffering) while being treated not as full human beings (nature). Dunbar-Nelson’s poem itself is a direct contestation of this notion, a vocalization against silence.
The gruesome image of men thrashing about in utter pain runs a parallel to the treatment of slaves. It is interesting that the speaker wishes to abandon the physical comfort that sitting and sewing afford her in order to assist the dying men beckoning for her help, but she also feels powerless as both a black person and as a woman.
What is especially noteworthy about ‘Three Thoughts’ and ‘I Sit and Sew,’ is that they are not just protests, but protests against sexist and misogynistic ideals. Thus, Dunbar-Nelson’s poetry is representative of the improved standing of American women in society. In the more than century gap spanning the publication of Wheatley and Dunbar-Nelson’s poems, women secured more rights, culminating in 1920 with the addition of the nineteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing them the right of suffrage. To obtain such an important right repeatedly denied to women in the past, groups such as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the National Woman’s Party (NWP) galvanized women in nationwide protest. Importantly, these groups aimed to tackle issues related to gender equality instead of more digestible topics. And though NAWSA generally rejected black women from joining their group, the ratification of the nineteenth amendment guaranteed voting rights to women of all races via the rights spelled out in the fifteenth amendment. Black women (and black Americans in general) still had to contend with attempts to restrict their ability to vote, especially in the South, but Dunbar-Nelson’s move to New York City from her birthplace of New Orleans provided her the greater sense of autonomy that is displayed throughout her works, a sense that is not prominent in Wheatley’s.
And so, in the Dunbar-Nelson poem ‘I Sit and Sew,’ she criticizes, in addition to patriarchy, a second hegemony, white supremacy. The first one is more apparent with the example of a commonly gendered task, while the second lies in the imagery of the battlefields. The gruesome image of men thrashing about in utter pain runs parallel to the treatment of slaves. It is interesting that the speaker wishes to abandon the physical comfort that sitting and sewing afford her in order to assist the dying men beckoning for her help, but she also feels powerless as both a black person and as a woman. Dunbar-Nelson seems to feel both sympathetic towards black men, who experience the devastating effect of, if not slavery, in her time, severe discrimination, and displeased with her status as a woman suppressed by both whites and by black men. This explicit criticism of simultaneously slavery and black men is a result of blacks gaining more agency. Now-liberated blacks could voice their discontent with the centuries of slavery, all the while receiving support by many white Northerners. Over a century earlier when Wheatley was producing work, the notion of a black person confronting black issues would have been frowned upon, likely even by those who didn’t own slaves. Additional evidence of the improved standing of blacks in post-eighteenth century America is the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This very influential group’s purpose was to support blacks and raise awareness for their social and legal needs. They were able to broadcast their objectives across media and through legal and organizational channels, amplifying the calls for further strides towards equality. In the same sense, Dunbar-Nelson, through her poetry, was able to protest the struggles black American women faced, albeit through works released by lesser-known publishers.
Perhaps the closest that Wheatley gets to addressing such a topic, though once again, with a level of directness nowhere near approaching Dunbar-Nelson’s, is in her most famous poem, ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America.’ The title would seem to indicate a harsh rebuke of slavery given that it is an account of her abduction from West Africa to the colonial America, but even so, Wheatley does not address the subject much, despite the title. Rather, it is a subtle critique of slavery, despite her seeming, dare it be said, “gratitude” for enslavement in the beginning of the poem.
The opening lines, “’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land, / Taught my benighted soul to understand / That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:” are controversial because they seem to express a thankfulness for her capture and forced removal to America, where she was introduced to Christianity.  However, Wheatley is clearly expressing appreciation not for her enslavement but for God, whom she deemed her Savior. Wheatley was still a slave when she wrote this, and many slaves looked to religion as a form of hope, the idea of heaven appealing to suffering blacks, as seen in Wheatley’s elegies. Especially considering the context of her other poems, in which she uses the idea of heaven as emancipation of the soul, ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’ demonstrates the complex nature of her arrival into slavery: she condemns it, but it has simultaneously given her access to a religion which she believes will liberate her from the shackles of slavery in the colonies. This is made apparent in the last lines, where she writes, “Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain, / May be refin’d and join th’angelic train.” The “remember” implies a solidarity between Wheatley and the reader in the idea that blacks can reach heaven when they die.
It is important to mention that this poem’s subject matter is an anomaly in Wheatley’s oeuvre, and even so, is far from a direct protest of slavery in the way of Dunbar-Nelson. But that is not to say Wheatley desired entirely to write political poetry or works that commented on her experience as a black woman. While she did touch upon the subject of her black identity and slavery through indirect means, it was probably not her main goal. As the critic Richard Wright states, Wheatley “records the feeling of a Negro not acting as a Negro, but as a human being.” It could be said that Wheatley did not want to be defined by her race (or gender), although even if she did so desire, that would be unlikely due to the aforementioned societal limits.
However, while the limitations Wheatley and Dunbar-Nelson faced played a role in shaping their poetry, they did not define the works or the women. Rather, it was their poetry that helped define their respective eras, because even a decidedly objective choice of topic is in itself a political act and statement. There is, indeed, much that can be learned through both the inclusion and exclusion of certain themes. Wheatley’s poetry, framed in the context of her status as a slave in eighteenth-century America, should be viewed as some of the first protests from a black American woman on the matter of race, regardless of whether or not she or her readers realized this. And over a century later, Dunbar-Nelson continued to expand on the topics that Wheatley first commented on, through more obvious protest, and as part of a movement of writers focused on lifting up the black identity through art and creative thought. Both women validate the idea of writing as a form, or at least a symbol, of protest and politics. Even if their poetry was unable to visibly or immediately change society, their poems were the actual change themselves, a “way of happening” in written form.
Steven Chung lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. His poetry appears or is forthcoming in Glass, Potomac Review, Kweli, and more.