Steven Chung looks back on two African American poets from two different eras of protest
By Steven ChungThere is, in some literary circles, a notion that all writing is political. Literature as a means to alter a view towards the world, to confirm a belief, or to prove a point – all in order to affect the way in which the reader interacts with other people and their own self. But art’s power to inspire change in society has always been contested. W.H. Auden famously wrote that poetry “makes nothing happen,” while also acknowledging that it is certainly “a way of happening.”  At the very least, like all art, writing, and in this case, poetry, catalogs the zeitgeist and prevailing culture of the era, whether by reflecting such norms and trends (both literary and lifestyle-wise) or retorting them.
Wheatley was the first female black American poet to have work published, and despite her eventual emancipation, was still a slave when her collection was first printed, and Dunbar-Nelson, a Harlem Renaissance writer perhaps better known for her prose, lived during an era defined by terms such as the “New Negro” and by the desire for further equalization.
Under this definition, the poetry of two black American female poets, Phillis Wheatley and Alice Dunbar-Nelson, are both, if not political statements, records of the politics of their time. Their works offer insights into American society, revealing the differences in attitudes towards race and gender between Wheatley’s time in colonial America and Dunbar-Nelson’s era in the 1920. This is a reflection on how these differing mindsets manifest themselves in the works of these writers in numerous ways, from imagery and metaphor to the lack of particular themes, from whose absence conclusions can be inferred.
Of course, to mention and compare these poetic devices without acknowledging the literary conventions of Wheatley and Dunbar-Nelson’s times would be to ignore a major reason for stylistic differences. However, such trends are also indicative of societal ones at large: after all, art is not created in a vacuum. And the personal experiences of Wheatley and Dunbar-Nelson undoubtedly informed their works in a way that only being a victim of discrimination can: Wheatley was the first female black American poet to have work published, and despite her eventual emancipation, was still a slave when her collection was first printed, and Dunbar-Nelson, a Harlem Renaissance writer perhaps better known for her prose, lived during an era defined by terms such as the “New Negro” and by the desire for further equalization.
It is through this lens that Wheatley and Dunbar-Nelson’s works must be viewed. Both of their works represent the events of their surrounding environments while also invoking a definite self-awareness. To start, Wheatley’s many elegies contain an element of escape and portray death as release from the bodies that keep them captive in slavery. In ‘To a Clergyman, on the Death of His Lady,’ the speaker says to the widower, “thy dear mate, no more to flesh confined, / Exults, a blest, an heaven-ascended mind.” Here Wheatley focuses on the dichotomy between the corporeal and the spiritual/intellectual. She envisions the wife’s soul flying up to heaven, transcending “mortal scenes,” but the additional perspective of Wheatley’s enslavement (however mild compared to others’) adds another layer to this piece. This is especially interesting to note given the relative rarity of a slave receiving education, Wheatley being learned in the Bible and classical texts. For a slave, or even a free black person, education was an escape from subjugation. In this way, Wheatley gives a nod to the fact that her knowledge and education has allowed her not only to write poetry, but in doing so, to attain a higher position in society.
Another poem, ‘To a Lady, on the Death of Her Husband,’ can be read as an analog to ‘To a Clergyman, on the Death of His Lady.’ The speaker implores the lady to “look beyond, thou native of the skies; / There fix thy view, where, fleeter than wind, / Thy Leonard mounts, and leaves the earth behind.” Once again Wheatley views death as an ascension from earthly struggles, and the mind a vessel through which people can achieve a higher form of “living.” Wheatley believes that the deceased husband can “welcome thee [the Lady] to pleasures more refined, / And better suited to the immortal mind.” The thought that death can give “pleasure” is one with which only those who have experienced deep and extended torment can probably identify.
Despite the presumed whiteness of the couples in both poems, Wheatley uses them as metaphors for slavery. Throughout her many elegies, Wheatley references religion; death is intertwined with religion, but also religion with mortality, and death with slavery. The employment of diction in the two aforementioned poems to evoke the imagery of slavery (and its undeniable association with death) through words such as “chain,” “free,” and “bondage” is without a doubt a deliberate choice. In a veiled manner, Wheatley asserts that the only possible avenue of escape from the slavery, or at least discrimination, so entrenched in society, is death.
One may wonder the reason for Wheatley’s seeming abstention from writing of slavery without the use of metaphor, and the answer lies in the societal standards of her time. James Levernier comments in his literary criticism ‘Style as Protest in the Poetry of Phillis Wheatley’ that “given the milieu in which Wheatley wrote, we can hardly expect her to have written an explicit poetry of racial protest. Such poetry simply would not have been published.” The conclusion is that Wheatley’s so-called “objectivity” –- her avoidance of personal accounts –- for which some 20th century scholars have criticized her, was not only a result of the limitations she faced as a writer in terms of possible themes and topics but also a way to circumvent those very restrictions.
The reason Wheatley faced these strict codes is that in colonial America, women lacked not just legal rights but also social ones not capable of being addressed in law. Furthermore, viewing Wheatley as not only a black poet but also a female poet gives greater context to her works. The prevailing thought at the time was that a slave, especially a female one, should not write about the harshness of slavery. It becomes clear that Wheatley’s gender further limited her choice of topic when studying the restrictions also placed on white women during this time. If Wheatley desired to make it abundantly apparent that she was writing protest poetry, she would have faced difficulties in getting work published. After all, in the late eighteenth century and prior, women generally lacked such power to stage protests against many different issues. For example, the activities of the Daughters of Liberty, one of the most famous protest organizations, remained in the domestic sphere. Members helped sustain the boycott of British goods to force the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766 by vowing to spin their own cloth and abstain from drinking tea, and this resolution was reiterated in 1768 after the passage of the Townshend Acts.  But these protests revolved around what they felt was unfair treatment on the part of the British, not the lower status and limited freedoms of women.
The existence of this suppression is confronted more directly in works from the Harlem Renaissance than in Wheatley’s. Dunbar-Nelson was part of this movement to invigorate black American artistic expression, and she, unlike Wheatley, also broaches the topic of gender roles –- the very ones performed by the Daughters of Liberty during their boycotts –- in her poem ‘I Sit and Sew.’ With slavery abolished for several decades by the time the Harlem Renaissance began to flourish, perhaps Dunbar-Nelson felt she could write about sexism without detracting from the urgency of the still very prevalent racism in society. This was a balancing act, however. Many blacks were reluctant to criticize too harshly members of their race for fear of creating divisions within the black community and thereby giving metaphorical ammunition to whites, but there was still an undeniable degree of sexism in both black and white communities.
In the poem, the speaker laments the fact that she must “sit and sew” when outside exists “the panoply of war, the martial tread of men.” The speaker believes sewing to be a “useless task,” though the first part of the opening line is immediately thereafter appended with the phrase “it seems.” Instead, the woman in this poem desires to join men in battle even if, or maybe because, “on wasted fields” lie the bodies of “writhing grotesque things / Once men.” The speaker must know that death is a likely possibility, but that risk is perhaps the allure when compared to the monotony of her domestic tasks.
But while the speaker in ‘I Sit and Sew’ feels as though she cannot fight in the war, this was actually already slowly becoming untrue by the early twentieth century. When this poem was written, women had already begun to be accepted into the United States military during World War I. Loretta Walsh enlisted in the Navy to become the first women to occupy a position other than nurse. In comparison, this would have been inconceivable in Wheatley’s colonial America. While women did fight in the American Revolution, they could only do so in disguise, much akin to how Wheatley’s poems only contained implicit, rather than explicit, criticism of slavery.
Meanwhile, Dunbar-Nelson’s poems address social issues more readily and directly, a reflection of the slowly changing attitude towards women and an opening of dialogue, one not experienced during Wheatley’s time. In fact, in the third section of Dunbar-Nelson’s poem ‘Three Thoughts,’ she writes:
For nature has her sorrows and her joys,
As all the piled-up mountains and low vales
Will silently attest — and hang thy head
In dire confusion, for having dared
To moan at thine own miseries
When God and nature suffer silently. 
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.