The issue of identity in American culture has, since the first pieces composed in the New World, been a consistent trope of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry alike. America’s position throughout history as a burgeoning and constantly-developing country is naturally reflected by the artistic endeavors of its citizens and by examining works of different authors who represent disparate periods, a unified understanding of the quest for American identity can be understood.
By examining the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes, three revered authors from three very different periods of American history, the consistent search for and interpretation of the very meaning of identity in America becomes evident, along with the deviating factors in the ever elusive struggle for the sense of self. All three of these American poets suffered from a degree of displacement in American society as it existed during the time they were writing and this struggle for identity functions not only a personal, but a national scale.
Phyllis Wheatley straddled the border between two cultures and two drastically different sources of identity; one that was indigenous and another that was forced and sought to eradicate any trace of personal identity. Born in 1753 in Africa, Wheatley was sold into slavery and brought to Boston at age eight to serve a white family. Although still a slave, Phyllis Wheatley’s intellect and inquisitive manner, coupled with the fact that she did not suffer quite the same drastic fate in terms of her slaveholding family, she was given a privilege that few white free females of her age were given—an education. She began writing poetry, and was published at age twenty in London. This was certainly a unique circumstance for a young black girl in America at the time and this tension between her two identities is a main issue in her poems. From the depths of slavery into the world of published authors, it is quite simple to see how Phyllis Wheatley would have been at odds with her identity, struggling to make sense of her place in the world.
In “On Being Brought from Africa to America”, Wheatley attributes her submission into slavery as an act of mercy by God. It is clear to her that without becoming a slave and making the awful journey across the Atlantic, she would never have been exposed to Christianity, and instead would have spent her days whiling away in her “pagan land” (line 1). However, despite her gratitude for her introduction to Christianity, she warns her detractors that although she is of the race of Cain, even her people can be saved and purified through Christ. It seems that although Wheatley is very glad to have lived through the circumstances that brought her to America, there are clearly certain citizens who believe that she should have remained in her place, both as a slave and a pagan. This clear tension between feeling grateful for being exposed to Christianity, especially when juxtaposed with her horrifying experience of being taken from her native land on a dangerous journey presents the modern reader with several disparate notions of identity, not to mention larger and more complex questions about the nature of slavery itself. While Wheatley finds an identity through Christianity, it should not be forgotten that her original identity, even while it may seem to come from a “pagan” land still exists and creates layers of subtle meaning for readers, not to mention a great deal of speculation.
Much of the speculation about the mixed nature of Wheatley’s identity is made more complex in another of her works in which race is an issue but not one that is direct. In “To S.M., A Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works”, she never mentions his race, or the fact that he is a young servant, much like herself. Instead, she focuses fully on his ability as a painter, pointing out the fact that he had the ability to conjure such incredibly lifelike figures from thin air. Wheatley tells him to “Conduct thy footsteps to immortal fame!” (line 12), and one cannot help but think that Wheatley is so encouraging because she wishes to disprove everyone who considers those lesser than themselves to be worthless. Through this piece, Wheatley is covertly making identity an issue of personal talents and skills rather than one that is based on one’s native land or social status in America. This hopeful ideal as expressed by a servant speaks volumes about the nature of American identity at this time because it conveys the spirit that through dedication, one can achieve anything. With this in mind, it is equally important to understand that this is a new concept of identity and interestingly, it is coming from a writer who was surrounded by the suppression of all forms of identity.
Even with her relative success, due to her status as a former slave and black woman, Phyllis Wheatley was still living on the margins of American society and it is this displacement that forms the backbone of her poetry. Interestingly, another female poet, Emily Dickinson also lived outside of mainstream American society, although by choice rather than force. Like Phyllis Wheatley, education and creative expression were the sources of identity but in Dickinson’s case, f it were not for her neighbor, Mabel Todd, whom she corresponded with via mail for quite some time, Dickinson would probably have died completely friendless, her poetry lost forever. Unlike Wheatley, Dickinson wrote for herself, and did not want her works to be published. This is important because her poems are marked by an intense honesty, especially for her time period, and her quest for identity in a world that she did not feel a part of it is mercilessly painted for the reader.