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Early Black British Writings

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 6 months ago


    I found it interesting that Cugoano‘s writing was centered on his desire and search for a higher power, that the reason for his downfall came about because of his longing for understanding of religion.  However, it is through this search for divinity that Cugoano finds salvation through the heart of the captain who purchased him.  In many of the writings that we have read, there is a sense of attempt to rediscover ones past, one’s heritage, whereas in Cugoano’s work, there is an attempt to discover the self.  Sancho, on the other hand, sought not only for religion, but also for knowledge.  For what he quoted from a philosopher as “a window in his breast---that the world might see his heart”.  This alludes not only to religion, but also to the search for understanding of oneself and those around him.  In one of his later letters he talks of the Natives and the way in which his friend describes them.  He says, “you should remember from whom they learnt those vices: --- the first Christian visitors found them a simple, harmless people”.  I think it is remarkable that people who had been treated in such a vile manner in the past by those of the Christian faith later became devout in that religion that first was used to enslave them.


Evan Gallagher



In the Sancho and Gronniosaw readings I found that both were striving to assimilate into western culture through their writings, but were using different methods to do so. Gronniosaw uses his experiences and religion to distance himself from African culture and toward western culture.  He tells about his questioning and seeking a higher power before he knew of the Christian God, which is a critical part of the culture.  He tells the reader about himself as a peaceful and intelligent person.  He describes himself with stereotypical white characteristics. Sancho on the other hand usually describes himself as being black, or does not describe himself at all.  He uses the writing itself to demonstrate his intelligence.  His letters demonstrate his vast knowledge of books, philosophy, and writing techniques.  I feel like Sancho is indicating that although he is black, he is still as capable and intelligent as anyone else, while Gronniosaw is saying that he is intelligent because he is similar to the white man.





I'm really interested in the path that Evan and Erica are leading into.  I like Evan's idea of Gronniosaw's and Sancho's quest for the "self" and the way both religion and literature play into that search.  As we've talked about countless times in class, for a slave, or ex-slave, to gain entry into the world of literature at the time they had to subscribe to British notions of literacy and how to write.  Both Sancho and Gronniosaw understand that they must emulate a form of writing in order to gain acceptance in the literary community.  However, both men are intelligent enough to manipulate British form to tell their stories.  Especially when reading Sancho, one is struck by the ironic, playful tone he utulizes.  At the same time, the reader is confronted by a great degree of self-awareness on Sancho's part. But, as Even pointed out, a great deal of this discovery or awareness of self is due in part to a Sancho's search for knowledge of both himself and his environment.  In one of his most telling lines, in letter 2, Sancho puts this perfectly: "I am only a lodger, and hardly that".


Samantha Luceri


I would tend to disagree that Gronniosaw is trying to assimilate into Western culture by assuming the characteristics and the practices of a "white man."  I think that, much like we discussed last week in class, Gronniosaw is using and manipulating language as a means to communicate his story, not simply utilizing the only means of access for a black man into European culture.  I think that it takes a very calculated, cunning and even somewhat manipulative (in the best sense of the word) person to be able to break in to a culture through such a practice as literature.  Furthermore, I would consider it an affront to the intellect and abilities of Gronniosaw, Sancho and others to claim that they were bending to the affectations of the predominant white culture with their literature.  The argument that these black British authors were trying to assimilate into white culture by "becoming white" would be an easier one to make if the pieces in Early Black British Writing were poor.  But, surprise, they aren't!  Sancho's letters are beautifully, magnificently written, with powerful word choices and (if I can mix my terminology) poetic prose.  Gronniosaw's story is a great chronicle of a man who discovered his faith, a relatively universal (not simply European) theme.  All I mean to suggest is that to say that any of these writers was merely writing to gain access and become Westernized denigrates the craftsmanship of the work.


Bryan D. Peach


I can be sympathetic to both points of view.  Gronniosaw clearly demonstrates, over and over, his obedience to the LORD and the ALMIGHTY and GOD, reminding us repeatedly and in no uncertain terms that his freedom is dedicated in many ways to his conversion.  This is simultaneously, I think, an attempt to use God to demonstrate his intellect and an act of worship which glorifies God for allowing him to express and be heard.  Why devalue the religious experiences of these gentlemen by pigeonholing their conversions into these analogies of "freedom through Christ AND THROUGH THE CAPTAIN!" or to assume that their love for Christ is the manifestation of "freedom in the WHITE LORD"?  What I'm trying to suggest is that Gronniosaw, Equiano (and later, as we discussed, Douglass) found the keys to freedom in a more fluent, sensical interpretation of the Bible that white Europe was blind to.  Note that Ignatius Sancho does not use the Bible in the exact same way as the former.  He relies on his loyalty to the crown (remember, he supported the British in the American Revolution), his amazing, poetic literacy, to demonstrate his worth as a reading and writing British citizen.  While he acknowledges the presence of God, he is wary of Christians and their customs toward Africans and stresses "human nature--whatever the religion," "simplicity, kindness and charity" over Christianity.  What we see here are some radically different points of view, some of which may seem like pandering to a white audience and some of which seem quite the opposite, tied together not by the material or religious but by the intelligent and the literate.  Yes, the displays of intelligence; indeed, the importance of what we in the "west" consider intelligence, varies from culture to culture.  However, the adaptability and variety of viewpoints of these individuals suggests that they embrace both their own cultural values as well as the knowledge they gained outside of their cultures.  I don't believe any of them tries to say "I am intelligent because I am LIKE the white man."


And, briefly... the "Christian faith" was NOT used to enslave these people.  Abusers of the Christian faith, manipulating economic and political constructs, utlilized a drastic misinterpretation of Christianity to bolster their evil rhetoric.  These black saints were the ones who truly used the Bible and Christianity as it was intended--to love and to free.




I completely agree with you Brandon.  To me it is the men themselves who make the decisions of whether or not to follow in slavery or in anything for that matter, and not necessarily their religion.  Yes, it just so happens that all of the slave traders were Christian, but that is unfair to say that just because they are Christian that makes all Christians bad.  That's not how it works, which I think is made clear by Sancho's faith in Christianity and how he along with many other freed slaves will use their Christian faith to find hope and freedom against those who may have used it to condemn them.  I think this is illustrated well in the same passage Brandon was alluding to, but also even a little before it on page 34, when Sancho is speaking of commerce.  He mentions that commerce "was meant by the goodness of the Deity to diffuse the various goods of the earth into very part" I thought this was interesting because here is a perfect example of something that God intended to be shared between all mankind, but it also something that was easily perverted by mankind, which is obvious through its use of the slave trade.  In other words, it is not Christianity that is the problem.  It is not those words that were put out there saying that commerce was meant for the good of all people.  It is the interpretation of man that twists those words and makes of them what he likes, and essentially that is how we arrived at the clear dichotomy between the Christian slave traders and the Christian freed blacks.




I found all your arguments compelling but my thoughts were not drawn to the theologies of these men but their performances.  Throughout history performers have been most essential and one of the most deplored group of individuals, an extreme example: gladiators.  These free black men have forged themselves a place in a white world that belittles them by performing their literature.  The fact that their voices are so diverse is simply a credit to the authenticity of the writer.  It is very interesting that the very thing that the slave owners attempted to keep from their slaves sets them free, ahh why are the smart ones evil? Actually I retract that, Sancho and Gronniosaw were wondrously intelligent, enough so that they could make themselves noticed in a real, effective way.  As to religion, whether their faith is real or performed – I’m not convinced either way.  The search for religious truth is a path and destination that all humans make singularly but its always nice to have company.  But I always find myself saying that the Bible in its usage (not its intended usage but its actual usage) is a political document and the most powerful one the human race has ever known.  From Nero who blamed a burning Rome on a strange religious sect to the ignorant fools who wax philosophical and condemn anyone who is not them (they must be so much fun to hang out with) like that weird guy who hangs out outside Wartik and tells everyone their going to hell.  Or dare I mention our beloved president Bush who uses religiously loaded jargon in his speech.  Religion is the weapon of the wise and the downfall of the ignorant and these men were not the latter.






"Many see her [Wheatley] poems as largely imitative and unoriginal.  She has been criticized roundly for what strikes readers as a deficit of personal feeling and a lack of explicit engagement with the issue of slavery."  It seems like some critics can't be pleased, because I absolutely enjoyed Wheatley's poetry.  She is an interesting case, because, unlike some of the other black British writers we've looked at in class, her education was encouraged from an early age.  She was certainly treated far better than many of her slave contemporaries, but, as the introduction to her section in the book says, "it is important to remember that she remained, in fact, a slave."  Some of the criticism of her poetry is pretty unfounded, I think.  Her poetry is a bit astounding in a couple different ways: first, she wasn't freed until AFTER the poems were successful; second, she was no older than twenty years old when she wrote most of them.  While they may not "explicitly" engage her slavery, the poems nevertheless pay especial attention to freedom, as in "To the Right Honourable William Earl," when she champions the cause of America.  (Interesting in this poem is how she uses imagery of slavery in lines 15 through 19 to praise America,  an absolute bastion of slavery.)  Wheatley reminds me of John Keats, since they both died so young from debilitating sickness, though she represents a triple bind: poor, female and black.





In Phillis Wheatley’s short biography, it is stated that she was often criticized because of her lack of description pertaining to slavery; but how can someone who never experienced the full hardships of slavery ever tell about it?  Wheatley’s poetry does exactly this, it reads with a grace of romantic style, of the days of deities and gods and goddesses, asking passionate words to be passed from the lips of muses so “To aid thy pencil, and thy verse conspire.”  She speaks heavily of death, but almost with yearning, as if it were that of the Elysium Fields that she had read of in so many great works.  She touches a great deal on Greek culture, both in mythology and structure.  In one of her other works she writes, “Ismenus first the racing pastime led, And rul’d the fury of his flying steed.”  The fact that much of her work does not verbally and lyrically deal directly with slavery does not surprise me.  I think that it is what lies beneath her words that are so amazing.  It is common for those who are bound in a situation to try to escape it.  When physical escape is not possible, mental escape is the only other choice.  Wheatley, I think, used her poetry as a means to escape the bonds that she was chained into, whereas other black authors, such as Mary Prince, embraced their slavery because there was no other escape.  It seems that they felt in a way that they could find freedom not through forgetting or progressing, but by digressing and assimilating into European culture.  This is where the problem ensues for Wheatley, though; she has become all but “white” in her life and in her prose.  This leads to the questions of whether she was actually attempting to ascend her slavery, and whether she had ever really known the horrors of it. 


Evan Gallagher


The comparison between Keats and Wheatley is, I think, appropriate considering the role that Keats was forced to play in his day as a Romantic poet--which had been faced before by Blake.  These poems were born out of submission and rejection (that sounds slightly literary journaly, sorry).  Each of these poets was submitted to a form of imperialism.  Blake's works never reached a large audience in his time because he was forced in many respects to work outside of the system.  John Keats' poetry was considered by the "great" Romantic father Wordsworth to be "pretty paganism," causing the sick young man to wonder whether he would be accepted among the canon of British poets or if his name was simply "writ on water" as his epitaph suggests.  Wheatley's poetry was written mostly as a slave, and although I don't want to draw comparisons between her life and the lives of decidedly better-off poets like Blake and Keats, these poets--oppressed to some degree--share a sort of affinity.  That said... does Wheatley's poetry deserve to be considered side-by-side with Keats and Blake formally?  Is her poetry "as good" as theirs?  I'm actually inclined to think that it's not, but given the amount of agency she was allowed and what she actually accomplished, I'd say she certainly deserves recognition as a great British poet, pre-Romantic at that.





I would like to touch along the lines of Evan. The summary of Wheatley stated her poerty was sometimes gaurded as boring and was bashed by the public. I was wondering if this was because she was a woman or because she was a slave? Of course it is obvious that being both a woman and a slave does not make you the most perceived person in those times, but I believe that what makes Wheatley so hard to comprehend. If she was a man, certainly her poems would be looked in a better light. If she was a white woman, her poems would be received just as hard. But if she was a black man, or even a black free man her poems I believe would be seen as something as astonishing. Why didn't Wheatley write under a different name, or why did she even choose to publish?




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