James Whitfield's poem America, published in 1853, was revolutionary. It was full of wit, sarcasm and irony. It was ruthless, abrasive and honest. In an era when free speech by African Americans was severely limited, and black abolitionists had to make careful concessions to their white counterparts, Whitfield set the black rights movement ablaze with his fiery, fearless rhetoric (Laryea).
The opening of America sets the tone for the rest of the work: Whitfield parodies American ideals in sing song rhyming, allowing his contempt for the hypocrisy of the American establishment slam through his words. Throughout the piece, Whitfield maintains a simple rhyme scheme that creates tension between the message and the package. Superficially, the overall AABB and ABAB end rhyme structure reduces the power of Whitfield's words, but closer inspection reveals them to work as a sucker punch to the American audience. Whitfield clearly despises white society (through his poetry and his radical separatism), and mocks whites with his words. His deliverys simplicity and be interpreted as more mockery: simplification so that obviously incapable whites can understand his message since they already seem to have so much difficulty with consistency and rationality.
As his predecessors (like Benjamin Banneker in his letter to Thomas Jefferson) and contemporaries did, Whitfield compared the injustice of slavery to the injustice of British rule before the Revolutionary War. However, while Banneker was polite and respectful in his appeal, Whitfield is blunt and mocking. In America Whitfield describes the toil of the American Revolution, the fighting by both blacks and whites together against the British, and ends a glorious account of victory with the lines:
The thought ne'er entered in their brains
That they endured those toils and pains,
To forge fresh fetters, heavier chains
For their own children
This is only one example of Whitfields preoccupation with the hypocrisy of American slavery (Laryea). Throughout America he expresses anger towards the duplicity of African American sufferings. The verses of his poem that most directly describe the black plight can be taken out of context and reinterpreted as accounts of colonial suffering. This parallel is deliberate on Whitfields part as a means to clearly delineate the inconsistency of his nation.
America can be divided into two parts: the first discussing the Revolution and using AABB rhyming, and the second expanding to more specific examples, in ABAB format. Whitfield ends his Revolutionary War comparison and embarks upon darker themes less directly relatable to whites. He forces them to examine their hypocrisy within an increasingly complex frame; he touches on fugitive slave laws and rape. Whitfield paints a passionate picture rife with horror, but shows more than he tells, allowing the reader to come away with a sense that they have identified an injustice themselves. Whitfield shows America and in doing so forces the reader to see it as it truly is, however uncomfortably.
What is surprising about America, given Whitfields vocality and conviction, is the poems ending. Whitfield lived during the age of slave uprisings violent and divisive, as drastic and dramatic as his hopes for re-colonization. Despite this, he does not cap his work of outrage with a call to arms by any means. Instead, he finishes with a prayer to God that the wrongs done to slaves and all African Americans will be avenged (Laryea). Whitfield identifies evils committed against blacks and indisputably makes whites the perpetrators of such crimes. His final prayer to God makes clear that his intended audience is not whites not even white abolitionists, but the African American public. There is no you in the poem, and the only we of the text is in the portion of the poem directed toward God a God sympathetic to African Americans. For someone so intent on taking the fate of African Americans into his own hands through his work with the National Emigration Convention and his surveying of Central and South America, it is surprising how little responsibility he directs toward his oppressors or the oppressed.
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