Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Jupiter Hammon should be a household name

By Rosemary Joyce

But my guess is, many readers didn't know his name a week ago-- and some still don't.

So let's correct that. According to the Lloyd Harbor Historical Society, Jupiter Hammon was "America's First Colonial Afro-American Published Poet". Hammon was born and died in slavery, living from 1711 to after the American Revolution with successive generations of the Lloyd family. The Lloyd Harbor Historical Society biography gives the year of 1806 as agreed by historians to be the most likely year of his death. He would have been 95 years old.

Hammon is famous for his contributions as a poet and essayist. The Poetry Foundation credits himwith four poems.

And now, through the efforts of a doctoral student,Julie McCown, and Associate Professor Cedrick May of the University of Texas, Arlington, there is another poem to add to this important body of work.

Catalogued and preserved at Yale University, the poem had not been recognized as something new until McCown, doing an assignment for a course May taught, began her research.

What it offers is more than a few more lines from a poet whose other known poems portray devout Christian sentiments.

This is an important discovery for three reasons, said Sandra Gustafson, editor of Early American Literature [where the poem will be published in June 2013]. It expands the very small number of known works by enslaved African Americans written in the 18th century. The poem voices a strong, direct critique of slavery.

Hammon's views on slavery have, up until now, been known from his 1787 text, "An Address to the Negroes of the State of New York". In it, he wrote "though for my own part I do not wish to be free, yet I should be glad, if others, especially the young negroes were to be free".

The Lloyd Harbor Historical Society adds that "In the speech he empathized with their disappointment at not having been emancipated by the new American government, but he cautioned them that it was extremely difficult for the lower classes to earn a living, and they should content themselves with obeying the will of God". This seems too simple a reading of what is actually a rich sermon.

Available through the Digital Commons of the University of Nebraska, this text is characterized there as a "call for change... couched in Christian language and interwoven with a pietistic non-violent ideology":

To his fellow slaves, Hammon advises obedience to masters, honesty and faithfulness, and the avoidance of profaneness. Among his strongest recommendations is that Negroes make every effort learn to read and use that knowledge to study the Bible. ... Yet Hammons appeal is no apology for the slave system, but rather a modulated and astute assessment of the social and power relations between blacks and whites in the early republic:

That liberty is a great thing we may know from our own feelings, and we may likewise judge so from the conduct of the white-people, in the late war. How much money has been spent, and how many lives has been lost, to defend their liberty. I must say that I have hoped that God would open their eyes, when they were so much engaged for liberty, to think of the state of the poor blacks, and to pity us.

Even Hammons overtly Christian message contains a very equalitarian strain: there is only one Heaven for whites and blacks, and only one Hell....

The newly discovered poem was written about the same time, in 1786, and is called "An Essay on Slavery". The UTA researchers characterize it as very different in tone, quoting lines reading

Dark and dismal was the Day

when slavery began

All humble thoughts were put away

Then slaves were made by Man.

May and McCown suggest the poem was never published because it took a stronger tone against slavery.

Gustafson adds another reason the new poem is important: "it shows Hammons ongoing poetic dialogue with Phillis Wheatley on matters of Christian faith and social justice".

Phillis Wheatley, who died in 1784, was also a poet who wrote the work for which she was acclaimed while enslaved. Captured in Africa, Wheatley mastered English and produced a body of work that gained attention in both the colonies and England. As was the case with Hammon's 1787 "Address", Wheatley's published work was considered in need of testimonials from others to persuade readers that it was the work of an enslaved woman. An edition of her poetry was published in 1773 in England. Unlike Hammon, Wheatley was freed after achieving public acclaim. She married but was unable to support herself or her family through poetry. She died in 1784.

Among the four previously known poems by Hammon was one written in 1778 headed "An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatly, Ethiopian Poetess, in Boston, who came from Africa at eight years of age, and soon became acquainted with the gospel of Jesus Christ." In it, he describes Wheatley as having escaped from heathenism to Christianity, and exhorts her to improve as a Christian.

CSU Stanislaus English Professor Paul Reuben reproduces a letter Wheatley wrote in 1774 to Rev. Samson Occom, published in the Connecticut Gazette. In it, Wheatley takes a stronger position in opposition to slavery than previously attributed to Hammon:

the divine light is chasing away the thick darkness which broods over the land of Africa; and the chaos which has reigned so long, is converting into beautiful order, and reveals more and more clearly the glorious dispensation of civil and religious liberty, which are so inseparably united, that there is little or no enjoyment of one without the other: ... for in every human breast God has implanted a principle, which we call ~ it is impatient of oppression, and pants for deliverance; and by the leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same principle lives in us. ... How well the cry for liberty, and the reverse disposition for the exercise of oppressive power over others agree - I humbly think it does not require the penetration of a philosopher to determine.

Where Hammon's published statement on slavery called for obedience and acceptance of the failure of the new American Republic to emancipate the enslaved, Wheatley in this much earlier text argued that liberty was essential for her people to enjoy Christianity.

To have a new poem from an eighteenth century figure like Hammon appear is newsworthy enough. That it will allow scholars like May and McCown to return to the dialogue between Hammon and Wheatley makes this new discovery something even more significant.

And it all began with an English class, taught at a public university.