Art Attack May 27, 2022 at 01:30 pm

The life and times of Jupiter Hammon, the first published African-American poet

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor May 27, 2022 at 01:30 pm

May 27, 2022 at 01:30 pm | Art Attack

An Address to the Negroes (New York: Samuel Wood, 1806) by Jupiter Hammon. Public Domain Image

When Jupiter Hammon started publishing his writing, he was still working as a slave. Believed to be the first African American to publish poetry in the United States, his works centered on themes of Christian salvation and morality, having been influenced by the Great Awakening, a religious revival that impacted the English colonies in America during the 1730s and 1740s.

He was born in Queen’s Village on Long Island, New York on October 17, 1711, to slave parents owned by Henry Lloyd. Even though Hammon was a slave, he had “moderate amounts of freedom”, enabling him to attend school, where he learned to read and write. He then went on to work alongside his owner Henry Lloyd as a bookkeeper and negotiator for the Lloyd family business.

In 1763 when Henry Lloyd died, Hammon became the slave of Henry Lloyd’s son, Joseph. Hammon moved to Connecticut with Joseph, where Hammon would become a leader in the African-American community and attend abolitionist and Revolutionary War societies. Joseph died during the Revolutionary War as a Patriot, so Hammon’s ownership was subsequently transferred to John Lloyd, Jr.

Hammon would publish his first poem during this period. He published that first poem, “Evening Thought, Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries”, in 1760 and followed it up with “An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley” in 1779. In that poem, Hammon writes to Wheatley, who was the most prominent African-American poet of the time, celebrating their faith in Christianity and their shared African heritage.

As Preservation Long Island’s Jupiter Hammon Project states: “Hammon’s and Wheatley’s extraordinary literary achievements offer exceptionally rare perspectives on the spiritual, social, and political worlds of Revolutionary America and the complexities of race and enslavement in the young United States. Both were evangelical writers whose poetry and prose reflected their deep Christian faiths and contributed to larger discussions about liberty and slavery on both sides of the Atlantic.”

Hammon’s writing, which demonstrated his devout Christian beliefs, also urged his fellow enslaved men and women to “cheerfully perform the duties of the day,” adding that freedom and salvation would be theirs if they submitted to God, according to BlackPast.

In September 1786, four years after his first essay, “Winter Piece”, and his other poem, “A Poem for Children with Thoughts on Death,” he was made to speak at the inaugural meeting of the Spartan Project of the African Society of New York City. There, he delivered his most famous sermon, “Address to the Negroes of the State of New York” at the age of 76 after a lifetime of slavery. His writing was reprinted by several abolitionist societies, including the New York Quakers and the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

Even though most of his works spoke to the slave community, his last essay, “Address to the Negroes of New-York”, published in 1787 by the African Society of New York City, was directed to both free and enslaved Blacks. He looked at the role African Americans played in the Revolutionary War. Indeed, Hammon’s writings also centered on things that happened around him including the Revolutionary War and slavery. He had to flee invading British forces twice during the war, first on Long Island in 1776 and the second in 1779 in New Haven, Connecticut.

In his 1778 poem, “A Dialogue, Entitled, The Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant,” he touched on how he wished the war would end soon while disclosing his feelings about the relationship between God, humanity, and slavery. After a lifetime of slavery, Hammon, widely considered the founder of African-American literature, is believed to have died around 1806 and is likely buried in an unmarked grave on what was once the Lloyd property and is now Caumsett State Historic Park Preserve in Long Island, New York.

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