Arts & Culture

An enslaved poet on slavery

Object lesson: a newly discovered 18th-century poem by a man living in slavery.

Jupiter Hammon was the first African American writer to publish in America, yet surprisingly little is known about him. We know he was born into slavery on October 17, 1711, and lived on Long Island. There is no record of his mother or father’s identity, nor do we have any physical description of him. Most of what is known about Hammon has come from the remarkable literature he left behind, consisting of four poems and three essays, all published between 1760 and 1787.  But now, with the discovery of the handwritten poem “An Essay on Slavery, with submission to Divine providence, knowing that God Rules over all things,” we have one more document to shed light on the art and thoughts of this unique American writer.

In the fall of 2011, I gave my graduate students the assignment of acquiring scanned images of Hammon’s writings from libraries and archives I knew to hold copies of his works. A librarian at the New York Public Library helpfully pointed one student toward a Yale Libraries finding aid for the Hillhouse Family Papers, which listed a poem by Jupiter Hammon. A Yale librarian e-mailed the title of the poem to us, and when I saw it was called “An Essay on Slavery,” I realized it might be a new discovery. I purchased a scanned image of the poem, and when it arrived I knew right away I was looking at a never-before-known poem by Jupiter Hammon.

There are many features of this artifact that merit mention, but the most important for historical purposes is the shift in Hammon’s thinking about the nature of slavery itself. We know from his writings that his masters raised and educated him under devout Calvinist principles that advocated the compatibility of slavery with Christianity. (His masters later became connected by marriage to the Hillhouse family of New Haven, which is how the poem ended up at Yale.) In his previous publications, Hammon suggests a predestinarian belief that since slavery existed, it had to be part of God’s will, and therefore slaves were bound to obey their masters.  But “An Essay on Slavery,” written in 1786, declares unambiguously that slavery is a manmade sin, not the will of God, and then proceeds to celebrate the eventual end of the institution of human bondage:

When shall we hear the joyfull sound
Echo the christian shore
Each humble voice with songs resound
That Slavery is no more.

Clearly, Hammon has changed his mind about the theological soundness of slavery’s compatibility with Christianity.

Unlike other work of Hammon’s, this poem was hidden away and never appeared in print. I suspect that Hammon intended “An Essay on Slavery” to be published along with his 1787 essay, “An Address to the Negroes of the State of New York,” but that his masters deemed the poem too radical a departure from his earlier, more accommodating literature. This possibility gives us ample reason to celebrate the survival of this document that gives a unique insight into the perspectives of an enslaved American.

Cedrick May is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at Arlington. He is working on a scholarly edition of Jupiter Hammon’s poetry and prose.