Juptier Hammon

JUPITER HAMMON OF LLOYD’S NECK, LONG ISLAND:
African American poet of the Revolutionary Era

By Susan Ingalls Lewis

The first African American poet published in the United States was not, as I had always learned, 220px-Hammon_address (wikipedia)Phyllis Wheatley, but an enslaved man of African descent, Jupiter Hammon (1711- before 1806). Hammon was born, lived most of his life, and died on the North Shore of Long Island, then part of Queens, in the village today known as Lloyd Harbor (Town of Huntington). The village is named after his masters’ family, and the Joseph Lloyd Manor House (c. 1766) located on Lloyd Neck is an historic site open to the public – which is how I came across Hammon’s name.

In fact, Jupiter Hammon is not only the first black American poet to be published (in a 1760 broadside), but— according to Dr. Cedric May, an expert on 18th century African American Literature— the first individual of African descent in American history to have his own words published from manuscripts written in his own hand.

Though enslaved, Hammon attended a school for free and slave children organized by his owner. Generations of the Lloyd family appear to have valued Hammon as an author as well as a skilled worker (in fact, Hammon did bookkeeping and negotiated business deals for the Lloyds) since they must have arranged for the publication of his writings.

In addition to writing poetry, Hammon composed “An Address to the Negroes of the State of New York,” (written 1786, first published 1787). Perhaps his lack of fame in contemporary circles can be attributed to the sentiments he expressed in this document, where he urged fellow slaves to be obedient to their masters and trust in God. Although he speaks openly of the distress of his race: “Most of us are cut off from comfort and happiness here in this world, and can expect nothing from it,” his answer is: “Now seeing this is the case, why should we not take care to be happy after death. “

In this address, Hammon rejects any direct resistance to slavery: “Let me beg of you my dear African brethren, to think very little of your bondage in this life, for your thinking of it will do you no good. If God designs to set us free, he will do it, in his own time, and way.” Still, he presumes a spiritual equality between the races: “If we should ever get to Heaven, we shall find nobody to reproach us for being black, or for being slaves.”

The fact that Hammon preached accommodation and conversion rather than revolution has little appeal to modern historians. Yet the evidence that an enslaved black man recorded his attitudes about race and slavery during this formative period in New York’s history seems remarkable and worth investigation.

Just this year, a lost poem discovered in the Yale University Libraries by Julie McCown, a graduate student working with Professor May at the University of Texas, Arlington, suggests that Hammon’s ideas on slavery were more progressive than formerly believed. This previously unpublished piece includes these stanzas:

Dark and dismal was the Day
When slavery began
All humble thoughts were put away
Then slaves were made by Man. [2]

Come let us join with humble voice
Now on the christian shore
If we will have our only choice
Tis Slavery no more. [17]

When shall we hear the joyfull sound
Echo the christian shore
Each humble voice with songs resound
That Slavery is no more. [21]

Interestingly, Hammon seems better to known to scholars of literature and anthropology than to New York State historians. An internet search on his name turns up numerous news stories about Hammon’s rediscovered poem, a blog by anthropology professor Rosemary Joyce at Berkeley ( “Jupiter Hammon should be a Household Name”), plus biographies on sites devoted to poetry and African American literature, and listings connected with the local history of Lloyd’s Harbor. So far, Hammon’s name does not appear among those of noteworthy New Yorkers nor are his writings recognized as important documents in New York State history. I suggest that New York historians might reconsider this neglect.

One final note: the photographs posted online with some of Hammon’s biographies cannot be pictures of Hammon himself – we know that he died before 1806, and photography wasn’t even invented until the 1830s!

Links:

Jupiter Hammon, America’s First Published African-American Poet; http://poetry.about.com/od/18thcpoets/a/hammon.htm

Joseph Lloyd Manor, MAAP , Mapping the African American Past; http://maap.columbia.edu/place/69

UTA Student Discovers Forgotten Poem by Nation’s First African-American Writer; http://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/UTA-Student-Discovers-Forgotten-Poem-by-Nations-First-African-American-Writer-190931171.html

Jupiter Hammon Should be a Household Name, Rosemary Joyce; http://blogs.berkeley.edu/2013/02/17/jupiter-hammon-should-be-a-household-name/

 


[1] “An Essay on Slavery”: An Unpublished Poem by Jupiter Hammon, Cedrick May, Julie McCown

Early American Literature, Volume 48, Number 2, 2013, pp. 457-471

3 thoughts on “Juptier Hammon

  1. Jacqueline Andrews

    Hi Susan. This is very interesting, especially in light of how much we northerners resist our slaveholding past. If Jupiter Hammon’s writing was approved by his owners, then it was to his benefit to appear compliant. I’m now living in Delaware, a border state, near Maryland, another border state, and near Pennsylvania, which features large in the story of the Civil War. It is amazing how the past is the present. I look forward to reading your blog in the future.

    Reply
    1. Susan Lewis

      Yes, Jackie, most of my students are shocked to learn that there was ever slavery in New York — slavery to them is something that happened in the South and New Yorkers have always been against. I agree that it was to Hammon’s benefit to appear compliant, but his upbringing and experience may also have convinced him that compliance was the best, or only practical, or (since he was so religious) the only Christian course. Nevertheless, he clearly did not support slavery as a system, or argue that it benefitted people of African descent.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *