African American Poems

African American poems and poets are following the lead taken in 1761 when Jupiter Hammon published his first poem, the first ever published that was written by a black poet.

This very first of all African American poems to follow was a reflection of the deep spiritual nature of the poet.  Written on Christmas Day in 1760, the poem is called An Evening Thought. Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries.

Hammon was a slave throughout his entire life but was very fortunate to have a stable life.  He served the same Long Island, New York, family for several generations and was allowed an education, something almost unheard of in that era.  At school, he learned to read and write and he discovered poetry there, too.

His spirituality was influenced by the revivals that were frequently taking place in New England during this time.  His masters, too, were devoutly religious so Hammon’s spiritual nature was most likely nurtured on a daily basis.

Other poems followed for this first African American poet.  His second published poem, Poem to Phillis Wheatley, describes the many freedoms that would be enjoyed in Heaven, where slavery can never exist

Wheatley was born in Ethiopia and sold into slavery when she was only 7.  She learned to read, write, and speak English and began publishing poems in the 1770s.  Many of her works were based on spiritual and moral elements.

Perhaps the most famous literary work by Jupiter Hammon wasn’t poetry but an address he wrote for the African Society of New York in 1786, when Hammon was 76 years old.  In this address, Hammon expressed his opinion of slavery as unjust and in need of abolition.  He claimed to “not wish to be free” himself but would be “glad if others, especially the young Negroes, were free.”

Hammon was aware of the stronghold slavery had on the country and understood that the economic structure of the nation was based on slavery.  For these reasons, he said in his address that he felt slavery should be abolished gradually, so as not to upset the nation’s business, as well as the lives of the enslaved peoples, in dramatic and destructive fashion.

This 1786 address contains Hammon’s most famous quote, again relating his profound spirituality, "If we should ever get to Heaven, we shall find nobody to reproach us for being black, or for being slaves."

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