Fall/Winter 2013



It’s A “Game-Changer”: Researchers Discover 1786 Poem By first published African American poet

It’s not quite the Holy Grail -- but it’s a game-changer, at least when it comes to understanding Jupiter Hammon.

This according to University of Texas Arlington (UTA) professor Cedrick May, who along with a graduate student last y ear uncovered a previously unknown poem by America’s first published African-American writer, and a slave of the Lloyd family on Lloyd Neck around the time of the American Revolution.

The unpublished poem is not merely an important addition to the slim body of Hammon’s work, says Dr May -- but it offers a new perspective on the writer’s point of view about slavery, and bolsters the claim that he was a ‘gradualist’ when it comes to abolition.

“There’s a difference between how he writes about slavery here and other things he wrote,” said Day. “In this poem he makes it clear that slavery is a man-made sin.”

In the poem, Hammon writes: “Dark and dismal was the Day/ when slavery began/ All humble thoughts were put away/ Then slaves were made by Man.” 

May, an associate English professor, and student Julie McCown made the discovery last fall in the archives of Yale University. “I was teaching a course in textual editing, and I gave students the  assignment of locating a specific manuscript, get it digitized, go through process of studying it, learning about it, transcribed it,“ said Dr. May. “Julie had to locate a manuscript of Hammon’s Address to the Negroes in the State of New York, 1787. A copy was known to exist at the New York Public Library, but she couldn't find copy of that. A librarian pointed out that Yale had a poem listed, so she looked it up, got the title, brought it to me, and showed it to me. It was called ’An Essay on Slavery,’ dated 1786. Jupiter Hammon hadn't previously been known to have written this!”

May had the unpublished document authenticated for style, lexicon, literary technique and handwriting analysis. The provenance of the paper used was also confirmed. Result? The researchers had in their hands the first newly identified Jupiter Hammon poem since his last known work was uncovered in 1950.

Jupiter Hammon was an educated slave of the Lloyd family, whose mercantile empire was built on the triangular trade, and had bases of operation not just in Lloyd Neck but in Boston, London, West Africa and the West Indies. Unlike other slaves in the Lloyd family, Hammon was educated, probably in part because he was the family’s bookkeeper. Over time he also taught people on the Lloyd Estate, and one of his efforts was the inculcation of Calvinist religion among the Africans owned by the family.

But Hammon was an ambitious learner, and over the years mastered the family library and became highly educated in a number of areas. On Christmas Day, 1760, he published his first poem, “An Evening Thought,“ in Hartford Ct -- a major home to Revolutionary era publishing -- and later went on to publish other poems and a number of prose pieces as well.

His known written work --predating the better known African-American poet Phillis Wheatley by a number of years -- was first brought to general attention in the 20th century by Huntington public library director Stanley Ransom in his 1970 book America’s First Negro Poet (Kennikat Press, Port Washington). It generally consists of an assertion of the salvation-in-heaven based doctrine of Calvinism.

For slaves in America, Hammon asserted in his previous writing, that doctrine held they were in a better condition spiritually having been taken out of Africa and exposed to Christianity, because it gave them a chance to be saved which they hadn‘t possessed in their previous state. True freedom, according to the doctrine, was a spiritual matter between them and God, not a matter of what became of the material shackles of the slave system.

This view has been problematic to subsequent generations of readers, including younger African-Americans raised in a more progressive religious and political environment than Hammon, to whom he directed his 1787 address.

In recent years, some critics have attempted to find extenuation in Jupiter Hammon’s writing, asserting everything from hidden messages in his poems to the idea that by bringing Africans into the Christian fold, he was helping to demonstrate to the dominant culture the basic notion that Africans were human beings in possession of a soul -- a revolutionary enough concept in the pre-enlightenment world of Calvinist America.

The new poem found by Dr Day and Ms McCown, it seems, represents a major shift in an understanding of the ideology that Hammon held privately, and publicly advocated -- and perhaps, an “internal conflict over whether slavery was ‘God’s Will’ or a ‘dark and dismal’ manmade state,” according to UTA spokesperson Bridget Lewis.

May says he believes the poem will be a game changer in the field of early American literature, because it constitutes much more of an anti-slavery tone than “An Address to the Negroes of the State of New York,” the prose piece Hammon wrote in 1787. In that piece, which was criticized by younger African-American activists of the time, he wrote: “If we should ever get to Heaven, we shall find nobody to reproach us for being black, or for being slaves.”

May believes that Hammon wrote both the poem and essay around the same time, but that “An Essay on Slavery” was likely considered too anti-slavery and thus, was never allowed to be made public. “I think he meant to publish it,” said the researcher. “His other essays all have a poem attached to them -- but the 1787 Address to the Negroes has none.”

Day and McCown’s research is the focus of an article to be published in the June 2013 edition of the journal Early American Literature, along with the full text of Hammon’s “An Essay on Slavery."

“This is an important discovery for three reasons,” said Sandra Gustafson, editor of Early American Literature. “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. And it shows Hammon’s ongoing poetic dialogue with Phillis Wheatley on matters of Christian faith and social justice.”




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