February is Black History Month, and it seems appropriate to introduce a Long Island poet whose name, until recent times, has been often forgotten in the annals of American literature, but who deserves our attention for the special place he holds.
I doubt that many know of Jupiter Hammon, for much of the details his life are obscure. It took me several attempts to locate material to write this story. He does not appear in the usual reference works, and the most informative volumes devoted to him date from 1915 to 1931.
It is not known just when Hammon, a slave in the Lloyd family of Lloyds Neck, L.I., was born, nor exactly when he died, but his dates are indicated as 1720-1800, a period before slavery was abolished in New York in 1827.
Born of slave parents sometime between 1711 and 1720 at what was then the Lloyd estate at Queens Village, Lloyd's Neck, L.I., the first reference to him is in a letter dated May 19, 1730, which indicates that he was being treated for a "rheumatic disorder." After this serious illness he began to study the Bible and underwent a conversion. It is for this reason that it is theorized that he may have acted as a preacher first in the evangelical style and a poet secondarily.
Unlike most slaves Jupiter Hammon learned to read and write and it appears that he was entrusted with clerical tasks, helped out in a community store and undertook banking errands for the Lloyd family.
Hammons owner, Henry Lloyd, died in 1763 and Jupiter became part of the inheritance left to Joseph Lloyd, one of his master's four sons. When Joseph Lloyd was forced to leave Long Island during the Revolutionary War when the British and their mercenaries, the Hessians, overran the area, he moved to Hartford, Conn. and Jupiter went along.
When Joseph Lloyd died during the course of the war, Jupiter became the property of Josephs grandson, John Lloyd Jr. The fact that he was a highly esteemed and trusted servant of the Lloyd family probably resulted in having the family place his verses before the public.
His poetry antedated by several years that of Phyllis Wheatley, who is usually regarded as the first black voice in American literature. Actually, the first black poet in America is now generally considered to be Lucy Terry, a slave who wrote her only known poem, Bars Fight, in 1746.
But it was Jupiter Hammon who became the first black to have a poem published as a separate work. In 1760 he wrote a poem which he entitled An Evening Thought, Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries, Composed by Jupiter Hammon, a Negro Belonging to Mr. Lloyd of Queens Village on Long Island, the 25th of December, 1760. (Queens Village in this case does not refer to Queens Village in Queens County.)
The poem was printed as a broadside in New York City and consists of 88 lines, and in keeping with all of Hammons poetic themes, is religious in tone the word salvation appears 23 times.
His second publication, also in broadside form, was published on Aug. 4, 1778, and only one original copy is known to exist today. His second attempt has a more imaginative tone. These early poems were followed by others written in 1779 and 1782, including one dedicated to Phyllis Wheatley, entitled, An Address to Miss Phyllis Wheatley.
Hammons first poem was published a good 10 years before Miss Wheatleys poems which made her the darling of the elite in Boston. She had been proclaimed the first black poet in America well into the 20th century.
Jupiters poem, An Evenings Improvement, written near the close of the Revolution, is of biographical interest because it contains a poetical dialogue entitled, The Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant. Hammon was well respected by his master for his industry and his prowess with tools and he was allowed to use the family library to further his education.
After being freed by the family whom he had served for three generations, at the age of 76, Jupiter Hammon presented to the African Society of the City of New York An Address to the Negroes of the State of New York (Sept. 24, 1786).His address was printed in New York City in 1787, and soon after by the Quakers and by the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. A third edition appeared after his death. In his address Hammon advocated that his brothers bear slavery with patience, though he spoke disapprovingly of the system. He urged his fellows not to revolt and that there be the manumission of younger slaves. (In his will, John Lloyd had directed that certain slaves be set free at the age of 28.)
The last record of Jupiter Hammon is a reference to him in 1790.
Because of his stance on slavery, present day critics cite Hammon for his absorption in Christian otherworldliness that can render a man forgetful of his earthly state. But it seems pertinent to remember that he was a creature of the times in which he lived, when in the mid-18th century Methodism and Wesleyan revivalism swept America. It is important, too, to remember the relationship he had with the family he served so long and well, and that he believed in reconciliation, not revolt. His work did aid the Abolitionists cause.
Some critics today question whether Jupiter Hammon may have been in reality urging his fellow blacks to enter the mainstream of colonial life through education and the Christian religion so they might reap the rewards of political enfranchisement and an improved economic life.
Though none would claim him to be a great poet, Jupiter Hammon has earned a rightful place in the annals of American literature and deserves to be counted among our other Long Island poets of note who are more familiar to us: Joseph Rodman Drake, Walt Whitman and William Cullen Bryant.
Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian, free-lance writer and a member of the Borough Presidents History Advisory Committee. Reach her by e-mail at JBBAY@aol.com or visit her on the Web at members.ao
©2002 Community News Group
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