October 17 is Black Poetry Day in honor of Jupiter Hammon born on October 17, 1711, the first African American wirter to be published in the present-day United States. Born into slavery, he was held by four generations of the Lloyd family of Queens, New York. The Lloyds allowed Hammon to attend school, where he learned to read and write. As an adult, he worked for them as a domestic servant, clerk, farmhand, and artisan in the Lloyd family business. He became a fervent Christian, as were the Lloyds.
His first published poem, “An Evening Thought. Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries: Composed by Jupiter Hammon, a Negro belonging to Mr. Lloyd of Queen’s Village, on Long Island, the 25th of December, 1760,” appeared in 1761. He published three other poems and three sermon essays.
On September 24, 1786, he delivered his “Address to the Negroes of the State of New York”, also known as the “Hammon Address.” He was seventy-six years old and had spent his lifetime in slavery. He said, “If we should ever get to Heaven, we shall find nobody to reproach us for being black, or for being slaves.” He also said that, while he personally had no wish to be free, he did wish others, especially “the young Negroes, were free.”
Although we rightfully are very uncomfortable with a slave owned by a family, Christian or otherwise, who was allowed to be educated and given access to his owners library. Viewing it in its historical context and understanding that there are no perfect societies, we can celebrate the accomplishments of this amazing poet.
Black Poetry Day is also celebrated by ReadPoetry.com and other literary organizations. Lucille Clifton (1936-2010) is one of my favorite poets.
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