Miss Phillis Wheatley had been considered the first African American published poet before that title was snatched away from her in the 20th century. Poor Philly. =(
It was discovered that Jupiter Hammon was actually the first, as his poem “An Evening Thought. Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries” had been published in New York in 1761.
Wheatley’s was published in England in 1773, but being female gives her serious brownie points in my book.
Phillis Wheatley was born in what would most likely be present day Gambia (where my family is from! What a coincidence?!). She was bought over as a slave when she was about 7 or 8 and sold to a rich tailor in Boston by the name of John Wheatley. This was 1761. Johnny and his wife Susannah treated Philly with kindness (as much kindness that could be treated to a slave) and allowed her to learn how to read. Philly was one smart cookie! She learned English in 16 months and without any formal education was easily reading the Bible and other classical works of literature—sometimes in Latin!
In 1773, she took a trip to England with her master’s son Nathanial. During her visit she published her book of poetry titled, “Poems on Various Subjects: Religious and Moral”. Soon after she returned, both her master and mistress died! Oh, the sorrow.
Freed after the death of the Wheatleys, she tried earning a living on her own to no avail. And what do many women do when they can’t take care of themselves? Find a man to do it for them! She marries John Peters, a free black man in 1778. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a happy marriage. Cheater? Wife beater? Lazy SOB? The sources don’t say. Though, he does end up in prison for debt—so a Gambler? Her story gets even sadder! During her marriage, two of her three children die as little babes. After the death of her husband, Philly is forced to work at a boarding house. In 1784, she dies at the age of 31, alone and poor, with her third child buried in her arms.
Doesn’t Philly deserve to be remembered just a little? Below is a sample of her poetry.
To a Lady on the Death of her Husband.
GRIM monarch! see, depriv'd of vital breath,
A young physician in the dust of death:
Dost thou go on incessant to destroy,
Our griefs to double, and lay waste our joy?
Enough thou never yet wast known to say,
Though millions die, the vassals of thy sway:
Nor youth, nor science, not the ties of love,
Nor ought on earth thy flinty heart can move.
The friend, the spouse from his dire dart to save,
In vain we ask the sovereign of the grave.
Fair mourner, there see thy lov'd Leonard laid,
And o'er him spread the deep impervious shade.
Clos'd are his eyes, and heavy fetters keep
His senses bound in never-waking sleep,
Till time shall cease, till many a starry world
Shall fall from heav'n, in dire confusion hurl'd
Till nature in her final wreck shall lie,
And her last groan shall rend the azure sky:
Not, not till then his active soul shall claim
His body, a divine immortal frame.
But see the softly-stealing tears apace
Pursue each other down the mourner's face;
But cease thy tears, bid ev'ry sigh depart,
And cast the load of anguish from thine heart:
From the cold shell of his great soul arise,
And look beyond, thou native of the skies;
There fix thy view, where fleeter than the wind
Thy Leonard mounts, and leaves the earth behind.
Thyself prepare to pass the vale of night
To join for ever on the hills of light:
To thine embrace this joyful spirit moves
To thee, the partner of his earthly loves;
He welcomes thee to pleasures more refin'd,
And better suited to th' immortal mind.
Are you completely hooked? Want to read her entire published book?
There’s little to be known about Jupiter Hammon, on the other hand. He was born a slave around 1720 (exact d.o.b unknown) and owed by Henry Lloyd of Long Island. The Lloyds allowed Hammon to attend school and so he learned to read and write. With their help, he also published his first work in New York—“An Evening Thought.”—in 1761, the same year that Wheatley was bought to the states. As the Lloyds were fervent Christians, so became he and his poetry drips with religious doctrine and admonishment. He continued to write various poems, even including one addressed to Wheatley acknowledging her skill as a writer (or rubbing salt in her wounds about no longer being the first published poet? Just kidding, that happens years later, remember?). His most notable work, published in 1787, is a prose piece titled, “An Address to the Negroes of the State of New York,” urging blacks to be true to their masters. At the same time, he disapproved of the institution of slavery and argued for the freedom of younger slaves. He was last heard about in 1790 and thought to have died before the early 1800s.
Below are the first few lines of “An Evening Thought”.
AN Evening THOUGHT. Salvation by CHRIST, WITH PENETENTIAL CRIES:
Composed by Jupiter Hammon, a Negro belonging to Mr Lloyd, of Queen's-Village, on Long-Island, the 25th of December, 1760.
Salvation comes by Jesus Christ alone,
The only Son of God;
Redemption now to every one,
That love his holy Word.
Dear Jesus we would fly to Thee,
And leave off every Sin,
Thy tender Mercy well agree;
Salvation from our King.
Salvation comes now from the Lord,
Our victorious King;
His holy Name be well ador'd,
Salvation surely bring.
Dear Jesus give thy Spirit now,
Thy Grace to every Nation,
His extoling of Philly’s poetic talents are below in the first few lines of “An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatly”.
O come you pious youth! adore
The wisdom of thy God,
In bringing thee from distant shore,
To learn His holy word.
Thou mightst been left behind
Amidst a dark abode;
God’s tender mercy still combin’d
Thou hast the holy word.
Fair wisdom’s ways are paths of peace,
And they that walk therein,
Shall reap the joys that never cease
And Christ shall be their king.
Are you loving this stuff and simply must have more? Go here: http://poetry.about.com/library/weekly/blhammontowheatley.htm
So, today’s African American firsts are published poets, Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon.
Have requests about next African American firsts post. Leave your suggestion in the comments and I’ll see what I can do!
Until next time,
Life is funny.
"Wheatley, Phillis." American Authors, 1600-1900 (1938): Biography Reference Bank (H.W. Wilson). Web. 1 Feb. 2012.
"Hammon, Jupiter." American Authors, 1600-1900 (1938): Biography Reference Bank (H.W. Wilson). Web. 1 Feb. 2012.
James A. Rawley. “The World of Phillis Wheatley.” The New England Quarterly , Vol. 50, No. 4 (Dec., 1977), pp. 666-677. Web. 1 Feb. 2012.
“Phillis Wheatley”. Wikipedia. Wikimedia. N.d. Web. 1 Feb. 2012
“Jupiter Hammon”. Wikipedia. Wikimedia. N.d. Web. 1 Feb. 2012