Tue March 12, 2013
First African-American Poet Still Showing New Work
Originally published on Tue March 12, 2013 2:42 pm
It's the handwriting that stands out to Cedrick May.
As an associate professor of English at the University of Texas, Arlington, he assigned his doctoral students to find some of the known works by Jupiter Hammon, the first published African-American poet. Hammon's works date back to 1760.
What one student ended up finding was a previously unpublished piece by the poet that shows how deeply he thought about slavery and religion.
"He's defining slavery as sin for the first time," says May. " ... He's defying the idea that you can have slavery and be Christian at the same time."
But Hammon's handwriting — which, according to May, was better than his masters' — along with the watermarks and smudges are what make this document special. "To hold it," says May, "was quite an emotional experience in many ways, because this is a part of our collective cultural history as Americans."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We'd like to switch gears now and turn to a major figure in literary history, Jupiter Hammon. And, if you don't recognize the name, don't worry. Even though he was the first published African-American poet with work dating back to 1760, his story is not well-known outside of academic circles.
Now, a couple of scholars are hoping to change that. At the University of Texas at Arlington, English professor, Cedrick May, gave his doctoral students an assignment to find some of Jupiter Hammon's known works. Along the way, one of his students stumbled upon a previously unpublished poem by Jupiter Hammon.
We wanted to hear more about this, so we've called Professor Cedrick May. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us. Congratulations.
CEDRICK MAY: Thank you very much and thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Now, I understand that he lived his entire life in slavery, but somehow managed to publish a handful of essays and poems. Do we know - how did he manage that? Tell us a little bit more about him.
MAY: Sure. Jupiter Hammon - he was born on Long Island in 1711 within the Lloyd family of Long Island and they were a very prominent and wealthy merchant family. He lived his entire life serving this family and, along the way, he was also educated as he was growing up along with the Lloyd children. He grew up with three of the boys and so they were schooled together. And so he actually was very well educated and it really shines through when one looks at the handwriting on the poem that we've discovered. It's remarkably good handwriting. In fact, in many ways, it's much better than a lot of the handwriting of members of the Lloyd family who owned him.
MARTIN: The title of the poem is "An Essay on Slavery: Justification to Divine Providence, Knowing that God Rules Over All Things." Could you tell us...
MARTIN: ...a little bit about what the poem is about and then would you read a couple of stanzas for us?
MAY: Really, this is a poem about slavery in particular, which is unusual for Jupiter Hammon. The vast majority of his writing that we have is very religious, but here, we have a poem that - it, too, is religious, but the central theme here is slavery.
Let me read the first two stanzas of the poem for you. Our forefathers came from Africa, tossed over the raging main to a Christian shore therefore to stay and not return again. Dark and dismal was the day when slavery began. All humble thoughts were put away. Then slaves were made by man.
MARTIN: You know, what's interesting about this is that, for those who do know his work, I think he's mainly known for a text that has been previously known, the 1787 text, "An Address to the Negroes of the State of New York," and in it...
MAY: That's right.
MARTIN: ...he writes, though, for my own part, I do not wish to be free, yet I should be glad if others, especially the young negroes, were to be free. I think people have subsequently seen him as - I don't know how to say it - an apologist for slavery in some way. What does this poem - how does it shed light on his thinking?
MAY: I refer to it often as a game changer in many ways. Now, Jupiter Hammon, when he says what he says in "An Address to the Negroes of the State of New York," the address was written a couple of years before the state of New York made it a law that masters could not release their slaves when their slaves reached 50 years old without providing for them afterwards. Releasing older slaves who had become non-productive was a really big problem in New York, because they didn't have any way to take care of themselves. They'd been born and lived in slavery their whole lives. And so part of what Hammon was saying was that, I've been a slave all my life and I don't know what I would do if I were to be released.
And so what we have here is he's defining slavery as sin for the first time. And that's a real big issue at this point, because theologically speaking, there had been a lot of talk about the compatibility of slavery with Christianity in the colonies, and now he's defying that idea. And he's still enslaved, but he's defying the idea that you can have slavery and be Christian at the same time. So there's an incompatibility that he's setting forth here.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, I just wanted to ask what it means to you, personally, to look at this man's handwriting and to read his thoughts centuries later. I mean, dating back to the 18th century, and sort of think about his life. Do you mind? What does that feel like for you?
MAY: When I actually held the poem in my hands for the first time and looked at it, first of all, I realized that what I was - the artifact itself that I was holding was just so rich, so - it was so exciting to hold it. And it was quite an emotional experience in many ways, because this is a part of our collective cultural history as Americans. And I take this sort of work very seriously in that regard. And so it was really wonderful to get it in my hands, to study it, to look at the watermarks and the places where he'd rubbed out words and replaced them with other words because that's another thing that makes this poem so wonderful, because it's a working draft. So I get to see his thought process as he was composing. It was fantastic.
MARTIN: That was Cedrick May. He's an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at Arlington. He joined us from Dallas. If you would like to see photos of the original poem, head over to NPR.org and select TELL ME MORE from the Programs tab.
Professor May, thank you so much for joining us.
MAY: Thank you, Michel. It was a real honor.
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MARTIN: Just ahead, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg says the stereotypes facing women at work are nothing new.
SHERYL SANDBERG: Go to a playground. Little girls get called bossy all the time, a word that's almost never used for boys, and that leads directly to the problems women face in the workforce.
MARTIN: In our moms roundtable, our panel asks whether Sandberg's answer, "Leaning In," really is the answer. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.