Student Finds New Work By First Published African-American Poet

  • The first two stanzas of Jupiter Hammon's poem. Part of it reads, "Dark and dismal was the day/ when slavery began/ All humble thoughts were put away/ Then slaves were made by man."
    Hide caption
    The first two stanzas of Jupiter Hammon's poem. Part of it reads, "Dark and dismal was the day/ when slavery began/ All humble thoughts were put away/ Then slaves were made by man."
    Courtesy of Yale University Libraries
  • The poem is signed by Jupiter Hammon, described as "a Negro man belonging to Mr. John Lloyd."
    Hide caption
    The poem is signed by Jupiter Hammon, described as "a Negro man belonging to Mr. John Lloyd."
    Courtesy of Yale University Libraries

1 of 2

View slideshow i

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What one student ended up finding was a previously unpublished piece by the poet that shows how deeply he thought about slavery and religion.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."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.