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Afric's Muse: Black Literature in Early America

By Cliff Odle

Among the lesser-known aspects of African American’s in the development of the country are their contributions to literature. The early African American writers were often slaves or ex-slaves who were taught to read and write by their masters, but also impressed others by mixing an innate talent with a desire to learn. Most were usually poets who wrote from a foundation of religion. Other blacks wrote narratives about their lives as either slaves or free blacks. There were still others wrote on different sciences such as astronomy or meteorology. The African American writers of today such as Nikki Giovanni and Walter Mosley can trace their lineage to black pioneer writers like Jupiter Hammon, Lucy Terry or Phyllis Wheatley.

Lucy Terry was born in 1724 in West Africa. As an infant she was kidnapped and sold as a slave to Ebenezer Wells of Deerfield, Massachusetts. At the age of five Wells had her baptized in response to a religious movement known as the First Great Awakening. By her twenties she became the author of what is considered the oldest piece of literature by an African American author. The piece was a poem called "Bars Fight". The poem told the story of a battle between settlers and Native Americans that took place in Deerfield in 1746. The poem was not published until 1855. Terry developed and recited the poem in oral form only. This reflected her talent and skill as a speaker. After marrying and gaining her freedom, she used her skills on several occasions such in 1785 when she requested and received from the governor of Vermont protection for her family from the threats of local white citizens and in 1795 when she successfully argued a property case in court against two of Vermont's best lawyers. The presiding judge, Samuel Chase said that it was the most eloquent argument he had ever heard.

Jupiter Hammon claims the honor of being the first published African American Author. His poem, entitled "An Evening Thought. Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries" was written on Christmas Day", was published in 1760. Hammon was a life-long slave born in 1711 and owned by several generations of the Lloyd family on New York's Long Island. He showed a desire to learn and the Lloyds allowed him to get an education. The same Great Awakening that lead to Lucy Terry's baptism also inspired his writing and it reflected his spiritual beliefs. He often wrote directly to his fellow slaves. He encouraged them to live with a high moral standard because being a slave had already, "secured their place in heaven" Hammon never sought freedom for himself, but he did hope that the young slaves would one day be free. He expressed a desire for gradual emancipation in his last work; an essay entitled "An Address to the Negroes of the State New York." In one of his best-known poems he tips his hat to a fellow African American slave poet. In 1778 he wrote, "An Address to Miss Phyllis Wheatley."

Phyllis Wheatley is considered early America’s most famous and most prolific African American poet. She wrote on many subjects including religion, slavery, war and honored heroes such as George Washington and the victims of the Boston Massacre. Famous men such as John Adams and the French writer Voltaire lauded her work.

Wheatley was born in 1753 in Senegal. When she was seven she was kidnapped and brought to America to be sold as a slave. She escaped being sold to the horrific sugar plantation of Barbados and Jamaica because she was considered a sickly child. A prominent Boston merchant named John Wheatley purchased her and named her Phyllis. Sixteen months after her arrival, she had completely learned English. Her natural talent for learning was encouraged by John Wheatley's wife Susannah. After gaining an education that included classical studies, astronomy, geography, Latin and Greek, Phyllis showed a talent for poetry. The education gave her access to literary influences such as Milton, Pope, Ovid and Virgil.

Her first poem was written at the age of 14 and was entitled, "To the University of Cambridge." It was published in the Newport Mercury making her not only the first female African American poet to be published, but the third American woman to be published as well. In another poem called "Hymn to Humanity" she established her reputation by calling her self "Afric’s Muse". However, it was her eulogy entitled "An Elegiac poem on the death of George Whitefield" that brought her wide acclaim. It lead to the publication of a book of her poetry in 1773 and a triumphal literary tour of Europe.

Phyllis lived in Boston during the birth of the country and her poems reflected and honored the trials and tribulations of that volatile period of time. She lived on King Street where the Boston Massacre occurred, she wrote in response to the Stamp Act, and was the first to write about the death of the "first martyr" of the revolution, twelve year old Christopher Seider. Her poems gave encouragement to the citizens of a new country during that country's turbulent birth.

Wheatley’s path was not an easy one, however. Many white critics could not believe that a mere slave could write such beautiful poetry and she had to defend herself in court against charges of fraud in 1772. She had a distinguished panel of judges that included John Hancock, Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson and his Lt. Governor Andrew Oliver. The judges not only ruled that Phyllis was the author of the poems, but signed an affidavit or legal document that endorsed their opinions. Still, there were those who held on to their prejudices regarding how talented a black slave could be. Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, dismissed Wheatley as an author stating that "Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Wheatley but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism." Others feared that Phyllis’ talent could be a factor in destabilizing their slave populations. They feared that if other slaves knew what a person like Phyllis could achieve, they might think different about their positions as slaves.

The prejudices of Jefferson and others could not hide the fact that Wheatley was a well-regard and well-respected poet in her own right. Even a prominent American such as George Washington acknowledged her talent and had even respected her enough to answer her letters.

The early days of the United States gave rise to other important writers of African decent. Benjamin Banneker a free black man and a scientist published his "Benjamin Banneker’s Almanac" as a rival to Benjamin Franklin’s "Poor Richard’s Almanac" There were also many slave narratives by people like Olaudah Equiano and Venture Smith. These narratives along with essays by prominent blacks such as Prince Hall and James Forten were the forerunners of abolitionist writings by people like Harriet Breecher Stowe and Fredrick Douglass. These early African American authors remain the foundation of African American literature today.

Sources and Further Reading:
Kaplan, Sidney and Kaplan, Emma N., The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 1989.

Quarles, Benjamin, The Negro in the Making of America. New York: Simon and Shuster. 1964.

Shockley, Ann Allen, Afro-American Women Writers 1746-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide, New Haven, Connecticut: Meridian Books, 1989.

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