April is National Poetry Month, so what better time to share our exciting news! Independent Scholar Claire Bellerjeau made a miraculous discovery in the New-York Historical Society’s collections; she uncovered an unpublished poem likely written by Jupiter Hammon, the first published African American author in America. Hammon, who lived his entire life as an enslaved person, had four poems and three essays published in his lifetime. This sixth poem (a fifth was discovered at Yale in 2011) illuminates a historically well-versed, free thinking Hammon. In his work, he champions Anne Hutchinson, an outspoken proponent of religious freedom. We recently sat down with Bellerjeau to learn more about her discovery, as well as the life and poetry of Jupiter Hammon.
Can you tell us about Jupiter Hammon?
Hammon was born in 1711 and was owned by three generations of the same family. The Henry Lloyd family (of Long Island) had their own manor, and within their property (which was fairly large), they had their own schoolhouse, where Hammon was educated alongside the family’s children. And that’s extremely unusual for a slave to even be allowed to be educated, let alone alongside the household children. Two teachers we know about had religious ties. One was a Harvard Divinity School graduate and another was a missionary. It seems unlikely that a person with this level of education and a clear passion for writing would have picked up the pen so late in life. He wrote this poem in his later 50s. So, I wonder if he kept a book of his own writing, and if that could ever be found.
How did you discover the poem?
I was conducting research on the slaves of the Townsend family at the New-York Historical Society Library. The Townsends were prominent patriots living on Long Island during the American Revolution. When I was reading through their family collection, I saw Hammon’s name on a document. I was in a rush, so I just took a photo, but it wasn’t until Valentine’s Day that I just happened to be looking at the picture I had taken of Hammon’s poem. I googled a few lines of the poem, honestly thinking I was going to find scholars talking about it. And it wasn’t until nothing came up in the searches for any of the lines of poem that I realized this was an undiscovered work.
Where do you see Hammon’s voice in this poem?
I have analyzed all of his works side-by-side and found that his phrases, syntax, as well many of the lines and allusions that he used in this poem appear in other poems. Likewise, his attribution, where he says it was composed by Jupiter Hammon, is the same as his others. Even the first line of this poem is very similar to his 1778 poem about Phillis Wheatley. In fact, all of his first lines are very evocative—using the word “come” or “came.” They all encourage the reader to enter the poem. So you can clearly see his voice in this one, as it carries across his body of work.
The theme of salvation was one of the major themes throughout all his works, especially in his first poem, where he mentions the word “salvation” over and over. This is the next known work, said to have been written on August 10, 1770, and it takes the question of salvation a step further, offering a historical point of comparison. Hutchinson was convicted of heresy for believing that she achieved salvation through a direct relationship with God. Now that’s a very powerful statement for a person who is enslaved. It shows that Hammon, too, wanted to bypass the slave owners and reach salvation directly through God. He would later write, “If we should ever get to Heaven, we shall find nobody to reproach us for being black, or for being slaves.”
Is this poem, in any way, radically different from Hammon’s other works?
I believe it is different in the way that he is writing specifically about someone from the past. Anne Hutchinson was alive over 120 years before he was—it’s a scholarly thing to write about a historical figure.
This poem is a gift to scholars and the African American community because Hammon has been heavily criticized for being an apologist, when in reality his anti-slavery pieces simply weren’t published. This poem doesn’t broach the topic of slavery per se, but it does pay tribute to a woman who was famous for her rebellion in favor of religious freedom and thought: Anne Hutchinson.
Can you tell us about Phebe Townsend, the woman who penned Hammon’s poem?
She was the youngest child of the Townsend household and was not a well-known member of the family. While her brother, Robert, was one of Washington’s greatest spies, who wrote letters to the general in invisible ink recounting troop movements around New York City, Phebe remained on Long Island during the American Revolution. In fact, she lived at home for almost her entire life. She certainly went against the grain, defying societal expectations. For example, Phebe didn’t marry until she was 45. Her husband was 26. Even after she was married, she continued signing documents with her maiden name. Although her family condemned her husband as a gold-digger, there’s no evidence that Phebe shared this opinion. Interestingly, she would have been only seven years old in 1770 when the poem was written. At that time, Hammon was 59, so there was a great age difference between them.
All of the Townsends, including Phebe, owned slaves, but only her brother Robert (the spy) ever expressed explicit anti-slavery sentiments. He joined John Jay’s manumission society in 1785, and in the decade that followed helped several slaves secure their freedom, including Hammon’s grand-nephew, Edward.
What do you hope will come from this discovery?
My hope is that those who previously dismissed Hammon will now re-evaluate his works. He was living under a highly restrictive environment as a slave, and we can only speculate how this affected his writing. Critics should remember this while examining the differences between his published and unpublished works. For Hammon to revere Anne Hutchinson, a woman who championed freedom of religion and thought, adds significantly to his legacy as the father of African American literature.
I feel sure that Hammon wrote many other poems over the course of his long life. I am hopeful that through this discovery, others will become more aware, and perhaps unearth more of his works that may be hiding in plain sight.