Jupiter Hammon or a likeness.

It was almost inevitable with any discussion of our early American Black poets, such as Lucy Terry, that Jupiter Hammon would be mentioned. He was cited in the profile of Terry and certainly warrants his own moment on our pages, although less is known of his legacy and contributions.

We can say without fear of contradiction that Hammon was born Oct. 17, 1711, a year before the slave revolt of 1712 in New York City. Born in slavery at Lloyd Harbor on Long Island, not too far from Oyster Bay, he was the property of Henry Lloyd, who encouraged Hammon to attend school, mainly to acquire skills that would be useful in bookkeeping and helping to negotiate the Lloyd family’s business.

Along with these unpaid duties, Hammon came in contact with many of Lloyd’s friends and associates, who were deeply influenced by the Great Awakening, a major religious revival of the day, and thereby became a devout Christian. That religious conversion and experience resonates through his life and poetry, including his most famous poem, “An Evening

Thought, Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries.” In most instances, the poem includes facts of his life, noting that he was a slave in Queens Village and belonged to Lloyd. That poem or broadside was published on Christmas Day in 1760.

His second-most notable work did not appear until almost 20 years later. It was dedicated to Phillis Wheatley and entitled “An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley.” It is a collection of quatrains imbued with biblical references and honoring the prestige and legacy of Wheatley. In 1782, he published “A Poem for Children with Thoughts of Death.”

When Lloyd died in 1763, Hammon remained enslaved to his son, Joseph, with whom he moved to Connecticut. As a member of an enlightened African American community, Hammon was soon an outspoken abolitionist and later a participant in the Revolutionary War. It was during this period that his oratorical skills were enlisted by his colleagues, prompting him to deliver an inaugural speech in 1786, entitled “Address to the Negroes of the State of New York,” at the Spartan Project of the African Society.

Hammon’s articles appeared in several publications, including those of the New York Quakers and the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. For these contributions, he is often deemed one of the founders of early Black American literature. 

Like much of his life, we have no definite information about when and where Hammon died. He is believed to have died around 1806, and never really emancipated from slavery. It is speculated that his gravesite is somewhere in Caumsett State Historic Park Reserve on Long Island, once the property of the Lloyd family.

Here are a few passages from his address to Blacks in 1786, which was a speech of mixed messages, which must be read in its entirety to gather the full import. Even so, there are passages that must have appalled his fellow abolitionists by expending too much of liberation on the Christian faith.

“Now I acknowledge that liberty is a great thing, and worth seeking for, if we can get it honestly, and by our good conduct, prevail on our masters to set us free: 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, for many of us, who are grown up slaves, and have always had masters to take care of us, should hardly know how to take care of ourselves; and it may be more for our own comfort to remain as we are. … Liberty is a great thing we may know from our own feelings, and we may likewise Judge so from the conduct of the white-people, in the late war. How much money

has been spent, and how many lives have been lost, to defend their liberty. I must say that I have hoped that God would open their eyes, when they were so much engaged for liberty, to think of the state of the poor blacks, and to pity us. He has done it in some measure, and has raised us up many friends, for which we have reason to be thankful, and to hope in his mercy. What may be done further, he only knows, for known unto God are all his ways from the beginning. But this my dear brethren is by no means, the greatest thing we have to be concerned about. Getting our liberty in this world, is nothing to our having the liberty of the children of God. Now the Bible tells us that we are all by nature, sinners, that we are slaves to sin and Satan, and that unless we are converted, or born again, we must be miserable forever. Christ says, ‘Unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God, and all that do not see the kingdom of God, must be in the kingdom of darkness.’”

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