UTA duo uncover rare poem written by slave

Posted Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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ARLINGTON -- Though born into slavery in New York in 1711, Jupiter Hammon attended school and learned to read and write just as his master's young children did.

Hammon, known as a devout Christian, used those gifts later in life to write essays and poems promoting the end of slavery about a century before the Civil War began. A slave his entire life, Hammon is considered the first African-American writer to be published in what is now the United States.

More than 200 years after his death, one of Hammon's most impassioned writings about the sins of slavery will be published for the first time after being discovered by a student and her professor from the University of Texas at Arlington.

"We have so few documents written by slaves. You don't get that perspective in history very often," said Cedrick May, an associate English professor at UT Arlington. "This is a very important contribution to the historical narrative to help us understand our cultural heritage from that perspective," Mays said.

The handwritten poem, An Essay on Slavery, was discovered by May and doctoral student Julie McCown last year at Yale University's Manuscripts and Archives library.

As part of a class assignment on archival research for May, McCown was looking for a copy of another of Hammon's works when she stumbled across the never-before-printed manuscript, she said.

The poem, written in 1787, had been tucked away among 80 boxes of historical documents from the Lloyd and Hillhouse families, which Hammon had served, that had been donated to the New Haven, Conn., university archives years ago.

"Whoever cataloged this massive collection of papers, they didn't make anything out about it being a poem by Jupiter Hammon," McCown said. "The person archiving that collection didn't recognize its significance."

May said he initially believed that the writing might have been one of Hammon's known works, which include the 1786 writing titled "Address to the Negroes of the State of New York."

"When I saw the first two stanzas I thought this was a really great hoax or we were on to something that hadn't been seen before," May said.

The student and assistant professor then requested a high-resolution digital copy of the four-page, 25-stanza poem from Yale for further study.

After realizing what they had found, they spent a week visiting the archive library last year to search through boxes of documents for other works by the poet and essayist.

The poem is set to be printed in the June edition of the journal Early American Literature, which will also discuss McCown and May's research into its authenticity.

Hammon is known to have written three essays about abolition, and two of theM include a poem at the end "encapsulating the ideas of the essay," said May, who is writing a book on the poet. May said he believes that this poem, based on the date it was written, was intended to be included with Hammon's third published essay but may have been seen as too controversial to print at the time.

The poem includes the lines:

"Dark and dismal was the Day

when slavery began

All humble thoughts were put away

Then slaves were made by Man."

"In this poem, he is very explicitly saying slavery is a sin, that it was made by man and it's a bad thing," May said.

"I think his masters looked at the poem and thought it was too radical. Fortunately they didn't destroy it. They put it away, and it survived for us to see now."

Susan Schrock, 817-709-7578

Twitter: @susanschrock

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