Early African-American Poets

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How did African-Americans establish a distinct literary tradition?

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Early African-American Poets: Phillis Wheatley, Jupiter Hammon, George Moses Horton, and Lucy Terry Prince. Phillis Wheatley image Stock Montage/Getty Images/All others Public Domain

Civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell pronounced that Paul Laurence Dunbar was “the poet laureate of the Negro race,” at the height of his fame as a critically acclaimed poet. Dunbar explored themes such as identity, love, heritage and injustice in his poems, which were all published during the Jim Crow Era.

Dunbar, however, was not the first African-American poet.

The African-American literary canon actually began during colonial America.

The earliest known African-American to recite a poem was a 16-year-old named Lucy Terry Prince in 1746. Although her poem was not published for another 109 years, more poets followed.

So who were these poets? What themes did they explore in their poetry? How did these poets held lay the foundation for the African-American literary tradition? 

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Lucy Terry Prince: Recited Earliest Poem by an African-American

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Lucy Terry. Public Domain

When Lucy Terry Prince died in 1821, her obituary read, “the fluency of her speech captivated all around her.”  Throughout Prince’s life, she used the power of her voice to retell stories and defend the rights of her family and their property.

In 1746, Prince witnessed two white families attacked by Native Americans. The fight took place in Deerfield, Mass. Known as “The Bars.” This poem is considered the earliest poem by an African-American. It was told orally until it was published in 1855 by Josiah Gilbert Holland in History of Western Massachusetts

Born in Africa, Prince was stolen and sold into slavery in Massachusetts to Ebenezer Wells. She was named Lucy Terry.  Prince was baptized during the Great Awakening and at the age of 20, she was considered a Christian.

Ten years after Prince recited "Bars Fight," she married her husband, Abijah Prince. A wealthy and free African-American man, he purchased Prince’s freedom, and the couple moved to Vermont where they had six children. 

03
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Jupiter Hammon: First African-American to Publish a Literary Text

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Jupiter Hammon. Public Domain

Considered one of the founders of African-American literature, Jupiter Hammon was a poet who would become the first African-American to publish his work in the United States.

Hammon was born enslaved in 1711. Although never freed, Hammon was taught to read and write. In 1760, Hammon published his first poem, “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries” in 1761. Throughout Hammons life, he published several poems and sermons.

Although Hammon never gained freedom, he did believe in the freedom of others. During the Revolutionary War, Hammon was a member of organizations such as the African Society of New York City. In 1786, Hammon even presented “Address to the Negroes of the State of New York.” In his speech, Hammon said, “If we should ever get to Heaven we shall find nobody to reproach us for being black, or for being slaves.” Hammon’s address was printed several times by abolitionist groups such as the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. 

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Phillis Wheatley: First African-American Woman to Publish a Collection of Poetry

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Phillis Wheatley. Public Domain

When Phillis Wheatley published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773, she became the second African-American and the first African-American woman to publish a collection of poetry.

Born in Senegambia around 1753, Wheatley was stolen and bought to the Boston at the age of seven. Purchased by the Wheatley family, she was taught to read and write. When the family realized Wheatley’s talent as a writer, they encouraged her to write poetry.

Wheatly received praise of men such as George Washington and fellow African-American poet, Jupiter Hammon, her fame spread throughout the American colonies and England.

Following the death of her owner, John Wheatley, Phillis was freed from enslavement. Soon after, she married John Peters. The couple had three children yet all died as infants. And by 1784, Wheatley was also ill and died.  

05
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George Moses Horton: First African-American to Publish Poetry in the South

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George Moses Horton. Public Domain

In 1828, George Moses Horton made history: he became the first African-American to publish poetry in the South.

Born in 1797 on William Horton’s plantation in Northampton County, NC, he was moved to a tobacco farm at an early age. Throughout his childhood, Horton was drawn to lyrics and began composing poems.

While working for what is now the University of Chapel Hill, Horton began composing and reciting poems for college students who paid Horton.

By 1829, Horton was publishing his first collection of poetry, The Hope of Liberty. By 1832, Horton had learned to write with the assistance of a professor’s wife.

In 1845, Horton published his second collection of poetry, The Poetical Works of George M. Horton, The Colored Bard of North Carolina, To Which is Prefixed the Life of the Author, Written by Himself.

Writing antislavery poetry, Horton gained the admiration of abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison. He remained enslaved until 1865.

At the age of 68, Horton relocated to Philadelphia where he published his poems in various publications. 

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Lewis, Femi. "Early African-American Poets." ThoughtCo, Feb. 4, 2017, thoughtco.com/early-african-american-poets-45318. Lewis, Femi. (2017, February 4). Early African-American Poets. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/early-african-american-poets-45318 Lewis, Femi. "Early African-American Poets." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/early-african-american-poets-45318 (accessed November 22, 2017).