Celebrating Four Black Poets on Black Poetry Day

As the beauty of the day began to unfold with the morning sunrise, I recalled that today has been designated Black Poetry Day, a time to celebrate poets of color and their contribution to the diverse literary landscape of America and beyond. October 17 was selected since Jupiter Hammon, the first poet of African descent to publish a poem in America, was born October 17, 1711 in Long Island, New York.

Given the undeveloped and primitive conditions of the colonies, for any person to publish any literary work in colonial America in 1761 would be an extraordinary accomplishment, but for a slave to write as well as to have published a poem is nothing less than a miracle. Here is an excerpt:

An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penetential Cries

Salvation comes by Jesus Christ alone,
The only Son of God;
Redemption now to every one,
That love his holy Word.

Dear Jesus we would fly to Thee,
And leave off every Sin,
Thy Tender Mercy well agree;
Salvation from our King.

Salvation comes now from the Lord,
Our victorious King;
His holy Name be well ador’d,
Salvation surely bring.

Dear Jesus give thy Spirit now,
Thy Grace to every Nation,
That han’t the Lord to whom we bow,
The Author of Salvation.

Dear Jesus unto Thee we cry,
Give us the Preparation;
Turn not away thy tender Eye;
We seek thy true Salvation.

Clearly, Hammon in relating his salvation experience in poetry, offers an exuberant testimony of his close encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ. Given the metrical pattern of Hammon’s poetry all of which was written in hymn stanzas (think of the lyrics to “Amazing Grace,” and you will see the same pattern). Having closely studied Hammon’s poetry, I think that Hammon either “flat-out” sang his poetry as you would sing a hymn and/or he recited it with a passionate expression that is comparable to what we might think of today as a “rapper” or “spoken word” artist. The  intensity of his life-altering “salvation experience” so “rocked his world” that he couldn’t keep his feelings to himself. The words seemed to overflow, erupting into a passionate song of praise from the depths of the soul of this extraordinary poet. Since its publication the world has been blessed and refreshed and enlightened by his pioneering literary work, “An Evening Thought.”

On Black Poetry Day, 2017 we close with a tribute to Jupiter Hammon, the “Father of Black Poetry,” along with three other noted African American poets who have greatly influenced me. I recognize their contribution to my life, as I ask:

Did They See Me?

In tribute to Jupiter Hammon, Phillis Wheatley,
George Moses Horton, and Frances E.W. Harper

At night as he began to write
And looked to God on high,
Could he have known that one like he
Would read his works and be
Inspired by the same desire
To love God’s holy Word.
I read works by Brother Hammon
And wonder did he find
Any comfort and assurance
That his works would still be read
Three hundred years beyond his time:
And in his mind did he stretch forth
The hand of fellowship
To greet a man of kindred mind
Eons beyond his time?

I read works by Jupiter Hammon
and wonder did he see me?

A fragile gentlewoman, did she know
The enduring value her words would show?
When she lifted her eyes toward open skies
And posed with quill, did she realize
The power of her words to kindle fire,
To enlighten souls to marvel and admire?
Did she muse on those who were yet to sing
And seek to leave a lamp for her offspring?
Surely she knew death could not entomb
Seeds bearing fruit beyond the barren womb.

I read works of Phillis Wheatley
and wonder did she see me?

Did he soar far beyond his time
To reach a place of tranquil clime
To gain a grander view?
Beyond that place could he foresee
A man like him who would be free,
The poet’s calling to pursue?
Did he invite a distant friend
To flee together and ascend,
To join him in his cherished flight,
Leaving behind the chains of night
To soar into the poet’s world,
To uncover and unfurl
The naked genius of his soul?

I read works of George Moses Horton
and wonder did he see me?

When she made songs for her people
Did she have me in mind?
One who would join the chorus
In years beyond her time?
Though she left no sons behind,
Her poems continue to remind
Those who read and heed the message
That justice speaks to every age.
When she made her songs, did she feel
Kindred to come would share her zeal?
Did she know such songs would stir my heart
With the wisdom they impart?

I read works of Mrs. Harper
and wonder did she see me.

Through an infinity of mirrors
I look back and ask
did they look ahead;
I look ahead and ask
will others look back
and be inspired by
the self-same fire;
will they marvel as I,
marvel at the power
of the printed word,
the power of a single light,
like a cloven tongue of fire,
to shatter the darkest night.

I read their works and wonder did they see me?

We conclude with John Michael MacDonald reading “An Evening Thought”

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