Black Poetry Day: A dual celebration

This photo copy shows the first poem published in 1761 by Jupiter Hammon, the Father of Black Poetry.

Today’s blog post spotlights a special celebration. Although not recognized as a national holiday, October 17 is designated as Black Poetry Day. During this time we celebrate poets of African American heritage and their contribution to the literary landscape of the nation and of the world. Why was this particular day selected for the celebration? For the answer we go back to the America’s literary beginnings and the “Father of Black Poetry.”

Jupiter Hammon, the first person of African descent to publish a poem in colonial America, was born October 17, 1711. Publishing a literary work of any kind during this period was a remarkable accomplishment for anyone, but for a man born into slavery, writing and publishing “An Evening Thought” in 1761 was nothing short of a miracle.

Born on the estate of merchant Henry Lloyd of Oyster Bay, NY, Hammon was believed to have been a lay minister. As a devout Christian, he expressed his religious convictions in all of his poetry and prose. In addition to An Evening Thought, 1761, his works include “An Essay on the Ten Virgins,” 1779; “A Winter Piece,” 1782; “An Evening’s Improvement,” 1783; “An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York,” 1787. In 2013 a University of Texas at Arlington English professor, Cedric May, and his doctoral student, Julie McGowan, located an unpublished poem, “An Essay on Slavery,” handwritten by Hammon around 1786.

Some believe that Hammon may have had a powerful conversion experience during the Great Awakening, the religious revival of the mid 1700s, as he hammers out the word “salvation” more than twenty times throughout this first poem, “An Evening Thought.” Written in hymn stanzas or common meter, the same metrical pattern as many of the hymns of John and Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts from the same period, the structure of the poem leads some to speculate that Hammon’s poetry may have been set to music.

Black Poetry Day was first proposed in 1970 by Stanley A. Ransom. As author of America’s First Negro Poet: The Complete Works of Jupiter Hammon, Ransom has sought to bring wider recognition to Hammon and his works. Professor Ransom was among the scholars cited in my dissertation which examined the poetry of Hammon and three other black poets: Phillis Wheatley, George Moses Horton, and Frances E.W. Harper. Indeed, the poetry of Jupiter Hammon has profoundly influenced me as a practicing poet whose literary style also mirrors an attraction to the Bible for inspiration.

Black Poetry Day 2018 also marks a dual celebration as a “doubly lovely day” since I submitted the final approval for the release of my new book Embracing Your Life Sentence: How to Turn Life’s Greatest Tragedies into Your Greatest Triumphs. I share my response to a diagnosis of prostate cancer as I developed a holistic battle plan, weaving original poetry and Scripture to show how to I emerged, not just as a survivor but more than a conqueror. Here is one of the poems from the book revealing Hammon’s influence:

Watching, Waiting, Seeking

“Wait on the LORD; be of good courage,
and He shall strengthen your heart;
wait, I say, on the LORD!”
—Psalm 27:14

Reassured once more we will not be left behind,
But with patience we must still learn to watch and wait.
We look into the mirror of God’s word and find
Our God has ever been faithful and never late.
We trust in the Lord, as the Word of God extols.
Like Job we wait until at last our change shall come,
Assured that in patience we now anchor our souls.
May we not faint and fall by the wayside as some
But follow in Christ’s steps, as we quickly obey
And bear up under and yield fruit of endurance.
We must walk in God’s love, the more excellent way
And through faith and patience claim our inheritance.
In these perilous times we remain yielded and still,
Watching, waiting, seeking to fulfill all of God’s will.

In celebration of Black Poetry Day and the poetry of Jupiter Hammon, we close with a rendering of “I Love the Lord” arranged by Richard Smallwood. The original composition  was written by Isaac Watts in hymn stanzas, the same metrical pattern used by Hammon in all of his poetry. While living on the Lloyd estate, Hammon had access to the family library which contained a collection of Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs by Dr. Watts, the “Father of Hymnody,” revealing a possible influence on the poetry of Hammon:

For more details about Embracing Your Life Sentence and its publication, stay tuned to Dr. J’s Apothecary Shoppe and see https://www.lonnelledwardjohnson.com/

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