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Early Black American Writers

Early Black American Writers

by Benjamin Brawley (Editor)

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Everyone is familiar with the rhetoric of reform and humanism, written by whites, which did much to inflame the nation to the point of civil war. Who spoke for the black man during this crucial period of his history? How did he see the issues which bore so directly on himself and his race — present and future? How did he feel about them?
In this anthology


Everyone is familiar with the rhetoric of reform and humanism, written by whites, which did much to inflame the nation to the point of civil war. Who spoke for the black man during this crucial period of his history? How did he see the issues which bore so directly on himself and his race — present and future? How did he feel about them?
In this anthology, the black man speaks for himself. Beginning with the earliest published work of a black American, selections in this volume cover the period from 1761 through the Civil War years. Varying greatly in education and technical skill, from self-taught slave to college-trained scholar, the writers in this collection did much to shape the developing culture of black America. Professor Brawley prefaces each selection with a biographical account of its author, and with sympathetic but objective critical analysis of the work presented. His introduction gives a valuable overview of black literature in this early period, telling the reader who black writers were and describing the issues — political, social, and moral — that concerned them.
Included are selections from the work of Jupiter Hammon, Gustavus Vassa, Phillis Wheatley, W. W. Brown, F. E. W. Harper, and many others as yet less known. Whether writing about religion, slavery, military service, voting rights, or the colonization of Liberia, these writers merit attention on both artistic and historical grounds. Brawley's historical and literary insights guide readers to a full appreciation of these works. A lamentable gap in knowledge of the black experience is filled by this anthology; it should be read by all students of history and literature.

Product Details

Dover Publications
Publication date:
Black Rediscovery Series
Product dimensions:
5.36(w) x 8.44(h) x 0.63(d)

Read an Excerpt

Early Black American Writers

Selections with Biographical and Critical Introductions

By Benjamin Brawley

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1992 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14463-4



JUPITER HAMMON seems to have been born between 1720 and 1730, and to have died soon after 1800; but there is no definite evidence on either point. He was first owned by Henry Lloyd, who lived on Long Island. On the death of this master in 1763, Hammon went with the portion of the estate that fell to Joseph, one of four sons. When Joseph Lloyd died in the course of the Revolutionary War, he passed into the service of John Lloyd, Jr., a grandson; and he was with the family in Hartford, Conn., while the British were in possession of Long Island. He was a dutiful servant, so highly esteemed by the Lloyds that they assisted him in placing his verses before the public.

Hammon grew into manhood in the years when the Wesleyan revival was making itself felt in England and America, and he was strongly influenced by the evangelical hymns of Charles Wesley, John Newton, and William Cowper. Early in 1761 was printed as a broadside in New York "An Evening Thought. Salvation by Christ, with Penetential Cries: Composed by Jupiter Hammon, a Negro belonging to Mr. Lloyd, of Queen's Village, on Long Island, the 25th of December, 1760." This was the first composition by a Negro printed within the present limits of the United States. The second production was "An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatly," dated Hartford, August 4, 1778. This consisted of twenty-one four-line stanzas and was also in broadsheet form. Then appeared "An Essay on the Ten Virgins" (1779), of which no copy seems to have been preserved, and "A Winter Piece" (Hartford, 1782). This latter production was for the most part a sermon in prose, but on the last two pages was "A Poem for Children, with Thoughts on Death." "An Evening's Improvement," written toward the close of the war, has special autobiographical interest, containing a poetical dialogue entitled "The Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant."

Somewhat apart from Hammon's other efforts is a prose production, "An Address to the Negroes of the State of New York," originally presented to the members of the African Society in the City of New York September 24, 1786, and printed early in 1787. This shows the writer as feeling it his personal duty to bear slavery with patience, but as strongly opposed to the system and as urging that young Negroes be manumitted. Hammon had to receive editorial assistance before the Address could be issued, but the style is evidently his own. There was an immediate reprinting in Philadelphia by order of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and there was a third edition after the author's death. Because of his personal submission to slavery and his generally conciliatory attitude, Hammon was not quite in line with such independent and aggressive Negro leaders as Richard Allen and Prince Hall, who were already on the scene; and he passed into oblivion when he died. Only within recent years has there been a revival of interest in his achievement. It is worth while to note, however, that in his will dated 1795 John Lloyd, Jr., ordered that certain of his slaves be set free on arriving at the age of twenty-eight; and the Address doubtless had something to do with the fact that in 1799 the state of New York took formal action looking toward the gradual emancipation of all slaves within her borders.

One who reads Hammon to-day must remember that he was a slave working without the advantage of formal education and basing his rhythm on the strongly accented measures of the hymns that he heard. Only thus can allowance be made for the faulty syntax, the forced rhymes, and the strained metrical effects to be found in his work. He was content to express his pious musing in such forms as he knew, and he at least has the virtue of earnestness. The authoritative edition is Jupiter Hammon, American Negro Poet; Selections from his writings and a bibliography, by Oscar Wegelin. Printed for Charles Fred Heartman, New York, 1915. As was said in the Preface, we are indebted to Mr. Heartman for permission to print the two poems given below.


    Salvation comes by 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.

    Salvation comes from God we know,
    The true and only One;
    It's well agreed and certain true,
    He gave his only Son.

    Lord, hear our penetential Cry:
    Salvation from above;
    It is the Lord that doth supply,
    With his Redeeming Love.

    Dear Jesus, by thy precious Blood,
    The World Redemption have:
    Salvation now comes from the Lord,
    He being thy captive slave.

    Dear Jesus, let the Nations cry,
    And all the People say,
    Salvation comes from Christ on high,
    Haste on Tribunal Day.

    We cry as Sinners to the Lord,
    Salvation to obtain;
    It is firmly fixt his holy Word,
    Ye shall not cry in vain.

    Dear Jesus, unto Thee we cry,
    And make our Lamentation:
    O let our Prayers ascend on high;
    We felt thy Salvation.

    Lord, turn our dark benighted Souls;
    Give us a true Motion,
    And let the Hearts of all the World,
    Make Christ their Salvation.

    Ten Thousand Angels cry to Thee,
    Yea, louder than the Ocean.
    Thou art the Lord, we plainly see;
    Thou art the true Salvation.

    Now is the Day, excepted Time;
    The Day of Salvation;
    Increase your Faith, do not repine:
    Awake ye, every Nation.

    Lord, unto whom now shall we go,
    Or seek a safe Abode?
    Thou hast the Word Salvation Too,
    The only Son of God.

    Ho! every one that hunger hath,
    Or pineth after me,
    Salvation be thy leading Staff,
    To set the Sinner free.

    Dear Jesus, unto Thee we fly;
    Depart, depart from Sin,
    Salvation doth at length supply,
    The Glory of our King.

    Come, ye Blessed of the Lord,
    Salvation greatly given;
    O turn your Hearts, accept the Word,
    Your Souls are fit for Heaven.

    Dear Jesus, we now turn to Thee,
    Salvation to obtain;
    Our Hearts and Souls do meet again,
    To magnify thy Name.

    Come, holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove,
    The Object of our Care;
    Salvation doth increase our Love;
    Our Hearts hath felt thy fear.

    Now Glory be to God on High,
    Salvation high and low;
    And thus the Soul on Christ rely,
    To Heaven surely go.

    Come, Blessed Jesus, Heavenly Dove,
    Accept Repentance here;
    Salvation give, with tender Love;
    Let us with Angels share. Finis.


    Come my servant, follow me,
    According to thy place;
    And surely God will be with thee,
    And send thee heav'nly grace.

    Dear Master, I will follow thee,
    According to thy word,
    And pray that God may be with me,
    And save thee in the Lord.

    My Servant, lovely is the Lord,
    And blest those servants be,
    That truly love his holy word,
    And thus will follow me.

    Dear Master, that's my whole delight,
    Thy pleasure for to do;
    As far as grace and truth's in sight,
    Thus far I'll surely go.

    My Servant, grace proceeds from God,
    And truth should be with thee;
    Whence e'er you find it in his word,
    Thus far come follow me.

    Dear Master, now without controul,
    I quickly follow thee;
    And pray that God would bless thy soul,
    His heav'nly place to see.

    My Servant, Heaven is high above,
    Yea, higher than the sky:
    I pray that God would grant his love,
    Come follow me thereby.

    Dear Master, now I'll follow thee,
    And trust upon the Lord;
    The only safety that I see,
    Is Jesus' holy word.

    My Servant, follow Jesus now,
    Our great victorious King;
    Who governs all both high and low,
    And searches things within.

    Dear Master, I will follow thee,
    When praying to our King;
    It is the Lamb I plainly see,
    Invites the sinner in.

    My Servant, we are sinners all,
    But follow after grace;
    I pray that God would bless thy soul,
    And fill thy heart with grace.

    Dear Master, I shall follow then,
    The voice of my great King;
    As standing on some distant land,
    Inviting sinners in.

    My servant, we must all appear,
    And follow then our King;
    For sure he'll stand where sinners are,
    To take true converts in.

    Dear Master, now if Jesus calls,
    And sends his summons in;
    We'll follow saints and angels all,
    And come unto our King.

    My servant, now come pray to God,
    Consider well his call;
    Strive to obey his holy word,
    That Christ may love us all.

    A Line on the Present War.

    Dear Master, now it is a time,
    A time of great distress;
    We'll follow after things divine,
    And pray for happiness.

    Then will the happy day appear,
    That virtue shall increase;
    Lay up the sword and drop the spear,
    And Nations seek for peace.

    Then shall we see the happy end,
    Tho' still in some distress;
    That distant foes shall act like friends,
    And leave their wickedness.

    We pray that God would give us grace,
    And make us humble too;
    Let ev'ry Nation seek for peace,
    And virtue make a show.

    Then we shall see the happy day,
    That virtue is in power;
    Each holy act shall have its sway,
    Extend from shore to shore.

    This is the work of God's own hand,
    We see by precepts given;
    To relieve distress and save the land,
    Must be the pow'r of heav'n.

    Now glory be unto our God,
    Let ev'ry nation sing;
    Strive to obey his holy word,
    That Christ may take them in.

    Where endless joys shall never cease,
    Blest Angels constant sing;
    The glory of their God increase,
    Hallelujahs to their King.

    Thus the Dialogue shall end,
    Strive to obey the word;
    When ev'ry Nation acts like friends,
    Shall be the sons of God.

    Believe me now, my Christian friends,
    Believe your friend call'd Hammon:
    You cannot to your God attend,
    And serve the God of Mammon.

    If God is pleased by his own hand
    To relieve distresses here;
    And grant a peace throughout the land,
    'Twill be a happy year.

    'Tis God alone can give us peace;
    It's not the pow'r of man:
    When virtuous pow'r shall increase,
    'Twill beautify the land.

    Then shall we rejoice and sing
    By pow'r of virtue's word,
    Come, sweet Jesus, heav'nly King,
    Thou art the Son of God.

    When virtue comes in bright array,
    Discovers ev'ry sin;
    We see the dangers of the day,
    And fly unto our King.

    Now glory be unto our God,
    All praise be justly given;
    Let ev'ry soul obey his word,
    And seek the joy of heav'n. Finis.



PHILLIS WHEATLEY was born very probably in 1753. She was first seen in America as a delicate little girl on a slave ship that came from Senegal to Boston in 1761. Mrs. Susannah Wheatley, wife of John Wheatley, a tailor, desired to have a girl whom she might train to be a special servant for her declining years, and she was attracted by the bright eye and the gentle demeanor of the child that had just come from Africa. The young slave was purchased, taken home, and given the name Phillis. When she began to be known to the world she used also the name of the family to which she belonged.

Mrs. Wheatley was a woman of unusual piety and culture, and King Street on which she lived was then as noted for its residences as it is now, under the name of State Street, famous for its banking houses. When Phillis entered the home the family consisted of four persons, Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley, their son Nathaniel, and their daughter Mary. Nathaniel and Mary were twins, born May 4, 1743. There were three other children, Sarah, John, and Susannah, but all of these died in early youth. Mary Wheatley accordingly was the only daughter of the family that Phillis knew to any extent, and she was eighteen years old when her mother brought the child to the house. Observing the ease with which the young attendant assimilated knowledge, Mrs. Wheatley and her daughter began to teach her, giving special attention to instruction in the Scriptures and in morals. Within sixteen months from the time of her arrival in Boston Phillis was able to read fluently the most difficult parts of the Bible, and in course of time, thanks to the tutelage of Mary Wheatley, her learning consisted of a little astronomy, some ancient and modern geography, a little ancient history, and an appreciative acquaintance with the most important Latin classics. Pope's translation of Homer was her favorite English classic, and before long she too began to make verses. More and more she came to be regarded by Mrs. Wheatley as a daughter or companion rather than as a slave; and, as she proved to have a talent for writing occasional verse, she became "a kind of poet-laureate in the domestic circles of Boston." In her room she was specially permitted to have heat and a light, because her constitution was delicate, and in order that she might write down her thoughts as they came to her rather than trust them to memory.

Such for some years was the life of Phillis Wheatley. In 1770 appeared the first of her productions to be seen in print, "A Poem, by Phillis, a Negro Girl, in Boston, On the Death of the Reverend George Whitefield." This was addressed to the Countess of Huntingdon, whom Whitefield had served as chaplain, and to the orphan children of Georgia whom he had befriended. Early in the next year came to the young writer her first real sorrow; on January 31 Mary Wheatley left the old home to become the wife of the Reverend John Lathrop, pastor of the Second Church in Boston. On August 18 of this year, 1771, "Phillis, the servant of Mr. Wheatley" became a communicant of the Old South Meeting House, it being said later that "her membership in Old South was an exception to the rule that slaves were not baptized into the church." Meanwhile her health began to fail, and by the spring of 1773 her condition was such as to give her friends genuine concern. The family physician advised that she try the air of the sea. As Nathaniel Wheatley was just then going to England on business, it was decided that she should go in his care. The two sailed in May. Not desiring to have her young friend appear in England as a slave, however, Mrs. Wheatley saw to it that before she left she was formally manumitted.

The poem on Whitefield served well as an introduction to the Countess of Huntingdon. Through the influence of this noblewoman the young author met other ladies, and now it was that a peculiar gift of hers shone to advantage. To the recommendations of a strange history, ability to write verses, and the solicitude of friends, she added the art of brilliant conversation. Presents were showered upon her. One that has been preserved is a copy of the 1770 Glasgow folio edition of Paradist Lost, given by Brook Watson, Lord Mayor of London. It happened, however, that the young visitor had not arrived at the most fashionable season, and the ladies of the circle of the Countess of Huntingdon desired that she remain long enough to be presented at the court of George III. Mrs. Wheatley, however, had become ill; she longed for her old companion; and Phillis could not be persuaded to delay her return. Before she left England, however, arrangements were made for the publication of her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. While the little volume does not of course contain the later scattered poems, it is the only collection ever brought together by Phillis Wheatley, and the book by which she is known.

In 1775, while the siege of Boston was in progress, the young author wrote a letter to General George Washington enclosing a complimentary poem. Washington replied graciously and later received her very courteously at his headquarters in Cambridge. This was an event not soon to be forgotten. In general, however, it may be said that the visit to England marked the highest point in the career of Phillis Wheatley, and that after it her piety and faith were put to their severest test. Mrs. Wheatley died in March, 1774, and the old home was finally broken up by the death of Mr. John Wheatley in March, 1778. In September of the latter year Mary Wheatley, Mrs. Lathrop, also died. Nathaniel was living abroad. Meanwhile, in April, Phillis was persuaded to become the wife of John Peters, whom she described in a letter to a friend as "a very clever man, complaisant and agreeable." It was not long, however, before she realized that she was married to a ne'er-do-well at a time when even an industrious man found it hard to make a living. Failing health, increasing poverty, and the course of the war made her more and more uncertain as to the future, and she finally earned her board by drudgery in a cheap lodging-house. She died December 5, 1784. Two of her three children had died before her, and the third slept with its mother in death.


Excerpted from Early Black American Writers by Benjamin Brawley. Copyright © 1992 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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