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This Juneteenth, A Newly Uncovered Poem On Slavery, By A Slave

Yale University Library.
Jupiter Hammon, an 18th century slave, wrote "An Essay on Slavery" in 1786. UT Arlington professor, Cedrick May and graduate student Julie McCown discovered the poem boxed away at the Manuscripts and Archives at Yale University Library.

There’s a brand new poem to add to Juneteenthcelebrations this year. It’s a previously unknown work by the country’s first published black writer, Jupiter Hammon. UT Arlington grad student Julie McCown, uncovered the handwritten poem while looking for a specific piece of Hammon’s work. The piece, called “An Essay on Slavery," was buried in documents at the Manuscripts and Archives at Yale University Library in Connecticut.

Jupiter Hammon was born a slave in 1711 and worked his entire life for the Lloyd family of Queens on Long Island, New York. Hammon, who was allowed to attend school and a devout Christian, had his first poem published  on Christmas of 1760: “An Evening Thought. Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries.”  He would go on to write a handful of poems and essays, his most well-known "Address to the Negroes of the State of New York", had this famous line: "If we should ever get to Heaven, we shall find nobody to reproach us for being black, or for being slaves." 

The newly uncovered work by Hammon, “An Essay on Slavery." is a “game-changer” according to Professor Cedric May, an expert on African-American literature and associate professor of English at the University of Texas, Arlington. In an interview with NPR’s Michelle Martin, May said in this poem Hammondefines slavery as a sin for the first time.

“And that's a real big issue at this point, because theologically speaking, there had been a lot of talk about the compatibility of slavery with Christianity in the colonies, and now he's defying that idea.”

The poem, May says, is also the only only handwritten draft of  Hammon's work.

"We can see mark-outs and corrections, and fortunately we can actually see many of the original words he used while he was composing this poem," May says.

The full poem An Essay on Slavery," will be published this month in the journalEarly American Literature.

You can listen to Professor May read the entire poem here: 

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.