This week’s readings launched us into the Black literature of the 18th Century with writers Britton Hammon, Jupiter Hammon (no known relation), and Phillis Wheatley, all from the book Unchained Voices. I’ve heard of moth of these writers and even remember studying a bit of Phyllis Wheatley’s work. Interestingly enough, it was Britton Hammon’s 5-page tale that most stood out.
For one thing, I’m fairly certain I’ve read this before; the story was a familiar one, with it’s harrowing situations, daring escapes, and desperate drama. Perhaps the tale was mirrored by another adventure story, but I actually think I read this in high school. In light of the article from this week, I couldn’t help but think of this story as a chose-your-own-adventure hypertext. I am temped to go ahead and make a website myself; it would be good for English classes and the story is really interesting!
You and your fellow crewmembers have been drifting as sea for weeks when you sight land! Sadly, there are not enough seats in the boats to take everyone to shore at once. They are going to take two boats ashore and send one back for the Captain and the rest of the crew. Do you head for shore or stay with the Captain?
Then, if you chose “Stay with the Captain,” the text would read”
Too bad. This is Indian territory, and most of the landing party was captured and killed by natives in longboats. Now they are following the remaining boat back to you! You and the Captain arm yourselves and start shooting, but it’s too late. The Indians swarm on deck, killing the Captain with one well-placed tomahawk blow. And now he’s coming for you.
Then you have two choices: accept your death and end the game or go back a page and change your answer.
The rest of Hammon’s account contains equally thrilling tales: capture by Indians, ransom, impressment, imprisonment, slavery, escape attempts, and, if you play the game right, being reunited with a beloved employer thirteen years from the fateful first voyage!
The other readings were slightly less dramatic, but instead quite enlightening and poetic.
Jupiter Hammon was the first published black poet in the United States; his work was first printed in 1761. Hammon wrote poems and sermons and letters, and though remembers as a great poet and a founder of African American literature, Hammon spent his life as a slave.
In this week’s reading, Hammon’s deep faith stuck out to me. Though he lived without earthly freedom, he cried out to Jesus, seeking salvation in him rather than from man, and seeking freedom from sin rather than from slavery’s embrace. His reverent faith coupled with an apparently passive view of his own slavery (and thankfulness for Phillis Wheatley having been captured from Africa and enslaved so that she might come to know Jesus) sent me searching for more about Hammon. Simple sourced like Poem Hunter attributed Hammon’s lack of anti-slavery rhetoric to shrewdness, citing the “Hammon Address” by saying “Black people should maintain their high moral standards precisely because being slaves on Earth had already secured their place in heaven.” Hammon also apparently suppoted gradual emancipation, perhaps knowing it was more likely and more palatable to the white men in power. An NBC article revealed a discovery Dr. May talked about in class: how a UTA student working under him found a previously undiscovered poem by Hammon that pointed to a rather different ideology, stating slavery as a manmade evil rather than the will of God. Hammon’s address to Phyllis Wheatley does show a man to whom eternal salvations matters much more than earthly states of being, but the evidence that such a learned and devote man saw the evils of slavery eased my own heart on the matter.
Phillis’ poems were probably my favorite readings for this week. Although we didn’t get to see her reply to Hammon, I also love Wheatley’s literature story (found in the Appendix). Wheatley’s mistress, Susanna Wheatley, encouraged Phillis to become literate, and then helped the girl pursue and eventually achieve publication, although they had to go to London to do so, which gave Wheatley a Transatlantic reputation and led to the poetess’ freedom, “at the desire of my friends in England.” Wheatley’s tale ends sadly though; she was unable to publish a second volume of poems and died in poverty, buried in an unmarked grave with her youngest child, barely more than 30 years old.
Wheatley published her poems when she was only 17, and her youthful enthusiasm shines through all the learned allusions and elegant lines. Her poetry captured me more than Hammon’s did, and it seemed more complex and yet easier to understand. Wheatley also addressed slavery in her poems, specifically in “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” She praises God for saving her soul, but admonished Christians to not view the blacks with “scornful eye” and reminds them “Negroes, black as Cain, May be refin’d, and join th’angelic train.” She rebukes the whites’ superiority, even if she does not outright say “Slavery is wrong.”
My favorite poem was “On Imagination,” which actually reminded me of my own seventeen-year-old-self’s attempt at poetry, with a piece titled “An Ode Upon Imagination.” I do have to say, Wheatley has a much more compelling command of language than myself at that age, though.