I only just discovered that this was Black Poetry Day. I saw it on the calendar, and was excited to find that it falls during the week when my class is focusing on poetry. For a subject I consider my weakest, I’m learning quite a lot about poetry, including from my book club facilitator who is a poet and who I’ve included in my class notes.
Black Poetry Day is official in New York State, thanks to adopted resolutions in the state Assembly and Senate and Governor Kathy Hochul. Now that these digressions are out of the way, let me tell you about the origins of Black Poetry Day.
It was created in 1985 as a commemoration to African-Americans and in celebration of their literary works and contribution Black poets hae made to our culture in America. The date of October 17 was chosen to honor to honor the birthday of Jupiter Hammon, considered to be the first published Black poet.
Jupiter Hammon was born on Long Island in New York on the Lloyd Manor. He was enslaved his whole life, serving several generations of the Lloyd family. However, unlike many enslaved peoples at that time, he was allowed to receive an education, and so he read and wrote. When he was fifty, he published his first poem, An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries.
He was a preacher and a clerk and as an evangelist, he wrote about slavery and the Gospel, eventually using his gifts to criticize slavery. He did this safely through layering his writings with metaphors and symbolism.
He was a great admirer of Phillis Wheatley, viewed to be the first female Black author. He wrote a poem to her in the hopes she would follow a Christian journey. It consists of twenty-one rhyming quatrains and included related Bible verses.
At 76, and still enslaved, he addressed the African Society in New York City with his Address to Negroes of the State of New York. This work has been reprinted by many abolitionist groups including the New York Quakers. In it he talks about keeping high moral standards, and since “being slaves on Earth had already secured their place in heaven.”
He is thought to be buried in an unmarked grave on the Lloyd family property.