REFLECTION ON EARLY EXPRESSIONS OF BLACK POETRY
by ANNIE NELSON on April 24, 2015
Early movements within Black poetry had roots and examples in the Black literary tradition, as well as roots from outside the Black literary tradition. So what is Black poetry? Donald B. Gibson, editor of Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays (1973), suggests that "there are no terms or categories which will specifically distinguish the writing of Black poets from that of others."
Black poetry refers to poems written by African Americans in the United States of America. It is a sub-section of African-American literature filled with cadence, intentional repetition, and alliteration. African-American poetry predates the written word and is linked to a rich oral tradition. Black poetry draws its inspiration from musical traditions such as gospel, blues, jazz, and rap. Black poems are inextricably linked to the experience of African Americans through their history in America, from slavery to segregation and the Civil Rights Movement.
African-American poets as early as the American Revolution wrote verse reflective of the time in which they lived. The earliest known Black American poets: Jupiter Hammon (1711 - 1800), Lucy Terry Prince (1730 - 1821), and Phillis Wheatley (1753 - 1784) constructed their poems on contemporary models. Lucy Terry wrote a brief narrative poem describing an Indian raid, a poem important not so much for its esthetics as for its historical importance. The poem, "Bar Fight," was written in 1746 or thereabouts and not published until 1855 and is the first poem known to have been written by a Black poet.
John Hammond, a Long Island slave, wrote poems primarily of a religious, moral character. He was conservative in his thinking and devoted to early Methodist piety; his poems were intended to be moral guides. His form was not considered original in style or content. Hammon, the first African American to publish a poem, "An Evening Thought" (1761), longed for salvation from this world. The poem is based on a Methodist hymn, and in its construction echoes hundreds of other such similar works. Phillis Wheatley was drawn (same as Hammon) by the revolutionary fervor for liberty that culminated in the American Revolution. She wrote poems that reflected on her comfortable and privileged status as an educated slave. Her poems, as well as Hammon's verse, are about the issues of religious devotedness, patriotism, and liberation, which did not address moral issues of slavery and universal equality.
Wheatley's first published poem appeared in 1770, and her first volume of verse, the first to be published by an African-American writer, appeared in 1773 and was titled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. It was written just two years before the American Revolution. Wheatley was taken to court soon after publishing her poems in order to prove a Black person was capable of writing such refined poems. My research suggests and confirmed by literary scholars that Wheatley made little allusion to race in her poems, and when she did, such references were few. Her own rebukes of slavery are preserved only in her personal letters. In fact, reading Wheatley's poems would not have revealed her racial identity.