Language and Literature in the African American Imagination

By Carol Aisha Blackshire-Belay | Go to book overview

8
Dilemma of the Dutiful Servant:
The Poetry of Jupiter Hammon

Lonnell E. Johnson

Since the First Century when Paul wrote of the paradox of freedom and servitude, Christians have been continually striving to understand the oxymoronic relationship of enslavement and freedom expressed in the Epistle to the Corinthians: "For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord's freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ's servant (I Corinthians 7:22)." In 1520 in a tract "On the Freedom of a Christian Man," Martin Luther ( 1957:7) wrestles with the paradox of freedom in Christian service, whereby he declares: "A Christian man is free lord over all . . . [yet] dutiful servant to all." Two centuries later Jupiter Hammon, the first known African American to publish a literary work, exemplifies the same duality. Indeed, Hammon embodies the dilemma, since he is not only a Christian but enslaved in eighteenth-century Century America.

Born in 1711, Jupiter Hammon has achieved a place in African American literature with the publishing of "An Evening Thought (Salvation by Christ, With Penetential [sic] Cries)," a broadside printed on Christmas Day, 1760. Other works include "An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatly' [sic]" ( 1778); two prose pieces "Essay on the Ten Virgins" ( 1779), a copy of which is yet to surface, and "An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York" ( 1787); "A Winter Piece," which includes "A Poem for Children with Thoughts in Death" ( 1782); and "An Evening's Improvement," to which is added "A Dialogue Entitled the Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant" ( 1783).

The poetry of Hammon reveals a devoutly religious man who assimilates the predominant religious views of colonial New England. Because of this he has been accused of being too conciliatory in his attitude toward enslavement. While he does not always speak out against

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