American Literature, American Culture

By Gordon Hutner | Go to book overview

J. Saunders Redding
The Forerunners Excerpt from To Make a Poet Black

1

The literature of the Negro in America, motivated as it is by his very practical desire to adjust himself to the American environment, is "literature of necessity." Until recent years the Negro writer has not known what it is to write without this motivation, and even now, of the dozens of writers who have published in the last twenty years the work of but two seems wholly independent of this influence. At the very heart of this literature, then, lies the spore of a cankerous growth. This might be said to be the necessity of ends. But there is also a necessity of means. Negro writers have been obliged to have two faces. If they wished to succeed they have been obliged to satisfy two different (and opposed when not entirely opposite) audiences, the black and the white. This necessity of means, perhaps, has been even stronger than the necessity of ends, and as writers have increased, the necessity has grown almost to the point of desperation.

From Jupiter Hammon, the first Negro writer in America, to Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, these two necessities can be traced with varying degrees of clarity-- now one and now the other predominant--like threads through the whole cloth. With the very earliest writers the needs did not encompass more than personal self, but as consciousness of others awakened in later writers and as the simplicity of the Negro's primary position in America changed successively to the complexity of the times of abolition agitation, freedom, enfranchisement, and social self-determination, the artless personality of his literature dropped away and he became the sometimes frenzied propagandist of racial consciousness and advancement.


2

Jupiter Hammon was the first American Negro to see his name in print as a maker of verse. The date of his birth is uncertain, but the earliest reference to him is found in a letter dated May 19, 1730, when he was probably little more than ten years old. At this time he was the slave of Henry Lloyd of Queens Village, Long Island. The date of his death is likewise uncertain, but was very probably not earlier than 1806.

Hammon's first published work was "An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penetential Cries" in 1760. His next work, "A Poetical Address to Phillis Wheatley," was published eighteen years later, but it is improbable that the intervening years were devoid of literary activity, especially considering that Hammon was something of a preacher among his people, a fact which plainly had a bearing upon his work. "An Essay on the Ten Virgins," of which no copy is extant, was printed in 1779. In 1782 he published "A Winter Piece" and "A Poem for Children with Thoughts on Death" and "An Evening's Improvement" to which was appended a rhymed dialogue entitled "The Kind Master and

____________________
Reprinted from To Make a Poet Black, by J. Saunders Redding. Copyright © 1939 by The University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

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