As an Hispanic woman, I am often reminded – and often conscious of the fact – that if I had been born just a few decades earlier, I would probably not be where I am today: pursuing my PhD in English literature at a private university. Or maybe, more specifically, that I would not be welcome where I am today, thanks to my skin color, my heritage, and my gender.
That kind of overt discrimination is a reality that seems very distant, a problem of a less-enlightened past, but I need only look at my grandmother – a clever, well-read woman with little formal education – to feel the immediacy of those limits and the power they hold even today. This semester, we’ve read two early American writers, Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley, who faced and surpassed limits far beyond those I can conceive. If achieving higher education is a challenge for people who struggle against discrimination, then what is literary publication for African American slaves who were considered, legally and socially, no better than livestock? How did they manage to write and publish when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds?
It’s easy for us, as contemporary readers, to want to cast Wheatley and Hammon in the same light: as two African American slaves who fought the system, actively resisted slavery through the written word, and gave a unifying, rebellious voice to their oppressed people. It’s easy to want those to be their achievements, but the reality of working within a system of dominance, discrimination, slavery and racism means that their actual achievements were far more complex. Wheatley, to be sure, was savvy and politically-minded, using her pen to challenge popular notions of slaves and slavery. But it’s Jupiter Hammon, in particular, who inspires me because his work is not overtly political. Hammon is altruistic and spiritual, concerned only with the slaves of his time and their day-to-day reality. Hammon wasn’t rallying for the abolition of slavery, but his work makes it clear that he cared deeply about the suffering of fellow slaves and wanted to use his own (very unlikely) education to offer them comfort and improve their lives.
Jupiter Hammon, Uncle Tom, and “Obeying Freely”
Since he was identified as the first published African American poet, Jupiter Hammon has been interpreted and identified in many ways, but perhaps the harshest of them all is as an “Uncle Tom.” Upon reading his work, it’s not difficult to see how Hammon could have been characterized that way: his sermons and poetry, which are often addressed to his fellow slaves, encourage them to “obey our masters, in all their lawful commands, and mind them unless we are bid to do that which we know to be sin.” Because God has made them slaves, he argues, God “has commanded us to obey, and we ought to do it cheerfully, and freely” (108). But what does it mean to obey freely? For Hammon, the answer lay in the doctrines of Calvinist Christianity.
It is clear that Christianity played an integral role in the lives of 17th and 18th century slaves and masters alike. Calvinism’s doctrines, specifically, helped to structure the lives of early American colonists and slaves. Faced with the harrowing voyage across the Atlantic, the hostile New England wilderness, and the pervasive threats of war, disease, enslavement, and death, people looked to the rigid tenets of Calvinism for comfort and the hope that one day (in the next life), they might receive salvation.
Hammon, like other Calvinist Christians, believed that humanity is inherently sinful, or “depraved,” due to the fall of Adam – and that salvation is only accessible to a predestined “Elect.” According to Calvinist doctrine, individuals have no control over whether they are saved; one’s fate is predecided by God and is therefore unchangeable. In his work, Hammon urges his fellow slaves to embrace Christianity because they, too, might be one of the elect. He urges them to obey their masters, to fulfill the role God has ordained, to “take up their crosses” and suffer as Christ suffered, in the hope that upon death they will have salvation – and freedom (Hammon 93, 96).
To obey one’s master, then, is to carve out a possible path to salvation. “Obeying freely” is the difference between saying, “I choose to obey,” and “I have no choice but to obey” – a distinction that might seem artificial to those of us on the outside looking in. Furthermore, in a world where good fortune – wealth, health, and just plain luck – were said to be signs of God’s favor and salvation, Hammon’s words pushed boundaries. By telling slaves that because of their suffering on earth, they too could be among God’s Chosen people, Hammon expanded the limits of the Christian faith and placed slaves on the same spiritual plane as their masters.
In his book Evangelism and Resistance, our instructor Dr. Cedrick May makes it clear that Hammon was no abolitionist, no radical. He believed sincerely in enduring the status quo of slavery, and it is this earnestness that earned him the derogatory title of “Uncle Tom” – a term which obviously did not exist in Hammon’s time, but which his contemporary detractors might have liked to use. While Hammon may not have been obviously anti-slavery, he recognized it as an earthly institution, one “made by man,” as he wrote in an unpublished poem that scholars have only recently discovered. For Hammon, evangelism was a form of resistance: it is precisely his devotion to Christianity, his seemingly un-provocative message about the Christianization of slaves (supported at the time by major figures like Cotton Mather and Samuel Sewall), which allowed him to publish poems and sermons that offered comfort and hope to his fellow slaves.
Approaching Hammon’s Legacy
In this way, Jupiter Hammon was neither an Uncle Tom nor a veiled abolitionist. As much as we, from the outside looking in, might hope to read anti-slavery sentiments into his work, we can’t judge him for not being more abolitionist, just as we can’t attribute more anti-slavery intent to him than he demonstrates. To do either is to undermine the efforts he did make, the challenges he faced, and the resilience he showed in using his intellectual gifts and access to education for the spiritual uplift of his people.
As a minority, sometimes I feel slightly out of place in the world of academia, which is so far removed from the world of my family. I wonder, how did I end up here? Academics call this “imposter syndrome,” which I suppose is a pretty good name for it. When I read Phillis Wheatley, Jupiter Hammon, or any number of American minority writers, I have to wonder: did they feel imposter syndrome, too? Did they ever doubt or question their own rights to speak and write in public? I wonder how they couldn’t, which inspires me all the more.
Someday soon, I will be tasked with exposing my students to the many diverse voices that make up “American literature,” which means it will be up to me to represent the realities these authors faced: what it meant to have the audacity to speak and write in a world where people were bought and sold, where their thoughts were routinely ignored, trivialized, and dismissed. It will be up to me to explain that Jupiter Hammon was no Uncle Tom, that he was a man bound by slavery but also well-read, thoughtful, spiritual, and profoundly concerned with the immediate suffering of his fellow slaves. Many of my students will come from diverse backgrounds — as an undergraduate, I shared the classroom with other first generation students, minorities, and international students: people who, like me, like Hammon, Wheatley, and others, were unlikely candidates for higher education.
For me, that is the legacy of Hammon’s work. As instructors of writing, we give people tools – tools that have been used for centuries for the advancement of so many marginalized groups. Reading Hammon’s often forgotten and dismissed efforts to help and educate other slaves is a serious reminder of the many ways we can use our own education to benefit our respective communities, too.
Hammon, Jupiter. America’s First Negro Poet: the Complete Works of Jupiter Hammon of Long Island. Ed. Stanley Austin Ransom, Jr. Port Washington: Kennikat P, 1964. Print.
May, Cedrick. Evangelism and Resistance in the Black Atlantic, 1760-1835. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2008. Kindle file.