English Duo Unearths Early American Slave Poem

A long-lost poem, tucked inside a Yale University library archive, is shedding new light on 18th century slavery and presenting a UT Arlington graduate student with a new research path.

Earlier this year, Dr. Cedrick May, Associate Professor of English, and Julie McCown, an English doctoral student, confirmed the discovery of a never-before published, hand-written poem by Jupiter Hammon, an 18th century slave from Long Island. An in-depth article on their research and findings will be included in the June 2013 issue of Early American Literature, an academic journal.

“This poem is going to be important,” said May, who has been at UTA since 2007. “I believe it can change the way a lot of people view Jupiter Hammon as a member of a slave-keeping culture.”

The discovery of a lost Hammon work began when May, whose research interests include early African American literature and digital humanities, handed out assignments in his course on electronic textual editing last fall. The task called for students to track down original copies of known work, contact archivists to get a scanned copy, then transcribe and annotate it.

McCown was unable to find her assigned poem, but she was tipped off to a possible Hammon poem in a Yale library. On May’s advice, McCown obtained the poem’s title and first two stanzas. As she and May made comparison to Hammon’s other work, the two grew to believe the new poem was either a hoax or an original, undiscovered work. They travelled to Yale in January to confirm their research and verify the poem’s authenticity.

“My interest was piqued when I was directed to this archival record that didn’t match up with what we knew about Hammon’s existing work,” said McCown. “We went through the process of getting little breadcrumbs, more information here and there. There was two months of going back and forth with archives and a growing level of excitement. It was very cool to see how rare this opportunity was.”

Rare, indeed. May, an expert on Hammon, said the African American writer only has a handful of published works. His poems and essays typically focused on religion, with passing references to slavery. Scholars have argued that Hammon’s writings indicate the author accept slavery as fait accompli and only encouraged his fellow slaves to conduct themselves accordingly. May believes the new poem was meant to be included with Hammon’s best-known work, “An Address to the Negroes of the Sate of New York,” and that its anti-slavery tone may have prevented it from being published originally.

“This new poem is different from the way people have interpreted Hammon’s previous works,” May said. “He flat out states ‘slavery is a sin’ … and talks about the horrors of slavery and the middle passage. This could change the way we think Hammon talked about slavery, and change the way we approach his work and research his work.”

McCown said her experience has steered down a more definitive research path and sparked her interest in digital humanities. In addition to teaching freshman composition, McCown is spending part of her time researching and digitzing 19th-century periodicals. She said the experience with the Hammon poem led her to appreciate the value in having archival materials available online.

“It took us two months, going back and forth, to confirm our findings, “ she said. “We had to spend money on copies and travel to Yale. It’s why it took so long for this poem to be discovered in the first place.”

May said the new poem has changed his approach to Hammon as well as the book he is writing on the 18th-century author. The discovery, May said, raises questions about how Hammon fit within a community of masters, slaves, and freemen, and addressed those social dynamics. He also said questions about current issues are renewed.

“This poem prompts us to begin a new conversation on these issues,” May said. “There’s an emotional component to slavery and race. These are things we don’t talk about today.”

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