Jupiter Hammon (1711-1806?)

    Contributing Editors:
    William H. Robinson and
    Phillip M. Richards

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    African-American literature emerges at an auspicious time in the settlement of North America. The number of blacks entering the colonies increased markedly at the middle of the eighteenth century. Settled blacks in the New World may have acquired a new self-consciousness as they encountered large numbers of newly arrived Africans. Their consciousness as a separate group was defined by laws restricting racial intermarriage, by racist portrayals in the press, and by their increased involvement in the evangelical religion that emerged in the aftermath of the Great Awakening.

    Jupiter Hammon, whose life roughly covers the span of the eighteenth century, was in an excellent position to see these trends. His writing reflects his efforts to evangelize his black brethren at a time when most African-Americans were not Christians. He is a traditional Calvinist. He is aware of Africa and the experience of the middle passage. Not surprisingly, his use of traditional evangelical rhetoric is deeply suggestive of the political implications that this discourse might have in the work of future writers.

    Students should be aware that we read Hammon as we might read any American Calvinist writing in the last half of the eighteenth century. We look for the rhetoric that underlies his evangelical strategies; we try to establish the speaker's relationship to his white and black audiences; and we assess the way in which the religious language of his discourse begins to acquire a political resonance, particularly in its use of words such as "king," "nation," "salvation," and "victory."

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Psalms is the most quoted biblical book in the poem addressed to Phillis Wheatley. Why would Psalms be such an important book to a black preacher-poet such as Hammon? What importance do you think the broad sweep of Old Testament history might have had to Hammon? What importance did this history have to evangelicals and political revolutionaries in late eighteenth-century New England? At what points do you think that Hammon and his white evangelical peers' understanding of scripture might have diverged?

    What poem by Phillis Wheatley has Hammon obviously read? Why do you think that he seized upon this verse in his own longer poem? What stance does the speaker of this poem assume toward his ostensible reader, Wheatley? Does this stance resemble the speaker's stance in Hammon's other work?

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Examine the formal impact of the literary structure of the Psalms on Hammon's poems. What literary influence do hymn stanza form and sermon form have on his writing? In what social context do hymns and sermons occur? Why would Hammon be attempting to evoke that context in his writing?

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    In what way does the rhetoric of Christian salvation, both personal and national, imply a historical construct? Compare Hammon's and Wheatley's use of that construct. Why would such a construct be important to early American black writers?

    Think of other early American writers who treat the subject of salvation in radically different ways. Would Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin respond to Hammon in the same ways? How would the two white writers differ, if they differed at all?

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    Describe the way in which Christian thought and rhetoric structured Hammon's racial consciousness. Why is it significant that America's first black writers are Puritans? In what sense could a shared religious belief be important for racial relations in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century?