Black History Month: 5 Early Literary Firsts

The current literary scene for African Americans is bigger and better than ever. Self-publishing has enabled black authors to tell stories without playing the waiting game with big publishing houses. The wait, of course, is to hear if your work has been rejected, accepted or even viewed by those who make decisions. Authors can now own and publish their work, their way. Well, many years ago, there were some people who published against greater odds, and for the sake of this post, we will duly and respectfully note them as black literary firsts. Some you will know immediately, while others will be discoveries as they were to me.

The First As-Told-To Slave Narrative

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo also known as Job ben Solomon from Senegal was captured into slavery and sold to a man in Maryland. He ran away after being humiliated for praying, and re-captured, where he was “discovered” by a lawyer named Thomas Bluett. Bluett would ultimately utilize another slave who understood Ayuba’s language to transcribe a memoir into English. The memoir was published into a book: Some Memoirs of the Life of Job, the Son of Solomon, the High Priest of Boonda in Africa; Who was a Slave About Two Years in Maryland; and Afterwards Being Brought to England, was Set Free, and Sent to His Native Land in the Year 1734 (London, 1734). Yes, that’s a very long book title, and you can view a photo of the original cover HERE; and purchase a reproduction HERE.

First Known Poem to be written in the United States by a Slave

In 1746 slave Lucy Terry (Prince) wrote “Bars Fight,” a poem about the massacre of white families by Native Americans in Massachusetts. According to her Wikipedia entry, the poem had been preserved orally for nearly 100 years before it was published in 1855. You can read it HERE.

First African American Travel Writer and Travelogue

Briton Hammon is a bit of a mystery, because there is little to no information about his “captivity” status in North America. It is believed that he was a free man from Great Britain who was accidentally sold into captivity though his travel narrative, A NARRATIVE Of the UNCOMMON SUFFERINGS, AND
Surprizing DELIVERANCE OF Briton Hammon, A Negro Man,–Servant to GENERAL WINSLOW,
Of Marshfield, in NEW-ENGLAND; Who returned to Boston, after having been absent almost Thirteen Years. CONTAINING An Account of the many Hardships he underwent from the Time he left his Master’s House, in the Year 1747, to the Time of his Return to Boston–How he was Cast away in the Capes of Florida;–the horrid Cruelty and inhuman Barbarity of the Indians in murdering the whole Ship’s Crew;–the Manner of his being carry’d by them into Captivity. Also, An Account of his being Confined Four Years and Seven Months in a close Dungeon,–And the remarkable Manner in which he met with his good old Master in London; who returned to New-England, a Passenger, in the same Ship
(Boston, 1760). Oh yes, this is another long book title, the text of the travelogue is not that long, and it can be found HERE in its entirety or you can read the Library of Congress’ copy of the original published work HERE.

The First Published African American Poet/Author Born in North America (pre-dating the establishment of The United States of America)

Jupiter Hammon (no known relationship to Briton) was a rare slave to northern owners in New York state, the Lloyds, who required both Jupiter and his father Obadiah to learn how to read and write. In fact, by standards of the day, Jupiter was considered educated. The first poem he published was “An Evening Thought. Salvation by Christ with Penitential Crienes: Composed by Jupiter Hammon, a Negro belonging to Mr. Lloyd of Queen’s Village, on Long Island, the 25th of December, 1760.” Jupiter’s first volume of poetry was titled, An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries.

First Free African American Published Author

John Marrant was born free in New York City in 1755. Moreover, he purchased the freedom of his wife and children. He was a musician who converted to Christianity against his family’s wishes. He would become a preacher and missionary among the Cherokee. The title of his first book is, A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black (1785). You can purchase a copy HERE and read the National Archive’s copy of the original HERE.

Have you noticed something important? These authors were no less ambitious to publish than some of us. They probably had fewer options and more obstacles yet they published, and their stories were told. Which one is the most intriguing to you? Share in the comment section below and be inspired.

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