African-American Poets: Milestones in History (grades 3rd – 8th)

What is African-American poetry?  Poetry in general is  like regular writing with a few tweaks. Instead of sentences, poems consist of lines. Instead of paragraphs, poems consist of stanzas. Poetry uses a lot of “sensory” language, which consists of words that help us see, hear, taste, touch, and smell the experience.  

African American poetry is a type of writing that’s seeped in history, culture and rich family traditions. It details things like oxtails, greens, and candied yams served up on Sundays after church and  old folk’s stories about growing up black in America. African-American poetry helps us feel the hot sun during a long day of picking cotton, the belting of whips beating down on a slave’s back, and it reminds us of the days when blacks could not drink from the same water fountain as whites. 

I could go on and on describing the beauty of African American poetry, but I think Lucy, Jupiter, Phillis, and George, can explain better than I can. You see:

  • Lucy Terry’s Bars Fight (1746), is the first poem that we know of that was written by an African American.
  • Jupiter Hammond, a religious poet who led many slaves to Jesus Christ, is the first African American who published a poem.
  • Phillis Wheatley the first African American woman who published an entire book of poetry.
  • George Moses Horton, the slave from North Carolina who became the first African American to use verse to argue against slavery.

Take a look:

Image result for Lucy terry image
Lucy Terry Prince (c. 1730–1821) is the author of the earliest known work of literature by an African American. She was stolen from Africa and sold into slavery as an infant, and became a free woman in Massachusetts, 1756.

The first known poem written by an African-American was Bars Fight, by Lucy Terry. Bars Fight is a ballad. A ballad is a type of poem that tells a story. Bars Fight is about an attack on two white families by Native Americans. The title of the poem comes from the area where the attack took place, The Bars , which is an area in Deerfield. 

Her poem is also written in formal couplets. In poetry, a couplet is a pair of lines in a verse. Usually they rhyme and have the same , meter (rhythm). Each couplet makes up a unit or complete thought. 

Bars Fight (1746)

by Lucy Terry 

August ’twas the twenty-fifth,

Seventeen hundred forty-six;

The Indians did in ambush lay,

Some very valiant men to slay,

The names of whom I’ll not leave out.

Samuel Allen like a hero fout,

And though he was so brave and bold,

His face no more shalt we behold

Eteazer Hawks was killed outright,

Before he had time to fight, –

Before he did the Indians see,

Was shot and killed immediately.

Oliver Amsden he was slain,

Which caused his friends much grief and pain.

Simeon Amsden they found dead,

Not many rods distant from his head.

Adonijah Gillett we do hear

Did lose his life which was so dear.

John Sadler fled across the water,

And thus escaped the dreadful slaughter.

Eunice Allen see the Indians coming,

And hopes to save herself by running,

And had not her petticoats stopped her,

The awful creatures had not catched her,

Nor tommy hawked her on the head,

And left her on the ground for dead.

Young Samuel Allen, Oh lack-a-day!

Was taken and carried to Canada.

Image result for jupiter hammon images
Jupiter Hammon was the first African American poet to be published in the United States. He was born a slave Lloyd Harbor, New York, on October 17, 1711. The Lloyd family encouraged Hammon to attend school, where he learned to read and write. In his early years, Hammon was heavily influenced by a major religious movement called, “The Great Awakening.” His poems reflected his love for Jesus Christ and encouraged slaves to accept Christ as well. 

As you read this poem, consider the author’s message. What message do you think Hammond is trying to convey? 

A Poem for Children with Thoughts on Death (1792)

by Jupiter Hammond

O Ye young and thoughtless youth,

Come seek the living God,

The scriptures are a sacred truth,

Ye must believe the word.

Tis God alone can make you wise,

His wisdom’s from above,

He fills the soul with sweet supplies

By his redeeming love.

Remember youth the time is short,

Improve the present day

And pray that God may guide your thoughts,

And teach your lips to pray.

To pray unto the most high God,

And beg restraining grace,

Then by the power of his word

You’ll see the Saviour’s face.

Little children they may die,

Turn to their native dust,

Their souls shall leap beyond the skies,

And live among the just.

Like little worms they turn and crawl,

And gasp for every breath.

The blessed Jesus sends his call,

And takes them to his rest.

Thus the youth are born to die,

The time is hastening on,

The Blessed Jesus rends the sky,

And makes his power known.

Then ye shall hear the angels sing

The trumpet give a sound,

Glory, glory to our King,

The Saviour’s coming down.

Start ye saints from dusty beds,

And hear a Saviour call,

Twas a Jesus Chirst that died and bled,

And thus preserv’d thy soul.

This the portion of the just,

Who lov’d to serve the Lord,

Their bodies starting from the dust,

Shall rest upon their God.

They shall join that holy word,

That angels constant sing,

Glory, glory to the Lord,

Hallelujahs to our King.

Thus the Saviour will appear,

With guards of heavenly host,

Those blessed Saints, shall then declare,

Tis Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Then shall ye hear the trumpet sound,

The graves give up their dead,

Those blessed saints shall quick awake,

And leave their dusty beds.

Then shall you hear the trumpet sound,

And rend the native sky,

Those bodies starting from the ground,

In the twinkling of an eye.

There to sing the praise of God,

And join the angelic train,

And by the power of his word,

Unite together again.

Where angels stand for to admit

Their souls at the first word,

Cast sceptres down at Jesus feet

Crying holy holy Lord.

Now glory be unto our God

All praise be justly given,

Ye humble souls that love the Lord

Come seek the joys of Heaven.

 

Image result for phillis wheatley images
Phillis Wheatley was born in Gambia, West Africa. No one knows for sure when she was born. However, when she was kidnapped and shipped to America, experts guessed she was around seven years old, because of her missing front teeth.  She was sold into slavery and purchased by the prominent Wheatley family of Boston. Although it was illegal to educate slaves, the Wheatleys taught Phillis how to read and write. She is the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry. 

Vocabulary

  • mercy – compassion shown towards someone
  • pagan – ungodly
  • benighted – in a state of moral ignorance
  • redemption – the act of being saved from sin
  • diabolic – connected to evil, the devil
  • angelic – like angels

How does Wheatley feel about  Africa?

On Being Brought from Africa to America

by Phillis Wheatley

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

“Their colour is a diabolic die.”

Remember, ChristiansNegros, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

 

Image result for george moses horton images
George Moses Horton (1797? – 1884) was born a slave in North Carolina. He was the first African American to use poetry to promote antislavery messages. He earned money writing love poems for men who wanted to woo the ladies.

Horton’s poem is written in formal couplets. In poetry, a couplet is a pair of lines in a verse. Usually they rhyme and have the same , meter (rhythm). Each couplet makes up a unit or complete thought.

mood and tone help the reader find meaning in a poem. We can identify both by looking at the setting, characters, details, and word choices. 

mood – is the atmosphere of the story.

tone – the author’s attitude towards the topic. 

What is the tone of the poem, “Weep”? 

Support your answer with words from the poem and their meanings.

 

Weep

By George Moses Horton

Weep for the country in its present state,

And of the gloom which still the future waits;

The proud confederate eagle heard the sound,

And with her flight fell prostrate to the ground!

Weep for the loss the country has sustained,

By which her now dependent is in jail;

The grief of him who now the war survived,

The conscript husbands and the weeping wives!

Weep for the seas of blood the battle cost,

And souls that ever hope forever lost!

The ravage of the field with no recruit,

Trees by the vengeance blasted to the root!

Weep for the downfall o’er your heads and chief,

Who sunk without a medium of relief;

Who fell beneath the hatchet of their pride,

Then like the serpent bit themselves and died!

Weep for the downfall of your president,

Who far too late his folly must repent;

Who like the dragon did all heaven assail,

And dragged his friends to limbo with his tail!

Weep o’er peculiar swelling coffers void,

Our treasures left, and all their banks destroyed;

Their foundless notes replete with shame to all,

Expecting every day their final fall,

In quest of profit never to be won,

Then sadly fallen and forever down!

Additional Resources

Dream in Color, a collaborative effort for elementary-aged children. 

Please visit our website http://www.tamsanded.com

 

4 thoughts on “African-American Poets: Milestones in History (grades 3rd – 8th)

  1. Jean Jones. Poet laureate.
    In Love with All Poetry & Education.
    Felicia so Proud of you and your work with All Youth! Blessed.
    But GOD’S Grace.
    Lov Jae

    Like

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