Reading Jupiter Hammon

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I love me some Jupiter Hammon! For those new to the name, Hammon is the father of African-American literature. He, along with Phillis Wheatley, were the first African Americans to publish works of literature. Both were evangelical Christians and both infused early African-American literature with biblical themes, tropes, and imagery. I first wrote about Hammon and Wheatley in The Decline of African-American Theology to illustrate African-American theological commitments in the first generation of African American writers.

Darryll B. Harrison is certainly correct to cast Hammon as an evangelical with a thoroughly biblical understanding of human depravity and a relentless focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ as the remedy (see his post here). Mr. Harrison also correctly notes that many people today would view Hammon as a sell-out for not stridently and radically opposing slavery in his extant works. Certain folks do not appreciate what they see as his “accommodationist” strategy.

I thought Harrison’s post was helpful on a lot of fronts, especially in insisting that the root problem with racism is enmity rather than “race” itself. About which I largely agree.

But there are a couple of things that should be balanced in Harrison’s writing.

Jupiter Hammon in Context

First, it seems to me Harrison fails to put Hammon inside the restrictive rhetorical parameters he would have faced as a slave in the late 1700 and early 1800s. This is a mistake Hammon’s more “progressive” critics make too. If we do not read him in his own context, imagining the strictures and consequences he faced making any public statements, we’ll read too much at some points and too little at others depending on our own biases rather than Hammon’s. We must begin by asking ourselves, What was possible for Hammon to say as a slave whose life and career were overseen by white owners and  white society in the late 1700s and early 1800s? And what strategy might Hammon use to say what he wished while also avoiding the disapproval and consequences of owners and society? If we don’t put him in his context, or if we judge him by our own, we won’t get to know the real Hammon.

That’s what I think happens with Harrison’s piece. Harrison zooms in on the evangelical anthropology so richly there in Hammon and then seems to suggest by this singular focus that Hammon was only concerned about gospel preaching. But if we skim Hammon’s Address I think we’ll see head nods, innuendos, and comments that are more complex and that exploited the restrictive rhetorical parameters of his day perhaps as best as anyone could.

For example, consider how Hammon opens by lamenting the condition of slaves: “I can with truth and sincerity join with the apostle Paul, when speaking of his own nation the Jews, and say, ‘That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.’ Yes my dear brethren, when I think of you, which is very often, and of the poor, despised, and miserable state you are in, as to the things of this world, and when I think of your ignorance and stupidity, and the great wickedness of the most of you, I am pained to the heart.” It should be obvious that Hammon uses Paul’s solidarity and empathy for the Jews as basis for his own solidarity and empathy with enslaved Africans. Moreover, there’s something both slave and owner could likely appreciate in Hammon’s stated concern. The reference to the state of the slaves identifies with and acknowledges their suffering. The reference to the “wickedness” of slaves would have approval from any slave owners overhearing the address. But from the start, Hammon gently acknowledges his sorrow about the slave’s state in this world. There’s no doubt where his empathy lies.

Then Hammon goes on to use a strategy that most evangelical conservatives would hate today. He evokes and uses his own privilege as a comparatively well-to-do slave who spent most of his life working as something of a bookkeeper for his owners. He actually uses the word. Hammon writes:

I have great reason to be thankful that my lot has been so much better than most slaves have had. I suppose I have had more advantages and privileges than most of you, who are slaves have ever known, and I believe more than many white people have enjoyed, for which I desire to bless God, and pray that he may bless those who have given them to me.

At this point, Hammon looks pretty in step with what gets denounced in evangelical circles today. He first identifies with the slave, then considers his privilege, gives thanks to God, and concludes by intimating how he might use it to help the oppressed. Folks who speak against acknowledgement and use of privilege do so ahistorically.

Hammon continues with his first major point exhorting slaves to obey their masters. Why start there? Well, it’s a shibboleth for Black speakers of Hammon’s period. Unless this message is taught—the only message ever really sanctioned by slaveholding society—then Hammon would likely be shut down and endangered. However, please note that Hammon doesn’t expound this theme without subtly raising the question of whether slavery itself was right. The first words in the section begin, “Now whether it is right, and lawful, in the Sight of God, for them to make slaves of us or not . . .” He’s cheeky. He’s not Frederick Douglass, a free abolitionist blasting slave owners and the slave institution; he’s doing what he can within the confines of being owned by another.

The second point in the Address is like the first—it addresses a concern slave masters would have followed by one Hammon has: stealing and profaneness, respectively. The entire section along with the first is God-centered, orienting the slave toward the expectations of God above their owners. I am convinced Hammon believes what he says and writes through these first two sections. I also believe he’s doing the work of an evangelist as he writes:

Pray my dear friends, believe and realize, that there is a God—that he is great and terrible beyond what you can think—that he keeps you in life every moment—and that he can send you to that awful Hell, that you laugh at, in an instant, and confine you there for ever, and that he will certainly do it, if you do not repent.

Hammon structures the sermon so that he front loads the over-watching concerns of white audiences. But he builds the address in a way that centers God and paves the way for gospel appeal. Notice how he puts freedom on the table for younger enslaved Blacks, alludes to natural law in support of that freedom, points to how whites prove the value of freedom when they fought for their liberty just a decade or so earlier, and then makes the gospel paramount:

Now I acknowledge that liberty is a great thing, and worth seeking for, if we can get it honestly, and by our good conduct, prevail on our masters to set us free: Though for my own part I do not wish to be free, yet I should be glad, if others, especially the young negroes were to be free, for many of us, who are grown up slaves, and have always had masters to take care of us, should hardly know how to take care of ourselves; and it may be more for our own comfort to remain as we are. That liberty is a great thing we may know from our own feelings, and we may likewise Judge so from the conduct of the white-people, in the late war. How much money has been spent, and how many lives has been lost, to defend their liberty. I must say that I have hoped that God would open their eyes, when they were so much engaged for liberty, to think of the state of the poor blacks, and to pity us. He has done it in some measure, and has raised us up many friends, for which we have reason to be thankful, and to hope in his mercy. What may be done further, he only knows, for known unto God are all his ways from the beginning. But this my dear brethren IS by no means, the greatest thing we have to be concerned about. Getting our liberty in this world, is nothing to our having the liberty of the children of God. Now the Bible tells us that we are all by nature, sinners, that we are slaves to sin and Satan, and that unless we are converted, or born again, we must be miserable forever. Christ says, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God, and all that do not see the kingdom of God, must be in the kingdom of darkness. (italics added for emphasis)

The order here is important. Hammon argues from the lesser to the greater. But in reaching the greater—salvation in Christ—Hammon by no means erases the lesser—freedom in this life. Hammon, an evangelical, would certainly say it profits man nothing to gain the whole world and lose his soul. But with as much latitude as allowed him in that time, he also makes it clear that freedom should be had by all, including slave. He even seems to shame white people—notice, as a group—for the hypocrisy of investing money and lives to win their freedom while denying slaves the same.

Harrison leaves these kinds of comments out of his post when he appropriates Hammon against “social justice warriors” and those who see justice in the biblical agenda. Harrison only cites the concluding paragraph, ignoring the comments made beforehand. But a fair reading of Hammon in historical and literary context actually situates him closer to those who support justice and call on white people to turn from any ways they may have denied justice to others. This is not “sin by proxy” as Harrison put it; it’s simply noting that some sin metastasizes into the entire culture. When that happens, the entire culture needs to be addressed with prophetic force and gospel hope.

Enmity and Ethnicity

Now, as for the thesis of Mr. Harrison’s post, I agree that “the problem is enmity, not ethnicity.” Hammon would agree. But we do violence to the issue if we fail to recognize that a fuller statement of the problem would be something like: “the problem is that enmity that expresses itself against ethnicities.”

By leaving off how the enmity gets expressed, we essentially make the issue abstract and ambiguous. It’s like saying, “the problem is cancer” but not specifying what kind of cancer and where it’s located. It’s like saying “the problem is sex, not adultery” when you’re trying to get a husband to stop cheating. That makes little sense. It may help the adulterer feel better about himself but it does not address the actual sin committed against the wife and family. The adultery, like the racism, occurs in a particular historical and social context without which we’re left grasping for understanding, let alone remedy.

Conclusion

I appreciate Mr. Harrison’s post. As I said, where it deals with enmity exegetically and theologically, I entirely agree. But I think it misses the point where it fails to identify how such enmity gets expressed in particular historical and social contexts. And I think it’s unfortunate that a luminary like Jupiter Hammon gets misappropriated in service to an argument I do not think he would make.

I would highly commend reading Jupiter Hammon’s collected work. It will bless careful reading. Oh, and for the curious, there’s some manuscript evidence discovered in recent years that later Hammon poetry struck a more strident tone against slavery. See here.

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