Black Poetry Day

Black Poetry Day

Date Observed: October 17
Locations: U.S. Schools and Libraries

Black Poetry Day is celebrated on or around October 17, the birthday of Jupiter Hammon, considered to be the first African American to publish his own verse. The day recognizes not only Hammon but also the contributions of other black poets who are commemorated in elementary and secondary schools, colleges, and libraries across the United States.

Historical Background

Before west Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves, they had long traditions in literature and storytelling. The slavery system suppressed education, yet a small number of slaves managed to learn to read and write in English and became pioneers in African-American literature. Among them was Jupiter Hammon, who was born a slave on October 17, 1711, on Long Island, New York.

A slave his entire life, Hammon first served Henry Lloyd, a merchant, and then the next two generations of Lloyds. He was allowed to attend school, and his education as well as his Christian beliefs and the religious revivals of the 1700s influenced his development as a poet. His first published poem was titled "An Evening Thought. Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries: Composed by Jupiter Hammon, a Negro belonging to Mr. Lloyd of Queen's Village on Long Island, the 25th of December 1760."

Following Hammon's publication, Phillis Wheatley, another early African-American poet, published a slim volume of poetry. In 1778 Hammon wrote An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley, Ethiopian Poetess, in Boston, who came from Africa at eight years of age, and soon became acquainted with the Gospel of Jesus Christ . He also wrote tracts about African-American religion and protest pieces against slavery, although he did not demand freedom for himself but instead wanted enslaved youth to be free. Hammon is believed to have died around 1806.

Creation of the Observance

Stanley A. Ransom, a folk musician and former director of the Huntington Public Library in New York, edited a book of the complete writings of Jupiter Hammon, which was published in 1970. From that time on, Ransom promoted a national observance of Black Poetry Day on October 17 because of his concern that African-American literary accomplishments would not be recognized. Although there is not yet an official national day proclaimed as Black Poetry Day, elementary and secondary schools, colleges, and libraries across the United States focus on African-American poetry on October 17 or a day around that time, depending on when the institutions are open.


To observe Black Poetry Day, instructors and librarians usually focus on books and web sites that highlight the works of African-American poets both past and present, such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, W. E. B. Du Bois (who wrote free verse as well as scholarly works), James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, and many others. Students and patrons are encouraged to express themselves through poetry.

Many universities have diversity programs and speakers bureaus that bring in wellknown black poets to read and discuss their poetry. On some campuses, students compete in contests, reading their original works or those by African-American poets.

African-American Poets Laureate of the United States

During the 20th century, three African-American poets were appointed to the honorary office of Poet Laureate by the Librarian of Congress:

Robert Hayden (1913-1978) served from 1976 to 1978 Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) served from 1985 to 1986 Rita Dove (1952-) served from 1993 to 1995

When Hayden and Brooks served, the position was still known as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. In 1985 Congress passed an act changing the title to Poet Laureate; the act took effect in 1986. Poets Laureate receive monetary compensation in return for performing such duties as an annual public lecture and reading of their poetry.

Contact and Web Site

Dunbar-Jupiter Hammon Public Library, the largest African-American book collection in southwest Florida 3095 Blount St. Fort Myers, FL 33916 239-334-3602; fax: 239-334-7940

Further Reading

"Black Poetry Day." In Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, edited by Helene Henderson. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Rampersad, Arnold, ed. The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Ransom, Stanley A. America's First Negro Poet. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1970. Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 2: Early American Literature- 1700-1800: Jupiter Hammon." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature - A Research and Reference Guide - An Ongoing Project . January 4, 2003. . Smith, Jessie Carney. Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events. 2nd ed., revised and expanded. Canton, MI: Visible Ink Press, 2003.

Black Poetry Day

October 17
Jupiter Hammon, the first African-American poet to publish his own verse, was born on this day in 1711 and lived most of his life in the Lloyd Neck area of Huntington, Long Island. Hammon was a slave—first to the merchant Henry Lloyd, lord of the Manor of Queen's Village (now Lloyd Neck), and later to Joseph Lloyd, an American patriot who moved to Hartford, Connecticut, during the Revolution. Hammon eventually returned to Lloyd Neck as slave to Joseph's grandson, John Lloyd. Hammon learned how to read and was allowed to use his master's library. On Christmas Day, 1760, he published his first poem, "An Evening Thought," at the age of 49. He went on to publish other poems and a number of prose pieces as well.
Black Poetry Day was first proposed in 1970 by Stanley A. Ransom of Huntington, who was concerned that there were no celebrations to honor the contributions African Americans have made to American life and culture. When Ransom relocated to Plattsburgh, New York, he brought Black Poetry Day with him. Although it is celebrated all over the state, it has yet to be formally proclaimed a state holiday. Oregon has already proclaimed October 17 as Black Poetry Day, and schools elsewhere have taken advantage of the opportunity to encourage African-American students to express their thoughts and feelings through poetry. Other celebrations include inviting guest poets to do readings and meet with students at SUNY-Plattsburgh. In 1985, the African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks spoke at SUNY-Plattsburgh in honor of Jupiter Hammon's contribution to American culture. Other poets who have visited in the past for Black Poetry Day include Nikki Giovanni, Lucille Clifton, Ntozake Shange, Derek Walcott, Michael Harper, and Yusef Komunyakaa. In 1993 Rita Dove, an African American, was named poet laureate of the United States.
Educational Opportunity Program
Plattsburgh State University
103 Algonquin Hall
Plattsburgh, NY 12901
518-564-2263; fax: 518-564-2295