Book Collecting Guide

African American Literature: Early Works - 1700s

The earliest known work by an African American is a ballad poem by Lucy Terry called Bars Fight. The poem was composed in 1746 and was about an attack upon two white families by Native Americans. The work was preserved orally until being published in 1855 in Josiah Gilbert Holland’s The History of Western Massachusetts.

Phillis Wheatley is considered the first published African American author. Her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published September 1st, 1773, by A. Bell, Aldgate in London. Wheatley was unable to find a publisher in the United States, and after traveling to London to secure publication, the publisher asked that Wheatley’s owner provide evidence the poems were indeed written by her. Eighteen witnesses were called to examine Wheatley, including John Hancock, the Patriot famous for his large signature on the Declaration of Independence.

In 1785, John Marrant, an African-American preacher and missionary, published A Narrative of the Lord's Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, A Black. The narrative told of his early life, but it was the portion of the tale that covered his time living with the Cherokee nation that helped it to become one of the most popular stories of that kind. It also told of his conversion to Christianity and his observances of the condition and experiences of blacks in the Colonial period.

Benjamin Banneker, born free in Maryland in 1731, was an almanac author, surveyor, landowner, and farmer. A gifted mathematician and astronomer, Banneker focused heavily on his astronomical calculations in the almanacs he wrote. The first of six almanacs published was Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris, for the Year of our Lord, 1792. At least twenty-eight editions of Banneker’s six almanacs were published in seven cities across five different states. Abolitionists promoted Banneker’s works and he corresponded personally with Thomas Jefferson on racial equity and slavery. Banneker died at the age of 74 and most of his papers and belongings burned in a fire on the day of his funeral. 

In 1811, John Jea published The Life, History, and Unparalleled Sufferings of John Jea, The African Preacher. Stolen into slavery at two and a half, this autobiography tells of Jea’s turbulent life in slavery and his redemption through the gospel that led to his literacy and ultimately his freedom. Printed by Williams, Printer and Bookbinder, 143 Queen Street, Portsea - this book is one of the first slave narratives actually written by an African-American to be published.