The First Black Woman Poet?

Who was the first Black woman poet, and what does her work have to tell us about 18th century poetry in Britain and America?

Harriett Truscott, University of Cambridge

If you try to find the first poem composed by an African woman, you’ll probably discover the name of Lucy Terry Prince, author of a poem called ‘Bars Fight’. ‘Bars Fight’, written around 1746, tells the story of an Indian attack on a section of Deerfield, Massachusettes, where she lived.

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.

Should Lucy Terry be remembered and celebrated as a poet? By most literary standards, probably not. This certainly isn’t one of the best poems ever written. The rhymes are dull (‘dead’ is rhymed with ‘head’ twice, and ‘her’ is rhymed with itself), while certain lines seem dragged in just to make a rhyme (there seems no need to state ‘The names of whom I’ll not leave out’, for example). However, by putting the poem back into its context, we’ll discover it has plenty to tell us about the role of poetry and poets in 18th-century Britain and America. (Terry was born in Africa but grew up as a slave in America.) Let’s begin by thinking about the circumstances in which the poem was composed.

In fact, this poem was never written down by Terry at all – it was composed to be sung or recited aloud. The only reason that it is remembered today is because it continued to be performed through until the 19th century, when it was written down in a history of Massachusettes. It would be more accurate to describe this as a ‘ballad’, rather than a poem – this would probably have been how it was described by contemporaries. A ballad was a simple, popular narrative song or poem, often telling a story or making a political point. Ballads were not seen as a very refined sort of poetry – as one 18th-century musician wrote, a ballad is ‘a low species of Song’.

Poetry today is often thought of as quite a private genre – when we imagine poetry, the first image that comes to mind is a solitary poet writing at their desk, or a reader reading a book. Even a love poem seems meant just for two people! However, it’s clear that a ballad must be a public work, since it’s meant to be receited or sung aloud.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, where a large proportion of the population could not read, people still wanted to know about what was happening in the world. They needed a memorable way to pass on news – and ballads (especially when sung) could be the best way to spread information around. Take a look at this ballad from 1681, for example (the music playing is the tune the ballad was sung to) which describes the execution of Stephen College, who was alleged to have committed treason against King Charles II. This is a British ballad, but don’t forget that in 1746 America was part of Britain.

Like the ballad above, Terry’s ballad ‘Bars Fight’ is intended to act like an article in a modern newspaper, informing people about the attack on Deerfield. Just as with a news article, the ballad begins by giving the date of the event, and then a quick summary, before going on to describe the fight in more detail. By composing a ballad, the news becomes accessible to people who did not have access to newspapers. The fact that it was remembered until the 19th century (when it was written down) shows how many people a ballad could reach! In fact, we have to remember that the ballad as we have it now is almost certainly not as Terry composed it – like a game of Chinese Whispers, the poem will have changed as it was repeated from person to person. This might be because, with a narrative ballad, the language is less important than the story and the ‘spin’ given to it. For example, in re-telling the ballad, the singer might replace ‘awful creatures’ with ‘direful creatures’, with making much difference to meaning of the phrase at all. So although this essay began with a complaint that this ballad doesn’t fulfil the traditional criteria for poetry, which emphasises close attention to language, you might argue that these standards don’t apply to ballads.

This ballad was almost certainly just one of many poems that Terry and others in the community would have composed to mark events. So to say that Terry was the first Black woman poet is probably quite misleading – other women may well have been composing ballads which have not been remembered. It’s also possible that she didn’t think of herself as a poet at all, but rather as someone who spread news around the community. It’s also worth remembering that many African societies also recounted news, stories and history through song, and this might also have influenced British and American ballad traditions, although we don’t know whereabouts in Africa Terry was born.

We’ve considered the general role of ballads in Deerfield society, so let’s look more closely at this specific ballad. At the time she wrote this poem, Terry was a slave, born in Africa and sold to a Deerfield man. By composing this ballad, Terry is taking on a role similar to that of a modern day journalist. It’s possible that this role gave her status in the community: as someone responsible for communicating news, Terry could influence the way that events were viewed by others.

We might imagine that Terry would have felt herself to be separate from the white community in Deerfield, perhaps having a sense of identification with the Indians who are attacking it. However, if we look at the language of the ballad, it’s clear which side the audience’s sympathies are supposed to be on! The Indians are ‘awful creatures’ who lie in ambush, causing ‘dreadful slaughter’. They don’t give the settlers time to fight, but kill them immediately. The settlers are heroes, ‘brave’, ‘bold’, ‘dear’ and ‘valiant’, and their death causes ‘grief and pain’. It seems clear that the composer of this ballad felt herself to be a member of the Deerfield community, completely opposed to the Indian threat. Or perhaps Terry was keen to portray herself to others as a supportive member of the Deerfield community?

We don’t know much about Terry’s life at this time, so any suggestions are pure speculation, but it’s interesting to consider some later episodes from her history. Terry became a gifted public speaker, and one always ready to campaign for Black rights. Terry argued for her son’s acceptance at an all-white college, for example (her speech apprarently lasted three hours!). In a land dispute case which eventually made its way to the American Supreme Court, Terry argued against two of the state’s leading lawyers – and won. Samuel Chase, the chief Judge in the case, said her argument was better than he’d heard from any Vermont lawyer. It seems that Terry was a woman willing to attack social conventions, and others may have felt threatened by her eloquence. Perhaps her ballads were intended to make a public statement that, although she challenged the community, she still saw herself as part of it – that, though she was attacking conventions, she was doing so in a very different way from the ‘awful’ Indians, whose only ambition is to abduct and kill.

A ballad like ‘Bars Fight’ may not meet the traditional standards of great poetry, but, as we’ve seen, it’s all the more typical of the way in which poetry was used during the 18th century. For every famous writer like Pope or Swift, there were thousands of ordinary people composing unremembered verses. Poems like ‘Bars Fight’, composed by an Black slave in a obscure settlement out in the British colonies, created the context in which the poetry we remember today was written – and it’s always worth remembering that as you read!