Lucy Terry: Pioneer of African American Literature

by Jordan Duncan

 

 

On August 25, 1746, Abenaki Indians staged a raid on a Deerfield, Massachusetts village. Aided by the French, the Indians found the English colonists to be ill-prepared for battle. Five colonists lost their lives, along with two Indians. The Bars Fight is a poem that recounts the violent events of the raid, conceived (emphasis on conceived instead of written) by a slave named Lucy Terry (aka Lucy Terry Prince). It is widely accepted as the first known piece of literature by an African in North America. The poem, like many African oral narratives, survived largely through verbal retelling until its first publication in 1855. In it, Terry names the five colonists who were killed – Samuel Allen, Eteazer Hawks, Oliver Amsden, Simeon Amsden and Adonijah Gillett – and paints an overall picture of the scene and other colonists’ reactions.Screenshot (1)

Part of the reason I chose this artifact was because I was surprised that it was the first known poem by an African American. Given that fact, I expected the poem to include themes about the black struggle, what it was like being a slave, or describe an actual fight between blacks and whites. Instead, it talks about a conflict between Indians and whites – to that end, I was intrigued and wondered why a black poet rose to popularity for a work about whites and Indians as opposed to whites and blacks, or solely blacks.

Lucy Terry was kidnapped from Africa as a child and sold as a slave in Rhode Island. She was purchased by Ebenezer Wells around the age of five and went to live with him and his wife in Massachusetts. The Wellses had no kids, and they allowed Lucy to be more integrated in the household than most other slaves. She was baptized in 1735 and became a member of the church in the years after. She had already gained a reputation as a storyteller at the time of her writing of The Bars Fight, so it was no surprise that the poem was held in high regard. A PBS biography of Lucy Terry notes that she “was well known for her speaking ability – according to her 1821 obituary, ‘the fluency of her speech captivated all around her’ – and she used her skills a number of times in defense of her family’s rights and property” (Lucy Terry Prince, PBS.org). Lucy Terry actually argued a case before the Supreme Court when land that belonged to her and her husband was almost stolen. She won the case, and “Samuel Chase, the presiding justice of the Court, said that her argument was better than he’d heard from any Vermont lawyer.” (Lucy Terry Prince, PBS.org). That a black woman could have her case heard by the Supreme Court, let alone win, was almost unprecedented at the time. The case would precede the Dred Scott decision by many decades, but this shows that the Supreme Court maybe had not always been steeped in inherently racist ideals, or at least not on the same large scale.

The battle at Deerfield occurred in 1746, the transatlantic slave trade in full swing. Massachusetts had a relatively low slave population when compared with states further south, but 1746 was not far from the time of peak slave population in the state: “the Massachusetts slave population jumped to about 2,000 in 1715. It reached its largest percentage of the total population between 1755 and 1764, when it stood at around 2.2 percent. The slaves concentrated in the industrial and seaside towns, however, and Boston was about 10 percent black in 1752” (Slavery in Massachusetts, slavenorth.com). Furthermore, if there was ever a time where African Americans felt helpless and without a chance of reform in sight, the 18th century was it. In fact, more than half of all Africans transported out of Africa were taken during the 1700s. Racism had become a solid feature of society at this point, and incredibly restrictive slave codes were being passed throughout the colonies (Pittman, 2015). As the supply of forced labor of natives and poor whites decreased, the demand for African slaves was booming.

Conflict between white Europeans and Indians is no secret. European violence against Native Americans outdates even the most basic forms of racism most of us are familiar with, particularly white-on-black racism. It was a major component in the formation of young America. Thus, presumably, there are countless instances of large-scale aggression towards Native Americans, as well as instances of retaliation against Europeans. In Ebony and Ivy, historian Craig Steven Wilder details one such exchange of force from late to mid-1670s, which also took place in Massachusetts. Chief Metacomet, known as King Philip by English colonists, originally intended to live peacefully amongst the whites. But as the colonies expanded and the English continued to push Puritan ideals, Metacomet and his Indian allies were subject to white violence. The conflict is known as King Philip’s War. According to Wilder, “several Harvard men fought King Philip’s forces and died. One of Metacomet’s earliest attacks resulted in the murder or imprisonment of more than a dozen relatives of the Reverend Joseph Rowlandson … In August 1676 troops under Captain Benjamin Church cornered Metacomet near Mount Hope, Rhode Island, where he was shot dead by an English-allied Indian soldier. ‘His Head was brought into Plymouth in great triumph,’ reads the church record. The English dismembered Metacomet’s body, mounted his head on a pole and paraded it around Plymouth, and sold his wife and son into slavery in Bermuda” (Wilder, 39-40). King Philip’s War happened some 30 years after the Deerfield raid, further indicating that European/Indian conflict was an ongoing occurrence, culminating in a war that “had ruined the Indians, ‘and consequently they [were] incapable of defending themselves’” (Wilder, 40).

Both Native Americans and blacks were clear enemies of whites. Thus, The Bars Fight can be almost interpreted as a black celebration of the Indian triumph over whites, as blacks and natives would have been able to share whatever joy might have come from causing the whites’ grief. The poem was already significant at the time because Lucy Terry was a prominent voice among blacks in Massachusetts, and it being the first piece of literature by a black American has made it even more significant through time. The fact that it survived for 100+ years strictly through verbal retellings and singings before being physically published speaks not only to Lucy Terry’s artistry and influence, but to the poem’s importance to black people. It seems to have been something of a rallying point for slaves and possibly Indians alike, and even though slave revolts were a rare form of resistance, could have represented a blueprint for future uprisings.

 

 

 

Works Cited

“Lucy Terry Prince.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2p15.html>.

Terry, Lucy. “Bars Fight.” PBS. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2h1592t.html.

“Slavery in Massachusetts.” Slavery in the North. N.p., 2003. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. <slavenorth.com/Massachusetts.htm>.

Wilder, Craig Steven. The Edges of the Empire. Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. N.p.: MacMillan Higher Education, n.d. 39-40. Print.

Pittman, LaShawnDa. (2015). Strange New Land 1619-1776. [Powerpoint slides]. Lecture.

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