Who Was the 1st Black Poet?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: The first to publish in a Western tongue isn't who you might think.

Ad Catolicum, et Invictissimum Philippum Dei Gratia Hispaniarum Regem De augusta" by Juan de Sessa, aka Juan Latino, 1576
Ad Catolicum, et Invictissimum Philippum Dei Gratia Hispaniarum Regem De augusta" by Juan de Sessa, aka Juan Latino, 1576

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 48: Who was the first black poet in the Western world?

If you answered Phillis Wheatley to the question posed in the title of today’s column, you would be close, but you would be wrong. Wheatley, who published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in September 1773, was the second black person to publish a book of poetry, but the first to do so in English. The first person of sub-Saharan African descent to publish a book of poems in any Western language was a man named Juan Latino. He was a black African ex-slave, who lived in the Southern Spanish city of Granada, the last capital of the Al-Andalus Empire, which ruled the Iberian peninsula for eight centuries. He published his first of two books of poems, The Austriad, in Latin in the year 1573 — that’s 200 years before Phillis Wheatley’s book was published and 34 years, incredibly, before the first permanent English colony was founded in North America. 

Known since his death as “el negro Juan Latino,” the name by which Miguel Cervantes identified him in the prefatory poem of Don Quixote (1605), he proudly embraced his African identity, referring to and emphasizing his blackness in several places in his writings, including in his own epitaph, and asserting consistently that he was born in Ethiopia. Why don’t we know more about this pioneering figure in black history? Why doesn’t Juan Latino have a prominent place among the heroes of black history whom we celebrate each February? 

The answer is simple: because the English defeated the Spanish in the contest for dominion over the colonies in North America. When the victors write the history, the defeated get short-shrift. In the process, at least as far as African-American history focus is concerned, so much of the black presence both in the Americas and in Europe has been left out, as we saw in my columns about the first African American, the free black conquistador Juan Garrido, who arrived in Florida in 1513, and the first black explorer of the American Southwest, Esteban, who arrived in Galveston in 1528. Juan Latino is another such casualty of Spain’s losing battle to England, although Joel A. Rogers lists him as a “Master” in Your History and a “professor of rhetoric, Greek, and Latin” in World’s Great Men of Color, Volume II. I first learned about him through an essay that Arthur Schomburg published in Charles Johnson’s famous Harlem Renaissance anthology, Ebony and Topaz, published in 1927.

The Early Slave Trade

Black people lived in Spain before the first African slaves arrived in North America in 1619? Absolutely! As Ivana Elbl observes in “The Volume of the Early Atlantic Slave Trade, 1450-1521,” in the Journal of African History, “in the opening period of the Atlantic slave trade (1450-1521) the Europeans are estimated to have purchased almost 156,000 African slaves,” and many of them ended up living in Portugal and Spain, in places like Sevilla, Granada and Valencia, all of which had a relatively large population of black slaves. And by the time the first 20 Angolans landed in Virginia, almost 400,000 Africans had already arrived in the New World, virtually all enslaved in Brazil and South America (only 567 were sent to the British Caribbean in this period). In fact, to put the significance of this figure in a bit more perspective, as David Eltis and David Johnson write in the Atlas of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, as many slaves had already arrived in Latin America before 1619 as would arrive in the United States during the entire course of the slave trade! Since well over 100,000 Africans had already been shipped to Europe by this time, the black presence has a much longer and deeper history in both Europe and in Latin America than it does in the United States, a fact that surprises most Americans.

‘As Rare on This Earth as the Phoenix’

I cite these figures so that we can begin to understand that Juan Latino was not walking around 16th-century Europe or Spain or even Granada as a solitary black man; he was a part of a community, composed of slaves and former slaves. But even among the free black community, he was exceptional in how high he rose in social status, and the unprecedented success of his academic career. His success was so rare, in fact, that his master and friend, the Duke de Sessa, is said frequently to have commented of him that “my black is as rare on this earth as the Phoenix.” While Latino was one of three famous black men in Granada at the time, the other two men were of mixed-race ancestry, including a Dominican priest named Father Christoval de Meneses, and a well-respected lawyer named the Licenciado Ortiz, “the son of a knight of the [military] order [of] Santiago and a black mother,” according to Glyn Redworth in “Mythology With Attitude?” in Social History (January 2003). (The three were so unusual in Spanish society that they were the subject of an essay published as early as 1608 in Granada, according to Glyn Redworth.)  

That there were free black men and women living in both Spain and Portugal in the 16th century is a testament to the fluidity of status that the Spanish Crown would later extend to Africans enslaved in the British colonies of Carolina and Georgia — that is, if they could escape to the Spanish colony of Florida, where they would be free. Those freed slaves created the all-black settlement and a militia at Fort Mose in Florida in 1738. Nevertheless, lest we romanticize black slavery in Spain, these three members of the Spanish elite in the mid-1500s were anomalies, although Spain — given its proximity to Africa and the fact that the Moors ruled it for more than eight centuries — was probably more mixed ethnically than any other place in Europe.