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

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

According to an ecclesiastical census taken in 1561, just four years after Latino had received his master of arts degree, there were 991 adult slaves living in the city of Granada, out of a population of 43,000 people, or 2 percent of the total population, according to James Casey in Family and Community in Early Modern Spain: The Citizens of Granada, 1570-1739. And according to James Sweet at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in an email, “nearly all of these slaves came from Africa — ‘Berbery’ and ‘Guinea’.” In other words, Juan Latino was part of a larger black community of people who had been living in Spain and in the city of Granada, his hometown, for some time.

Cervantes and Latino

Although Juan Latino was quite well-known in his hometown, he would be immortalized in Spanish literature by none other than Miguel Cervantes, the author of the most famous work of Spanish literature, the novel Don Quixote, published in 1605. Cervantes and Latino had a certain connection, through the famous Battle of Lepanto in 1571, which Latino would memorialize in his greatest work of poetry. Unlike Latino, Cervantes actually fought at the Battle of Lepanto, sailing on board the Marquesa, receiving three wounds from gunfire, one of which led to permanent paralysis of his left hand. (Cervantes would write in Journey to Parnassus (1614), “Thy left hand shattered lost the active power/It once possessed, for glory of the right.”) Cervantes himself would be captured in 1575 by Algerian corsairs, and taken to Algiers, where he spent five years as a slave. He was freed when his family, with help from the Trinitarian friars, paid a ransom.

As V.B. Spratlin noted in his pioneering book Juan Latino: Slave and Humanist, published in 1938, Cervantes cites Latino as an example of the old linguistic convention that his novel intended to displace; Latino, for him, stood for Spanish poets who wrote in Latin, rather than in vernacular Spanish, which wasn’t judged sophisticated or complex enough to be the language of great art. In one of his novel’s epigraphs, a magus or wizard named “Urganda the Unknown” instructs Cervantes to avoid the Latinate diction of “el negro Juan Latino,” and instead tell his tale in vernacular Spanish, which of course Cervantes famously did, just as Dante had done with the Italian vernacular in the early 14th century. Curiously enough, it is quite possible that Phillis Wheatley knew of the existence of her black poetic predecessor, since she was given a copy of Tobias Smollett’s 1770 English translation of Don Quixote by the Earl of Dartmouth, during her visit to London in the summer of 1773, just before her own book of poems was published there.

Becoming Juan Latino

Juan de Sessa — he changed his name to Latino when he was a student — lived roughly between 1518 and 1597. Although he claimed to have been born in Ethiopia in part to distinguish himself from the Moors from North Africa, who were being persecuted (as Baltasar Fra-Molinero observes in “Juan Latino and Racial Difference,” in Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, some scholars argue that he was born in Baena, Spain, son of slaves said to be from “Guinea” (although “Guinea,” like “Ethiopia,” was a European euphemism for any site in sub-Saharan Africa). Juan was a slave in the home of Don Luis Fernández de Córdoba, the Count of Cabra.   

His principal task as a slave, it seems, was to be the companion and friend of Don Luis’ son, Don Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, the third duke of Sessa. Juan would claim, in a poem, that the two were breast-fed with the same mother’s milk. According to legend, Juan de Sessa was the young duke’s page and accompanied him to his Latin classes taught by Pedro de Mota, held in the Cathedral of Granada, carrying his books to class. Somehow, the slave was able to study with his master, and excelled so much that he took the name “Juan Latino.” His owner, the count, freed him when he was a young man, but we are not sure when.

Juan married a Spanish noblewoman named Ana Carlobal. Their romance, apparently not initially approved by Ana’s father (one source, Ambrosio Salazar, as quoted in Spratlin’s book, says their marriage eventually killed the father), has become the stuff of legend, sometimes compared to that of Othello and Desdemona. One often-repeated story, the heart of a famous and somewhat risqué play about the couple titled Juan Latino by Ximénez de Enciso (1652), alleges that Juan was Ana’s Latin teacher and that he seduced her while conjugating the Latin verb amare, “to love”! The couple had four children, two girls and two boys.