Phillis Wheatley Poetry Fest
I will take this extra hour of Daylight Savings Time’s end to tell you about this week’s Phillis Wheatley Poetry Fest in Jackson. Jackson State University sponsored the fest. The attendees met both in the downtown Convention Center and on the JSU campus. It was fabulous. Concurrent sessions began each day. A large gathering in the theater followed. Then more concurrent sessions, followed by another large gathering. The rhythm was perfect, the presenters extraordinary.
If you’re not familiar with Phillis Wheatley, she was kidnapped in Africa in 1761 as a six-year-old child and brought to Boston. The Wheatley family bought her and named her for the slave ship that brought her across the water, The Phillis. That’s about all I need to know about the Wheatleys. Wheatley became the first African American poet to have her work published. Of course, she had to go to London in 1773 to get a publisher. The Wheatleys freed her when she agreed to return from London to care for the sickly Wheatley wife only if she was freed.
The Poetry Fest this weekend was the 50th Anniversary reconvening of the Phillis Wheatley Fest held in 1973. That fest was itself the 200th anniversary of Wheatley’s publication. Margaret Walker convened the first festival. Walker is the author of the epic poem, “For My People,” and the novel Jubilee. Several of those present fifty years ago attended this festival as well. We were a large group, over 700 people strong.
The lineup of presenters reflected the momentousness of the occasion. Big names spoke—Jesmyn Ward, Angie Thomas, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Imani Perry, Charlayne Hunter-Gault—but I was as taken with the presenters at the concurrent sessions. You can follow this link to the names of the sessions and their presenters. I learned what I did not know, which is my measure of success. Plus, the entire time in Jackson was delightful. Just a wonderful time.