By Laura Vrana
The list of Black women who convened at the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival at HBCU Jackson State University from November 4-7, 1973 is mind-blowing to any devotee of 20th-century literary history. At this event assembled by poet-professor-organizer Margaret Walker, speakers included Alice Walker, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, June Jordan, Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Carolyn Rodgers, Mari Evans, Naomi Madgett, and Sarah Fabio. Amid the Black Arts Movement, they gathered to honor the 200th anniversary of Phillis Wheatley’s1 Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral as a transformative event for the development of African American literature. The resulting program has become the stuff of lore, a touchstone in the trajectory of Black (women’s) writing and feminist thought.
So it was with great enthusiasm that I attended last week’s event, also at JSU and titled the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival, that simultaneously marked the 250th anniversary of that monumental book, the 50th anniversary of what Walker wrought, and a chance to celebrate Black women’s creative and intellectual production today as an inheritance of that 250+-year legacy. Words cannot encapsulate the refulgent richness of these four days, when 800 attendees—writers, artists, professors, arts administrators, local elementary and secondary school teachers and their students—came together for scholarly panels and public talks. Several original participants came, while others who could not journey to Mississippi (like Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez) entered the rooms through special virtual messages. At the same time, the architecture of the programming was intended to highlight the riches of contemporary Black literary production, with events offering a platform to novelist Jesmyn Ward and poets Eve Ewing and Airea D. Matthews illustrating how this field continues to flourish thanks to seeds planted in 1773 and in 1973.
In every regard, the space created felt hallowed, sacred, exuberant with celebration and radical joy as a counterweight to the sense that the state of our nation/world presently feels dire. Speakers from Imani Perry and Nikole Hannah-Jones to Angie Thomas during public conversations (moderated adroitly by critics like Dr. Dana Williams) reminded audiences that the 1973 atmosphere felt similar, and that pausing to recharge in spaces infused with the transformative potential of joy, laughter, and happiness was then and now an essential component of persisting in the exhausting quotidian labors of building a more just world.
Among the most memorable moments for this participant were Alice Walker’s luncheon conversation with primary organizer Dr. Ebony Lumumba (whose indefatigable efforts positioned her as a direct inheritor of Margaret Walker’s mantle). Walker’s cheeky, humorous remarks continually returned to the power of radical joy and reclaiming happiness as a weapon against a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal society. That energy also suffused the creative homages to Wheatley Peters and other precursors, like June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, and Gwendolyn Brooks, that participants such as Lauren K. Alleyne, Duriel E. Harris, and Patricia Smith composed for the occasion. Similarly, Nikole Hannah-Jones’s discussion with Dana Williams and Eve Ewing about the 1619 Project joyously lauded that a younger generation of African American scholars can often access greater resources than were available to their foremothers. Hannah-Jones pointed out that the ethos of always managing to do more with less has become veritably synonymous with African American women but that we also inhabit a moment when we may finally see what such thinkers can do if granted closer to equal resources. This and other moments provoked all to consider the auspicious, propitious future ahead.
The closing talk of the entire festival embodied Hannah-Jones’ point: Maryemma Graham’s remarks about Walker 2 were interspersed with commentary from the chairs of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. For, while the 1973 festival did receive some NEH funding thanks to Walker’s doggedly impressive labors, this 2023 re-convening was substantially supported by a panoply of philanthropic organizations, including the NEH, NEA, Mellon Foundation, and the National Museum of African American History. Much more can and must be said about this 2023 festival, but as an initial reflection, I can think of no better encapsulation of both the shifts since 1973 and the work that remains than this closing event. In the spirit of radical joy and the feminist groundwork paved by Wheatley Peters, Margaret Walker, and the women they have inspired, I look forward to seeing the flourishing of ruminations on the 2023 Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival and all it will seed in Black Studies over coming years.
1. Many now dub her Phillis (Wheatley) Peters, a gesture that aptly honors her choice as a free woman to use her married last name. (Interested readers should consult the work of Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, who has written compellingly about this in many contexts, including in The Age of Phillis.) As it was a fiftieth-anniversary honoring of the 1973 event, this festival’s title maintained the name under which she has been canonized and by which 1973 participants referred to her. Nonetheless, many in attendance discussed this matter and/or called her Phillis Peters in their presentations.
2. I cannot recommend highly enough her meticulous biography, The House Where My Soul Lives: The Life of Margaret Walker.