Acclaimed poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers to read from award-winning biography at Rumowicz lecture

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Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 12, 2021 – Award-winning poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers will discuss and read selections from her latest collection of poetry and prose, “The Age of Phillis,” as she presents the virtual Edmund S. and Nathalie Rumowicz Annual Lecture on Thursday, April 15, at 7 p.m.

As part of National Poetry Month, the virtual event also celebrates the culmination of the Caged Bird Sings Poetry Festival and the winner of the Erica Knowles Undergraduate Poetry Contest. It is free and open to the public. Register at the lecture website to receive a link to the live event.

A writer of poetry and prose that explores black culture, racism, American history and gender, Jeffers is the author of five collections of poetry. Jeffers, a professor of English at the University of Oklahoma, is a recipient of the 2018 Harper Lee Award for Literary Distinction and was recently named the winner of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry for “The Age of Phillis,” a biography of Phillis Wheatley Peters, the first African American author of a published book of poetry.

“Jeffers makes her readers urgently aware of the legacies of the 18th century,” said Martha Elena Rojas, associate professor and director of the Rumowicz Literature of the Sea Lecture. “We live in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade and in the era’s political, philosophical, and religious upheavals. Of equal importance to us today: rather than monumentalize Phillis Wheatley solely as a literary icon, Jeffers conjures her as a Black woman in relation with other Black people and, as she writes, ‘a human being who lived and loved while making her indelible mark on history.’ The book pushes us to see Wheatley’s writing and life in relation to U.S. ideals, and the betrayal of its national promises.”

In a recent story in The Oklahoman, Jeffers said she felt that “Miss Phillis chose me” to write the biography. The book, which took 15 years of archival research to complete, mixes poetry, prose and scholarship in telling Peters’ story. Peters, who was about 7 years old when John Wheatley bought her as a personal slave for his wife, Susanna, wrote her first published poem when she was about 13. Her only book of poetry, “Poems of Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” was published in 1773, challenging Western prejudices about African and female intellectual capabilities.

Released in March 2020, “The Age of Phillis” was longlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry and is a finalist for the 41st Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. In addition, Jeffers has been named one of the 60 fellows in United States Artists’ 2021 class of honorees.

Jeffers is also an essayist and novelist. “For me, ‘Letter on the Endless Mourning of the Present’ remains one of the most elucidating early pieces of writing after Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd,” Rojas said. “In this essay, Jeffers places one life in the larger context of historic disregard, betrayal, and fatal violence in the United States. Her new novel, ‘The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois’ (Harper, 2021), already is heralded by reviewers as brilliant, necessary, intimate and expansive.”

She is also the author of poetry collections “The Gospel of Barbecue” (2000), “Outlandish Blues” (2003), “Red Clay Suite” (2007), and “The Glory Gets” (2015).

The event is sponsored by the Edmund S. and Nathalie Rumowicz Seminar and Annual Lecture in Literature and the Sea, the Departments of English, Africana Studies, Women and Gender Studies, Center for Humanities and the College of Arts & Sciences.