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Celebrating the first African and second woman in the British colonies to publish a book of poetry

This September marks the 250th anniversary of a profound literary and cultural achievement: the publication on Sept. 1, 1773, in London of “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” by a teenage Boston poet named Phillis Wheatley, who was at the time enslaved.

The poet had arrived in Boston in 1761 as a young girl, perhaps 7 or 8 years old, kidnapped from the coast of Africa. She was bought by a merchant family, the Wheatleys, and named after the ship that brought her. Eventually freed, she lived in Boston through some of the most exciting years of U.S. history, including religious awakenings and the birth of the nation. She married a free Black shopkeeper, John Peters, and died young, at age 31.

On Sept. 14, 2023, join us at the Black Cultural Center (95 Fort Douglas Blvd., Bldg 603, Salt Lake City, UT 84112) from 4 to 6:30 p.m. to engage with Phillis Wheatley Peters’ complex life and even more complex legacy as the second Colonial American woman—and the first of African descent—to publish a book of poetry. Devout, learned, courageous, brilliant and the regular correspondent of clergy and statesmen as well as fellow enslaved Africans, Wheatley’s life and poetry continue to amaze and provoke.

Speakers will include:

  • Ruma Chopra, dean of the School for Cultural and Social Transformation, is a historian of the American Revolution who situates the early Americas in a comparative context. She will speak about where Wheatley fits into the British Atlantic world.
  • Hollis Robbins, dean of the College of Humanities, is a scholar of American and African American poetry. She has written and published extensively on Wheatley’s poetry, her biographers and her influence. Robbins is currently writing a new edition of “The Trials of Phillis Wheatley” with Henry Louis Gates Jr. She will speak about the latest scholarship on Wheatley and the impact of this work.
  • Jaimie Crumley, an assistant professor in gender studies and ethnic studies in the School of Cultural and Social Transformation, is a historian of Black women’s lives and politics in 18th- and 19th-century New England. She will speak about how Wheatley arrived in Boston in 1761 and what her exemplary act of publishing her writing as a teenager and her subsequent challenges as a young adult reveal about the precarity of life in the late 18th century.

Phillis Wheatley

“This famous engraving adorned the first edition of her book when it was published in 1773 and is considered the first image of a U.S. woman in the act of writing,” Crumley said.

Faculty and students from the divisions of ethnic studies and gender studies and the Department of English will read some of Wheatley’s letters and poetry aloud during the event.

The celebration also will feature food from Makaya Caters, poetry reading and conversation about Wheatley’s impact on the world in her time and ours.