Honoring the work of Phillis Wheatley Peters

By Ana Salgado, Oct. 18, 2022

On Oct. 11, a virtual roundtable co-moderated by English and Modern Language Cal Poly Pomona professors honored the 250th anniversary of the publication of Phillis Wheatley Peters’ “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” the first poetry collection written by an African American woman.

Peters’ writings combine traditionalism with beautiful garden imagery and a deep sense of spirituality. Her writings are now extensively taught in many literary traditions, including the legend and folktale genres and Anglo-American literature, which is written by native English speakers from North America, particularly those with European ancestry or culture.

The event’s main objective was to consider the life and legacy of Peters’ and to bring together three leading experts on her writings: Cassander Smith, a professor at the University of Alabama, Brigitte Fielder, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Tara A. Bynum, a professor at the University of Iowa. All were introduced by Rachel Burton, a professor of English and Modern Languages at CPP and one of the event’s comoderator.

Bynum initiated the conversation by stating, “I couldn’t help but think of Obour Tanner; she’s Wheatley increasingly better-known friend whom she exchanged letters with for period of years,” shared Bynum. “Tanner keeps these letters no matter what struggle she or the world was going through she tries to preserve them because they hold value within their shared legacy.” 

The roundtable lasted for one hour as Fielder shared a PowerPoint of Peters’ works and photographs of Peters’ along with other enslaved women.

Fielder highlights how Peters stands out as an exception among African American women writers because she showed a long-standing interest in writing and began her writing career as a child.

Lastly Smith touched on one of many of the letters of Peters’ and connected towards a scholarship by highlighting within her poems acknowledging Peters’ struggles and accomplishments.

The expert’s words and style on Peters’ book are a grand message by a Black woman to Black people. Kate E. Ozment, an English and Modern Language CPP professor and one the event’s organizers, liked what the experts had to say. 

“It’s different for me to be able to introduce students to people who specialize in Wheatley because I believe that often professors who teach you in the classroom frequently alternate between teaching you about the topics we are most knowledgeable about, and those we are most interested in,” said Ozment. “I think it was a way of connecting students with scholarship and expertise and have access to it. 

According to Ozment, the experts take students through literary tradition, therefore having them have a conversation at CPP would benefit students in a manner she couldn’t. The experts would give a better perspective on the legacy of African American literature through Peters’ story as a writer.

Natalie Layseca, a liberal studies student shared their feelings after attending the event. 

“I think it’s vital to understand that people are multifaceted, and you don’t have to fit into this cliché on what your abilities are you are more than what people perceive of you,” said Layseca. “I feel like people of color and minorities and their artistic work goes unappreciated and unnoticed. Most of her poetry were based on her experiences, and I believe that stories about people matter in general, regardless of where they come from.”

By visiting the CPP library, students and faculty can discover more about Peters’ poetry. 

Feature image courtesy of Ana Salgado

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