Soul Sessions Podcast: Dr. Ebony Lumumba
Today, Yolanda Clay-Moore is in conversation with Jackson's First Lady and Jackson State University English professor, Dr. Ebony Lumumba.
Dr. Lumumba gives us insight into the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival, November 1 through 4 at Jackson State University.
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In 1973, trailblazing poet and writer, Margaret Walker invited 30 leading Black female authors to Jackson State University for a pioneering conference and bicentennial celebration of her book "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral." The first ever published volume of poetry by an African American author. 50 years later, the conference reconvenes.
Hey, it's Paul Wolf with a front row seat to conversations on culture from Jackson, Mississippi. We call our podcast Soul Sessions. It's the people, places, and events that make the City With Soul shine. Today, my colleague Yolanda Clay-Moore is in conversation with Jackson's First Lady and Jackson State University English professor, Dr. Ebony Lumumba. Dr. Lumumba gives us insight into the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival, November 1 through 4 at Jackson State University.
We're celebrating 50 years. How does that feel for your department and for Jackson State University?
Well, it feels incredible from my standpoint to have such a rich history that we can celebrate. Oftentimes, we get bound up in contemporary narratives that can sometimes feel stifling, but it is always reassuring to know where you came from and that you came from such rich stock.
It feels good to know that we've got this legacy of celebrating not only writers, but Black women writing, and that folks across the globe recognize Jackson State in our department and the Margaret Walker Center for doing that sort of work for such a long duration of time.
You know, Dr. Walker is one of our Jackson icons. Just talk about the bravery that she had in 1973 to pull this festival off.
I love that you describe it as bravery because it was exactly that. I mean, one, I'll say from a personal place, Margaret Walker is a beacon for me. She walked the same proverbial halls that I'm walking now as an English professor at Jackson State. She was here for 30 years of her career, and she chose Jackson. She chose Jackson State.
A writer of her caliber could have been anywhere in the world with the mentors and the skill that she had, but the fact that she chose us means so much to me. And so she wanted others to see back in '73 just how special this campus and this city was and how integral and critical these spaces were to the legacy of black women writing.
It was brave to send out those letters because we're thinking '73. She wasn't texting anybody. She was sending these letters and her name carried so much weight and from right here in Jackson, Mississippi that these writers came to our campus, that they were excited to be in this space and see what she had built, and also to really celebrate what they were building together with also paying this homage to Phyllis Wheatley, who is the foundation for any woman, Black, white, or of any sort of race or nationality writing in this country.
It was brave to imagine that she could pull this off and she did more than pull it off. I mean, they had speaking sessions and readings and plenaries and dinners, and I imagine some of the stuff that wasn't documented that they were just able to love on each other the way their sisters do. But we've got that archival presence of the photographs from '73 taken by Roy Lewis where you can just feel the spirit of sisterhood through the images.
That really guided me, Yolanda. I didn't know if we could do it. I didn't know if we could do it for the 50th, really do justice to what she built 50 years ago. But just thinking about this woman who was a wife and a mother and a creative and a professor just like me that she was able to do this, I thought, well, we could certainly give it a try. She has been the guiding force and light this entire process.
I mean, that's completely incredible. When you really think about the sense of time, just 10 years prior to that was the assassination of Medgar Evers.
Yeah, her neighbor.
Her neighbor. Her neighbor, yeah. And you talked about her name carrying a lot of weight. Her name was the reason he lived in her neighborhood. She vouched for him. But 50 years later, we still have seven of 10 living attendees from the original festival.
That's right. Who were more than excited. Let me tell you, I was a bit nervous to reach out to Alice Walker, Sandra Funchess, Paula Giddings, and say, "Hey, what you doing November 2023?" But when we mentioned what we were doing and that we were honoring Margaret Walker and that we were not attempting to reproduce, but to just really celebrate and submit what she had done in '73, they were ecstatic to hear that somebody was honoring that legacy. They couldn't wait to sign up.
Even Nikki Giovanni, who had another engagement was devastated that she couldn't be here with us. She's trying to figure out when else she can come and celebrate with us. That was the kind of spirit that surrounded that event in '73, and it stayed with these women. Seven of the living 10 said, "Oh, without a doubt. We are there to participate. We cannot wait. We're so happy you're doing this."
Then it was almost like we were reconnecting girlfriends from back in the day. They were like, "Oh, my goodness. She's going to be there? What is she doing now?" They kind of reverted back to more youthful days over the phone or over email with the excitement.
And speaking of some of the writers that we're going to have, we have Jackson's own Angie Thomas, as well as Tonea Stewart.
I remember my cousin who attended Jackson State participated in a play “For Colored Girls Only.” I think it had something about suicide and the rainbow ...
“When The Rainbow Isn't Enough.”
“When The Rainbow Isn't Enough,” thank you.
Which is, I mean, that's iconic. Right? If you've never seen it, stop what you're doing right now and find a production of “For Colored Girls.” That's part of the rich history. Like Tonea Stewart, so many of her students are still on this campus as professors and mentors still in this community. She loves us, again, as a campus and as a community. And that means a whole lot when people who have had these decorated and who still have these decorated careers, think about the space that you inhabit with such reverence, and it keeps you going another day. It keeps you and gives you perspective about your role and the weight that we carry, the giants that came before us.
And so we're really excited about that. But you mentioned Angie Thomas, Jackson's very own, who also grew up in the neighborhood where Margaret Walker and Medgar Evers lived. Right? The Georgetown community in West Jackson. But we decided that there was no way that we could recreate the magic that Margaret Walker harnessed here in '73. But what we could do is honor it and try to take it one step further. And so we incorporated the contemporary, the sort of new vanguard of black women writing like Angie Thomas and Nick Stone, Jesmyn Ward, Imani Perry, Eve Ewing, these women who are breaking barriers themselves on the shoulders of Phillis Wheatley, on the shoulders of Margaret Walker and her contemporaries who were here in '73.
We just wanted to kind of move it forward. We know we couldn't do what she did. We are not her at all, but we wanted to honor it by allowing these intergenerational conversations and really showcasing, look, Margaret, what you did. Look what you all built. I get emotional about it because look, Phillis Wheatley, the second woman and the first Black woman who published a book in this country 250 years ago. Look what you burst. This community of brilliant and bold Black women who are writing to literally save our lives. That's what we are attempting to showcase in November.
And we can't wait to embrace them here in the City With Soul.
I want participants to not only get excited and invigorated and inspired by the festival, but about the city that surrounds it. Margaret Walker was intentional about asking people to come to Jackson, Mississippi. And those of us who have been either born, bred, or buttered here, we know how special this place is.
My hope is that participants also experience the beauty and the poetry that exists in this city, and the food and the art, and the music and the creativity, but most of all in our people who are our most precious resource in the City With Soul.
That's Dr. Ebony Lumumba in conversation with Yolanda Clay-Moore. The Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival begins on November 1 on the campus of Jackson State University. And if you haven't registered, there are still several events you'll be able to take part in. Look for links to those in our show notes.
Soul Sessions is produced by Visit Jackson, the destination organization for Mississippi's Capital City. Our executive producers are Jonathan Pettus and Dr. Ricky Thigpen, and I'm our managing editor. You want to know more about our mission, about what we do at Visit Jackson? Find that info at visitjackson.com.
I'm Paul Wolf, and you've been listening to Soul Sessions.