Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival • November 1-4, 2023
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 Phillis Wheatley’s “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” the first-ever published volume of poetry by an African American author. Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, June Jordan, Audrey Lourde, Sonia Sanchez, and Alice Walker, among others, gathered to create and converse at Walker’s recently established Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People (c. 1968), now the nationally renowned Margaret Walker Center.
A half-century later, JSU is proud to host the 50th Anniversary of the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival, November 1-4, 2023. Alongside ten original participants, a new generation of female writers like Jesmyn Ward and Angie Thomas will guide intergenerational discussions by, about, and for Black women authors, scholars, creatives, and the public, commemorating the legacy of 1973.
“I argue all the time that what Margaret was doing with the Black Studies Institute in Jackson, Mississippi, was very much Civil Rights activism, and it’s a pretty common notion within scholarship today that art is a form of activism,” Dr. Robert Luckett, Director of The Margaret Walker Center and History Professor, said. “That’s not a new idea, but Margaret certainly expressed it in the work she was doing at Jackson State.”
With major support from the Mellon Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities, the festival will feature four days of events, including author-led keynote sessions to listen to and participate in. The Margaret Walker Center will also invite submissions of creative writing and academic literary analysis from attendees to be featured. Dr. Luckett points out that 2023 is also the 60th anniversary of the assassination of Margaret Walker’s friend, neighbor, and fellow Civil Rights activist, Medgar Evers. “When it comes to this emphasis on Civil Rights activism and the movement, Margaret was situated in the middle of it and knew exactly where she was and what she was doing,” he said.
“When she hosted this conference in 1973, it still wasn’t clear that it was safe to host a conference like this in Jackson, Mississippi. And still, all of these women came and cared deeply for the work they were doing.”