A Reading and Q&A with Honorée Fanonne Jeffers and The Age of Phillis

“Looking for Miss Phillis”: A Conversation About The Legacy of Phillis Wheatley Peters, Authorship, and Creative Scholarship

Luis Santos and Morgan Hylton

“This is a complicated space,” she writes explicitly, setting the stage and premise of her work as well as the life and love for Phillis. As a poet, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers intersects the creative, imaginative, and speculative aspects of her book with modern scholarship as a scholar. Jeffers has contributed groundbreaking research on Phillis Wheatley Peters’ biography by filling the historical gaps of her life as an enslaved poet and later as a manumitted African American married woman freed from bondage.

A Professor of English at the University of Oklahoma, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is the author of five books of poetry and the recipient of a lifetime achievement of honors, including the Harper Lee Award for Literary Distinction and induction into the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame. In recognition of her historical research on Phillis Wheatley Peters and other early African Americans, Jeffers was elected into the American Antiquarian Society (AAS), a learned organization located in Worcester, Massachusetts, to which fourteen U.S. Presidents have been elected. In addition to her election, her 2009 Robert and Charlotte Baron Fellowship at the AAS enabled her writing of The Age of Phillis (Wesleyan, 2020), which was long-listed for the 2020 National Book Award in Poetry. Although she has received several fellowships from prestigious organizations – such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Library of Congress, among others – she established lasting Worcester ties during her time at the AAS. The Worcester and Clark communities have therefore been fortunate to have Jeffers visit and speak about her work and experiences a few times, including two virtual events within the last month.

On Thursday, Nov. 5, the AAS hosted a virtual public program called “Phillis Wheatley Peters and African Lineage and Kinship in The Age of Phillis.” The event featured Jeffers as the evening program’s presenter with approximately 50 people from all over the world attending the event. In her introduction, Jeffers made an immediate personal connection to her book: “It is not a coincidence that my latest book of poetry The Age of Phillis is a hybrid of poetry, scholarship, and nonfiction. I too am a hybrid. A proud African American reared in Black communities but also someone of indigenous background. A poet, essayist, fiction writer, and novelist who embarked on a heart-rending journey based upon the life and times of Phillis Wheatley Peters, the mother of African American literature.”

During the Q&A session, Jeffers offered some remarkable insights about what poetry can do in today’s age in filling the historical gaps of Wheatley Peters’ biography. As a poet, Jeffers expressed, “I do so in service of her legacy and not to diminish the profound and important work of others scholars.”

A week later on Friday, Nov. 12, Professor Meredith Neuman’s English seminar: “American Print Culture at the Margins” hosted a reading and Q&A section with Honorée Fanonne Jeffers for the Clark community. In addition to reminiscing on her time spent in Worcester and reading selections of The Age of Phillis, Jeffers generously answered questions from gathered students and faculty about influences on her writing style, her writing and research process, and the pressures and insecurities associated with creative scholarship. Throughout the reading, Jeffers read the following poems from The Age of Phillis: “An Issue of Mercy #1”, “Dafa Rafet”, “Before the Taking of Goonay”, “Desk of Mary Wheatley…”, “Susannah Wheatley Tends to Phillis in Her Asthmatic Suffering”, “(Original) Black Lives Matter: Irony”, “Blues: Harpsichord, or, Boston Massacre”, and finally, “Blues: In the Small Room Where He Lives with His Wife”. Chronologically, these poems reimagine Phillis Wheatley Peters as a child with West African roots to the remarkable and free African American woman that she eventually becomes. Eventually, Jeffers considers herself to be a Blues poet and makes a connection between our modern reality by “drawing parallels between what we see now…” and a past not unlike the present and our political reality like the parallel between the poem entitled “(Original) Black Lives Matter: Irony” and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The following Q&A was started with questions from Morgan Hylton (class of 2021) and Luis Santos (class of 2021), to explore how Jeffers wrote her book and how she views it, her new status as a creative writer and a scholar, and the state of Wheatley Peters Scholarship as a whole.

Hylton (‘21): My first question, to kind of get us started, is about your process with creating the book. I know that you kind of balanced archival and historical sources as well as your own creative process. So I guess my question is how did you balance those two different sources, and which would you say you relied upon the most when you were creating this book?

Jeffers: “Well… So I’m gonna, I always try to keep it real with people… Even though I’m a little scared sometimes… to be honest about what my process is… one of the reasons I’m a little scared is that as a poet people automatically think poets aren’t really intellectuals… Sometimes we get a little shade about that from our colleagues in literary criticism, right, even though we know if there were no poets… half of literary criticism would be gone. But that said, let me just be honest. So I write, I read, I went through the archives, and I also had dreams. So many of my poems come to me in dreams… So you have to learn how to balance that, right? I mean it’s fine for things to come to you in dreams when you’re writing fiction. It’s fine for things to come to you in dreams when you are writing confessional poetry, but this was a very unique book, right, we talked about that. And so, the thing about that is, is that I knew that I had to have the history there. There are a lot of poems that did not make it into the book, that I have outtakes. So poems that I loved, but I just was like, ‘Hmm, this isn’t working for this,’ which is why it took 15 years, right. So probably I’d say maybe 40, 30 to 40 pages, maybe even 50 pages. So I think some of those poems may show up in a ‘Selected Poems.’

The creative process is different, but not so much. You read, you take notes, you take a lot more notes, and then you see what, you know–not so much different from being a literary critic, right–and then you sort of see what happens. The thing that you don’t want to do, and I’ve seen this (and I’m not gonna throw shade on people that I’ve seen it in!) is that you can’t shoehorn the history into the poems, right. The poems have to evolve as art. That’s the hardest part, even as they are based upon primary and secondary research. So, many times I would get an idea for a poem, I’d get a dream, I’d write it down, I’d set it aside, I’d go back to my research, and then if the research sparked something about some of those lines that I wrote down, then I knew to combine those if that makes sense. Right.

But for example, I really wanted to do a lot more. I wanted to deal with Partus Sequitur Ventrem from 1662, ‘offspring follows belly,’ which really has changed the trajectory of Black families, right. I wanted to talk about that, I wanted to talk way more about Africa, going all the way back to Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, there were all these sorts of things that I wanted to do, but they didn’t fit what my trajectory was, what my narrative was. And then once I realized what my argument was going to be, right, or one of my arguments, that we do not recognize Phillis Wheatley Peters truly. We see her as Black or African in phenotype, but we have disconnected her, ruptured her, from her African origins and thus she seems to have no community. So probably around 2014-2015 is when I started to realize that that was one of the arguments, right. And also that’s when I realized that I wasn’t going to focus on the Wheatleys as surrogate parents, but the complication of a family rearing someone and showing them affection and maybe even love, but also being involved in the accursed enterprise of slavery, and how complicated that was going to be.”

Santos (‘21): So my question to you is: In thinking about creative scholarship, how would you classify The Age of Phillis as a genre? What’s at stake with genre? How do you think it changes the validity of scholarship on Wheatley Peters if The Age of Phillis is only classified as a creative work?

Jeffers: “First of all, I think that we need to be really, really aware that historians and literary scholars use their imagination all the time. I think it’s just the way that it’s framed, right, that there are sort of, you know, fences that you have to hop or goals that you have to meet, right, in order to become a scholar in academia, you have to have a PhD., right. But when you read many beautiful historic books, it’s not simply that they’re saying date, date, this happened, this happened, this happened, this happened, and this happened. They look at the work, and this may go back to Morgan’s question, they look at the work and then they try to craft what is historically possible, right, in that, right… We see a lot of speculations. Okay, we see a lot.

We see a lot of speculation about what might have happened, what could have happened. Scholars do that all the time… When we think, and I’m saying this very delicately because I have the greatest of respect for Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., right, but the whole thing about the trial that has… woo Lord, I mean, it never happened! Joanna Brooks did the research! There was never a trial, but in Critical Inquiry, he said ‘imagine the scene!’ And then the next thing you know it took off! So, scholars do this all the time. The difference is I just have better skills at writing. I’m not trying to be rude, but you know, I’m a poet, right. And so when I do things there has to be beauty. But you’ve got some–let me tell you something–you have some scholars who are closeted creative writers! You can read some of that and you’re like, ‘ooh, the texture of this prose is fantastic.’

I think that what my role is… I was dragged kicking and screaming into this project. I mean I have to be honest. I was supposed to write eight poems. That was it. That’s what I wrote my proposal for to go to the American Antiquarian Society, and then it’s like The Godfather where Michael Corleone says ‘Every time I leave, they pull me back in,’ right. And so that’s how I ended up writing the book, but I do believe I was chosen to write this book, right. And I think that my new ministry, is not only to make sure we all call Miss Phillis ‘Phillis Wheatley Peters,’ right, that we acknowledge her as an African person, that we stop… erasing her African parents and giving slave owners, you know, the credit for everything that she did, right… and also my biggest one is to throw that Odell memoir under the bus, drive over it, crunch its bones, and just kill it dead! Okay… if it’s the last thing I do. Because it’s racist, it’s filled with lies, it’s just the whole thing, right. And then that whole, like, cult of domesticity thing, that Black women were never allowed to be a part of, which is the irony of it, right. But I think the biggest thing also is to show intersections between scholarship and creative writing, right… I have read poems based on history that are lazy, okay. And so I feel like there is a difference between what I have done.

When you’re looking at somebody–I never mentioned someone I’m going to criticize harshly, so I love Saidiya Hartman, I’m always gonna, you know, I worship at the altar of Saidiya Hartman–when you look at Saidiya Hartman’s work Lose Your Mother, that again is both scholarship and creative writing. And she has clearly spent so much time researching, and going into the archives, and then spending time in Africa such that, such that. I think there is a difference between somebody who just uses history as a quick point of departure, and let me say that’s who I used to be, right. That’s why I used to be, I mean, I’m not going to point them out to you, but I’m embarrassed by some of the little mistakes I made in earlier books because I was, you know, sloppy. And so the thing now that, you know, now I’ve done this, is people expect me to get stuff right, so I’m very careful now….

I think the biggest thing is that we… want to start respecting that smart people don’t necessarily have PhDs. And there’s, there’s a lot of gatekeeping that happened, right, so the blessing. What’s the curse? The curse was one of my former colleagues who is now retired, so, you know, I’m not going to call their name–I try not to talk in public about current colleagues–but I remember coming to them and saying, ‘Can you, can you, you know, give me some books to read about post-structuralist theory?’ you know, which is dry and boring and you know I don’t do it, but I’m one of those kinds of people where when I do it, I do it well, I go all the way down the rabbit hole. And they said to me, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. Just, just go shopping.’ So, I did 15 years of research, so I could say ‘I shopped, clearly, and I did my research too.’ Don’t hate ‘cause I’m cute, okay right, I’m gonna be cute at all times, and I’m also going to be smart at all times. But I’m also not ever the like, the genius in the room, I’m the person that sees things critically that other people don’t see. Okay, I’m somebody… like I’m the one that saw the ring, right. And all of these people have been studying the engraving, and I was like, ‘is that a ring in her nose?’ Right. And then I remember Kathy Kelly, at Commonplace, was like ‘Oh my god, Honorée, that’s a ring in her nose!’ So I’m the one that sees that kind of stuff. But my sister is the genius, she’s the one that had the genius IQ and all that. So I work a little harder too.”

Reflections on Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ Poetry Reading of The Age of Phillis

Photo Courtesy of Professor Meredith Neuman

Morgan: I have had the privilege of hearing Professor Jeffers speak multiple times, and I am always moved by her creativity, passion, humility, scholarship, and the vast literary and historical subjects with which she is constantly, simultaneously engaging (though as I told Professor Neuman, she could talk about sliced bread and have me head over heels!). As a current Phillis Wheatley Peters researcher, listening to Professor Jeffers has not only broadened my own interpretations of Wheatley Peters works but also broadened the scholarly community with whom I am engaging as I write. Too often, our common “academic sources”–the MLA Database, JSTOR, and other hotspots of the coveted peer-reviewed journal–become white-washed echo chambers, fencing non-academics, non-PhDs, artists, and oftentimes those with lived experiences rather than research credentials out of our definition of knowledge. Once we have done our database filtering, abstract skimming, and InterLibrary Loan requesting, how often have we thought about the identities of the scholars on our bibliographies? How often have we asked if we had consulted women of color, BIPOC individuals, immigrants, LGBTQ+ writers, and artists? How often have we Googled to see who exactly we were citing? How often have we moved beyond “scholarly sources” in our research, actively seeking out poems, newspaper and blog articles, and Instagram posts to include in our analysis?

As Luis concludes, “may we continue to keep ‘Looking for Miss Phillis’”, but may we also continue to keep looking for Professor Jeffers and others like her–true wells of knowledge who remain overlooked by the academic community, purely through arbitrary markers like identity, an “official” profession or field, and educational attainment. May our studies include their voices, highlight their contributions, and continue to push the institution of academia towards greater equity and inclusion.

Luis: In researching Phillis Wheatley Peters’ life (and inner life), reimagining how she lived, and her extraordinary journey, I am deeply moved by her story and those of others who did not see the light of day because of print culture implications, implications that favor a white reader-reception. See the history for how it is, critique it, and acknowledge that it was a white history with majority-white institutions not for African Americans and people of color. It falls on modern historians, literary scholars, and creative scholars like Jeffers to reimagine the past and tell a story. The coinage of the term “creative scholarship” is not random. We must embrace this term in its multiple and interdisciplinary meanings to continue to do the difficult work, the necessary work, and the honest work of digging past our biases and prejudices by looking at the facts and having conversations about authorship and ownership.

As a person of color, the events featuring Honorée Fanonne Jeffers are memorable to me. I will carry these memories and moments after Clark University. I am honored to be part of the English Department because of these events, collaborations, and discussions on our reality and that the past is not so different from our present moment because sometimes we are only human. A special thank you to Professor Meredith Nueman for putting this event together and coordinating these discourses. May we continue to excel in asking the important critical questions of our age and what is at stake when we ask those questions. May we continue to keep “Looking for Miss Phillis” and many extraordinary women among her, Black women full of passion and hope towards a better future for themselves, their families, and everyone.

Among friends, colleagues, and professors, Morgan and I cannot recommend this compelling book collection of poetry enough. To get your own copy of The Age of Phillis, visit the site here.