In this episode, we’ll discuss the life and work of poet Phillis Wheatley Peters. Kidnapped in West Africa, Wheatley Peters was renamed after the ship that brought her to Boston to be sold as a slave. A precocious child, she was given an education, which was unusual at a time when enslaved African-Americans could be punished for knowing how to read. At the age of 20, Wheatley Peters became the first published African-American author with Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). The acclaim she received—both in the American colonies and abroad—must have been particularly sweet after enduring earlier skepticism about her ability to write. She gained her freedom in 1778, but died, impoverished, at only 31.
For this episode we are pleased to speak with Barbara McCaskill, Mona Narain, and Sarah Ruffing Robbins, co-directors of the Wheatley Peters Project, which aims to preserve and honor her legacy. You can read their full bios below. The Wheatley Peters Project is hosting many public programs—both in person and online—in celebration of Wheatley Peters and the 250th anniversary of the landmark publication of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Check out their past and upcoming events here and join in the celebration!
Barbara, Mona, and Sarah are interviewed by Nate King, Digital Content Associate at the American Writers Museum. This conversation originally took place July 26, 2023 and was recorded over Zoom.
Barbara McCaskill is a professor of English, an affiliate faculty member of Women’s Studies and African American Studies, and an associate academic director in the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts at the University of Georgia. She has written or co-edited five books focused on African American or Multicultural American Literature, and she has co-edited with Caroline Gebhard a forthcoming essay collection for Cambridge University Press’s 17-volume African American Literature in Transition series. She serves as co-PI for public-facing humanities collaborations such as the Civil Rights Digital Library, which was supported by the IMLS, and Culture and Community at Penn Center National Historic Landmark, funded by the Mellon Foundation.
Mona Narain is Professor of English and affiliated with the Asian Studies program, Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, and Women and Gender Studies departments at TCU. She is the Scholarship Editor of ABO: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1660-1830 an open access, peer-reviewed, scholarly journal with a readership in over 150 countries, and co-editor of Transits: Literature, Culture and Thought, 1650-1850, a longstanding scholarly book series with Bucknell University Press. She has received grants from the NEH, Ohio Humanities Council, and MacGregor Foundation, among others, and is serving as a reviewer for the NEH Fellowship division. She has published on and teaches courses on multiethnic literature, women and gender, postcolonial studies, and a recent chapter on early eighteenth-century Black and Asian writers in the UK in The Cambridge History of Black and Asian British Writing, among others. Her current research focuses on oceanic connections between the Global South, The Pacific, and the Black Atlantic, colonialism. Her work on Phillis Wheatley Peters is part of this larger research project.
Sarah Ruffing Robbins is the Lorraine Sherley Chair in Literature at TCU, where she is affiliated with both the English Department and Women and Gender Studies. Sarah has published 10 academic books and has directed numerous public humanities projects, often including collaboration with schoolteachers and community leaders. She teaches courses in transatlantic culture, American literature, women and gender studies, cross-cultural rhetoric, and writing studies.