Aspiring young poets from Knoxville’s YWCA Phyllis Wheatley Center will visit the UT Knoxville campus next Monday, June 25. Their visit will include a tour of the John C. Hodges Library and a stop by Special Collections to learn more about the poet for whom the community center is named.
The teenagers took part in two poetry workshops this spring under the tutelage of UT English professor Katy Chiles and English major Kelli Frawley—a poetry-writing workshop and a workshop on famous African American poets. In the poetry-writing workshop, students wrote poems about Knoxville, taking their inspiration from the poem “Knoxville, Tennessee” by poet Nikki Giovanni, a native Knoxvillian.
Chiles teaches and writes about African American and Native American literature. She hopes the students will be inspired to consider writing as a career option.
Phillis Wheatley was an enslaved African woman whose book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in 1773, was the first published book by an African American woman. Wheatley was seven years old when she was captured by slavers in West Africa, transported to America, and sold at auction. She was emancipated in 1773, the year her book was published. Wheatley died in childbirth at age thirty-one.
In 2014, the UT Libraries purchased a rare first edition of Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. UT’s copy of the book is particularly noteworthy because it contains a rare inscription by the poet herself. The Wheatley volume and other rare books by African-American authors will be on display when the visitors from the YWCA Phyllis Wheatley Center visit Special Collections.
The idea for the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Project emerged from conversations between professor Chiles and Christopher Caldwell, the UT Libraries’ humanities services librarian, while the two were attending a rare books conference. They collaborated with Thura Mack, the UT Libraries’ coordinator of community learning services and diversity programs, and Javiette Samuel, the director of community engagement and outreach in UT’s Office of Research, to plan the program and secure funding. Funding for the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Project was provided by the UT English Department and the UT Council for Diversity and Interculturalism. Kathy Mack, director of the YWCA Phyllis Wheatley Center, helped organize the program.
The YWCA Phyllis Wheatley Center is a community center in the east Knoxville area that offers programs for seniors and after-school enrichment for young people.