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OU English professor's poetry book about Phillis Wheatley makes longlist for 2020 National Book Awards

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Honorée Jeffers

Honorée Jeffers is a professor of English at OU. Her book "The Age of Phillis" was longlisted for the 2020 National Book Awards.  

OU Professor of English Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ new book “The Age of Phillis” was longlisted for the 2020 National Book Awards. 

The National Book Awards is an annual celebration of the best writing in America, according to the National Book Foundation website. Each year, the awards honor nonfiction, fiction, translated literature, young people’s literature and poetry titles. 

The National Book Foundation accepts submissions for the awards every year starting in March, according to its website. The foundation assembles a group of twenty-five distinguished judges, and each category is assessed by a panel of five expert judges, who then select a list of 10 books in each category from between 150 and 500 titles for the longlist. After the longlists have been announced, the list is narrowed down to five finalists per category and a winner is selected.

Jeffers’ book is one of 10 titles on the longlist for the poetry category this year, and she said she is extremely honored to be nominated.

“I'm so peaceful and so grateful,” Jeffers said. “And it's a wonderful moment, to be able to rest in gratitude instead of getting mad that somebody got something that I don't have.”

The finalists will be announced Oct. 6 and the winners will be announced Nov. 18.

Jeffers said her book was released right before the COVID-19 quarantine period and had initially received minimal reviews and recognition, but this honor has brought attention to her book that she had not anticipated.

“I was like, ‘Well, it is what it is. I did my best.’ ... Then all of a sudden, the New Yorker review comes out,” Jeffers said. “I was like, ‘What just happened?’ And that changed the whole conversation about the book.”

“The Age of Phillis” is a collection of poems based on 15 years of research about Phillis Wheatley Peters, an enslaved African American woman in the 18th century who wrote controversial poetry speaking out against the ideals of the founding fathers.

Jeffers said Wheatley was the first African-American woman in history to publish a book of poetry. 

The inspiration for this book was sparked by an article she read in the New Yorker by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2003, Jeffers said. The article was an excerpt from his book, “The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters With the Founding Fathers.” 

“I bought the book, and that's when I started,” Jeffers said.

The book initiated Jeffers’ investigation of Wheatley and the historical context of her life. Jeffers said her research led her to new discoveries about the history of racism in America, especially in Wheatley’s relationships with the founding fathers. 

“So then I said, ‘Well, if Phillis Wheatley bothered Thomas Jefferson so much, I've got to figure out what this was about,’” Jeffers said. “When I read the book, what started to come out, was that she was challenging these Enlightenment ideas about the inferiority of Black people.”

Jeffers said her research allowed her to feel more in control of the instances of racism she has encountered in her life. 

“You can't control how other people think of you and treat you, but you want to pretend you can,” Jeffers said. “So for me, reading and studying allows me to feel a bit of control over something I don't have control over.”

Jeffers utilized her years of research as inspiration for a collection of poems of her own, and said she utilized historians’ abilities to contextualize to create a unique artistic perspective. 

“What I also wanted to do was provide the historical context, down to the smallest details that I could find,” Jeffers said. “So that when I got ready to jump into the imagination, into the gaps, I wanted to have a realistic kind of way.”

According to Jeffers, the importance of poetry is its ability to provide a new interpretation of history. 

“We provide beauty,” Jeffers said. “We interpret with beauty. There's something about the arts that you can't put your finger on. You can't define it, but it is deeply powerful.”

Wheatley’s story and the historical context surrounding it are very important to share with the world, Jeffers said.

“When you reconfigure the past, you reconfigure the present,” Jeffers said. "When you talk about women, and their involvement in the American experiment, when you talk about African Americans, when you talk about Native Americans, you have to talk about the whole thing.”

In addition to her accomplishments in writing, Jeffers is a well-respected English professor at OU. English junior Marilyn Todd Anthony is enrolled in Jeffers’ beginning poetry writing class, which is virtual this semester due to COVID-19 regulations.

Anthony said despite the virtual platform, Jeffers is still enthusiastic about interacting with her students.

“She makes herself very available,” Anthony said. “I have that comfort that if I need help, she’s not hard to get a hold of.”

Anthony said she is excited to learn from such an accomplished poet because it has helped her improve and refine her craft.

“I know that the set of eyes that are looking at my work are ones of a master,” Anthony said. “She’s super gifted and she gives us a lot of great pointers. I feel confident in this class.”

Jeffers’ work has impacted many communities, including her students at OU, but she is excited to see how this recognition has expanded her reach to a national level. 

“I've won good awards,” Jeffers said. “But I've never had a national platform before.” 

The national recognition and the process of writing this book have helped liberate her from caring about others’ criticisms of her work, Jeffers said.

“The fact that I have such joy in my work, that's what really allowed me to stop caring,” Jeffers said. “When you have joy in what you're doing, you know that what you're doing is important. And I know this book is important. It has changed the conversation surrounding Phillis Wheatley Peters.” 

Emmy is a professional writing and modern dance senior, and a news reporter for The Daily.

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