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  • Writer's pictureThe Magnolia Literacy Project

LaWanda Dickens "Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival: It's Personal for Me"

Three decades after graduating from Jackson State University, Dickens writes about an experience as a faculty member at her alma mater, one that she feels is an extension of her identity formation when she was a student at the HBCU.

An educator, writer, and former journalist, Dickens is a Brookhaven, Mississippi, native and graduate of Jackson State University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in English/Journalism and a Master of Arts in English. She also attended Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, where she studied Composition and Rhetoric. Her research interests include Hip Hop studies; service-learning in college composition courses; and students' transfer of classroom knowledge to campus and community leadership.

"Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival: It's Personal for Me"

Decades of teaching in higher education have exposed me to rich professional experiences, but being a part of the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival planning team at Jackson State University is personal.

This event, the 50th anniversary celebration of Margaret Walker's 1973 tribute to Wheatley, will allow our campus family, the surrounding community, the Magnolia State, and guests (both nationally and internationally) to experience the excitement Walker brought to Jackson, Mississippi, when she invited 30 leading Black female authors to JSU for a pioneering conference and bicentennial celebration of Wheatley’s poems. The line-up included Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, June Jordan, Audrey Lourde, Sonia Sanchez, and Alice Walker. Ten of those women will come back to JSU during the week of November 1-4, 2023, for the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival.

What makes co-planning this event special to me is the full-circle element of my identity awareness & appreciation process that began when I enrolled at JSU as a student in 1988.

Coming out of a predominantly white, rural K-12 school in Brookhaven, Mississippi, I suffered from a crippling identity crisis throughout my childhood. I later developed pride in who I am at JSU. As an English major, I was introduced to literature featuring Black female protagonists who were just like my Momma and other women in my life. For the first time, I saw myself and my narrative represented in books and in the classroom.

I can’t even begin to find the words to describe how I’m feeling right now. For the next nine months, I will be working with colleagues to bring some of those same Black women writers — whom Walker hosted, who taught me the meaning of self-love — back to my alma mater and workplace.

The reboot of Margaret Walker’s tribute to Phillis Wheatley is loading. I’m ready!


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