Exhibits in Special Collections

On Various Subjects: 250 Years of Phillis Wheatley

976 Memorial Library, 728 State Street, Madison, WI 53706

August 28, 2023 – December 22, 2023

Open Monday-Friday 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m

Poster for exhibit
On Various Subjects: 
250 Years of Phillis Wheatley
August 28 through December 22, 2023
Department of Special Collections
Artist Credit: Alexis Pauline Gumbs

Exhibit celebrating the 250th anniversary of the first book of African American poetry and exploring its author’s long legacy.

In September 1773, Phillis Wheatley published Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral in London, becoming the first African American writer to publish a book of poetry, and only the third colonial American woman of any race to publish a book. It included a copperplate engraved portrait of her seated at a writing desk with pen, paper, and book, the first individual portrait of an African American woman. This exhibit celebrates the semiquincentennial of Poems on Various Subjects and traces how Wheatley’s poetry, image, and name have been reprinted, recirculated, and remixed by and for educators, activists, artists, and readers of all ages in every era over the last 250 years. Here, Wheatley’s 18th-century publications, highlighted by the first edition of Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral, are in conversation with the two and a half centuries of Black art, thought, and action that she directly inspired. 

On Various Subjects: 250 Years of Phillis Wheatley invites you to witness how Wheatley’s legacy has been held out as an example of excellence among Black people (particularly girls and women), celebrated as an inspiration for artists and intellectuals, and presented as evidence in arguments against the degradations of slavery and racism.

On Various Subjects: 250 Years of Phillis Wheatley is curated by UW-Madison professors Brigitte Fielder and Jonathan Senchyne in collaboration with the Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture and the Department of Special Collections in UW-Madison Libraries. 

Exhibit highlights include: the 1773 first edition of Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral including an engraved portrait of Phillis Wheatley, an array of other Wheatley publications from her lifetime and the early nineteenth century, children’s books telling Wheatley’s life story and poetry, writing by Black feminists drawing inspiration from Wheatley, and more. 

Please make a plan to visit the exhibit, bring a class, or a student/community group. Contact Jonathan Senchyne (senchyne@wisc.edu) or Brigitte Fielder (brigitte.fielder@wisc.edu) to inquire about bringing a group or arranging a guided group session. The exhibit is free and open to the public during Department of Special Collections business hours (M-F, 9-5). Some form of ID is required to enter Memorial Library.

The annual Schewe Lecture, “Obour Tanner’s Archive; or, How to Remember Your (Famous) Friend, Phillis Wheatley,” Dr. Tara A. Bynum (Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies, University of Iowa), took place on October 19, 2023, 4:30 PM, in the Wisconsin Historical Society Auditorium.