Benjamin Banneker & Us Book Talk
June 18 , 5:30 pm - 6:30 pm$5
In 1791, Thomas Jefferson hired a Black man to help survey Washington, D.C. That man was Benjamin Banneker, an African American mathematician, a writer of almanacs, and one of the greatest astronomers of his generation. Banneker then wrote what would become a famous letter to Jefferson, imploring the new president to examine his hypocrisy, as someone who claimed to love liberty yet was an enslaver. More than two centuries later, Rachel Jamison Webster, an ostensibly white woman, learns that this groundbreaking Black forefather is also her distant relative.
Acting as a storyteller, Webster draws on oral history and conversations with her DNA cousins to imagine the lives of their shared ancestors across eleven generations, among them Banneker’s grandparents, an interracial couple who broke the law to marry when America was still a conglomerate of colonies under British rule. These stories shed light on the legal construction of race and display the brilliance and resistance of early African Americans in the face of increasingly unjust laws, some of which are still in effect today.
ABOUT THE SPEAKER
Rachel Jamison Webster is a Professor of Creative Writing in the English Department of Northwestern University and the author of Benjamin Banneker and Us: Eleven Generations of an American Family, a book of creative nonfiction that explores ancestry, race, gender, and justice in American history. The book was chosen as a Best Book of 2023 by The New Yorker and was called “excellent and thought-provoking” by the New York Times Book Review. Rachel embarked on a collaborative process in the writing of this book, as she and her DNA cousins discussed racial justice, genealogy, and the stories of their ancestors, which include the African American surveyor and astronomer, Benjamin Banneker. Rachel has also published four books of poetry and hybrid writing, including, Mary is a River, which was a finalist for the 2014 National Poetry Series; September: Poems; The Endless Unbegun; and The Sea Came Up & Drowned, which combines erasure poems and Rachel’s collage artwork to meditate on our extractive economy and fractured relationship to the Earth. Rachel’s poems and essays often appear in anthologies and journals, including Poetry, Lit Hub, and The Yale Review.
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