Ursinus Poet Celebrates Frederick Douglass at 200

Nzadi Keita, an associate professor of English, participated in a panel discussion at Yale University in honor of the prominent abolitionist, social reformer, author and orator.

“Frederick Douglass at 200: The Life Behind the Times,” included a panel discussion to mark the anniversary of the birth of Douglass as well as the 20th anniversary of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition.

Keita joined other noted scholars to talk about Douglass’s literary and political legacy and explored with them the public and private dimensions of his life—his daughter, three sons and extended family—including his two marriages, one of 44 years to Anna Murray Douglass, and the other for 11 years with Helen Pitts Douglass.

Keita is the author of Brief Evidence of Heaven: Poems from the Life of Anna Murray Douglass (Whirlwind Press, 2014), a collection of poems that imagines how free-born, illiterate Anna Murray Douglass saw the world as an independent woman, mother and an abolitionist in her own right.

“I found her life to be incredibly poetic and a mix of tragedy and mystery and unique placement,” Keita says. “I was intrigued by the fact that there was almost nothing written about her. Compared to [Frederick Douglass], she’s almost a complete unknown.”

“As a writer and a scholar, I’m interested in black women’s experiences in periods of struggle in particular, and dialogue on race and gender, whether we’re talking about the 19th century or the late 20th century,” she says. “She met him when he was still enslaved. He was hired to work in the docks in Baltimore. This is when he started really getting caught up in the idea of escaping…and she gave him money. She sold some of her possessions and helped him develop a disguise. She was pivotal in his actual escape. I couldn’t resist. This project begged to be done.” 

Keita’s work has been published in various journals and anthologies, including A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South and Confirmation: An Anthology of African-American Women. Her prose appears in Peace Is a Haiku Song, a collaboration with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Project.

In August 2017 she was named one of 12 Pew Fellows by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. Pew Fellowships have been awarded to exceptional artists in the Philadelphia region since 1992. The fellows are selected from local artists whose work range from film and media to landscape architecture. —By Ed Moorhouse