Rachel Webster - "Benjamin Banneker and Us" - Tara Betts

Thursday, May 4, 2023 - 6:00pm
Event Presenter/Author: 
Rachel Webster

Rachel Webster will discuss Benjamin Banneker and Us: Eleven Generations of an American Family.  She will be joined in conversation by Tara Betts.

This event will be held in person at The Seminary Co-op. At this time, masks are required for in-store events.


About the book: In 1791, Thomas Jefferson hired a Black man to help survey Washington, DC. 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 in the present day.

About the author: Rachel Jamison Webster is the author of Benjamin Banneker and Us: Eleven Generations of an American FamilyThe book has received starred reviews from Booklist and Publisher’s Weekly, which hailed it as “a stunning meditation on race, identity, and achievement.” Rachel has also published four books of poetry and cross-genre writing, including, Mary is a River which was a finalist for the 2014 National Poetry Series; September: PoemsThe 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 appear in anthologies and journals, including PoetryTin Houseand The Yale Review. Rachel is a Professor of Creative Writing at Northwestern University. Before she taught at the college level, she designed and taught writing workshops for city youth through the Urban League of Portland, Oregon, and Gallery 37 in Chicago. 

About the interlocutor: Tara Betts is the author of Break the Habit and Arc & Hue. In addition to working as an editor, a teaching artist, and a mentor for other writers, she has taught at several universities. She is the Inaugural Poet for the People Practitioner Fellow at University of Chicago and founder of the nonprofit Whirlwind Learning Center.

Event Location: 
Seminary Co-Op
5751 S Woodlawn Ave
Chicago, IL 60615