Dr. Tara A. Bynum Detects Friendship and Joy in 250-Year-Old Correspondence

October 2, 2023 By Eric Ely-Ledesma, Teaching Faculty and Research Administrator

The word archive can hold many meanings. As a noun, it refers to a repository of collected information. As a verb, to archive refers to the filing or compiling of information, with the implicit notion that the information compiled holds value or worth. Value and worth are subjective; beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder. For Obour Tanner, her correspondence with friend Phillis Wheatley held tremendous value. This archived correspondence between two enslaved women in 18th-century New England is the subject of Dr. Tara Bynum’s new book, Reading Pleasures: Everyday Black Living in Early America (University of Illinois Press, 2023).

Dr. Bynum was drawn to Tanner and Wheatley’s correspondence while a graduate student who, at the time, knew Wheatley for her poems, as Phillis Wheatley is considered the first African American author – male or female – of published poetry in colonial North America. What was new to Dr. Bynum was the correspondence that existed between Wheatley and Tanner, “At the time – in graduate school – I hadn’t been able to imagine that this kind of correspondence could exist,” Bynum recalls. Also surprising was the content of Tanner and Wheatley’s correspondence:

They didn’t write about what I expected them to write; their correspondence wasn’t about ‘resistance,’ enslavement or what I expected in the 21st century. They wrote about what mattered to them. And what mattered to them was their friendship, the war (that would later be called revolutionary), their Christian God, and the sale of Wheatley’s books. There’s something like gossip too that they share.

The friendship that existed and the value Tanner and Wheatley placed on their friendship is evident in their letters. In Bynum’s mind, this valued friendship is the most significant thing to know about Tanner and Wheatley. Bynum notes friendship for those outside the relationship is “elusive to pin down, especially in the ‘archive,’” which speaks to more significant issues of utilizing archival resources. Regardless, friendship, Bynum says, is present in their letters, and the care, compassion, and humanity on display is significant to the individuals involved and the fledgling nation:

These women demonstrate in their letters is how much they care for each other. Documenting this care is essential. There’s a story there that has something to teach us about what matters to black people and how they matter to each other. That they matter has always informed the makings of the USA.

For posterity’s sake, this valued friendship contributed to the archived correspondence, which allows, 250 years later, new generations to appreciate life in colonial North America, specifically Black life during this period. Examining Tanner and Wheatley’s correspondence offers an opportunity to explore aspects of Black life, including friendship between enslaved persons, and elevate these experiences that are, even today, infrequently discussed.

In her lecture titled “Obour Tanner’s Archive; or, How to Remember Your (Famous) Friend, Phillis Wheatley,” Dr. Bynum will discuss Tanner’s archived correspondence with friend Phillis Wheatley. In describing the significance of archives generally, and Tanner’s archive specifically, Dr. Bynum refers to archive as a noun and verb, on the one hand defining an archive as “a repository of someone’s stuff that’s worth saving” and on the other as actionable, in that, “This someone [Tanner] has determined the significance, origin, and its description.” Fittingly, accompanying the friendship that existed between Tanner and Wheatley, Bynum references the care that is required to keep one’s stuff because “It’s care that seems to represent the relationship between these two women.”

The care inherent in creating and maintaining an archive can take many forms. In the case of Tanner and Wheatley’s correspondence, the care is deeply personal. Two hundred and fifty years later, examining Tanner and Wheatley’s letters provides insight into deeply personal thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Dr. Bynum, as the title of her book suggests, explores the pleasure reading (and writing) offers. In Reading Pleasures, Bynum examines how Black individuals [in addition to Tanner and Wheatley, Dr. Bynum also explores the experiences of minsters John Marrant and James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw] in colonial North America, “write about feeling good in their own ways.” For Wheatley, she “reads Tanner’s letters and enjoys doing so.” And this focus on pleasure is what Bynum considers the most significant aspect of her work:

Simply put, black joy is not a 21stC hashtag or possibility. Black people have been writing about, talking about and living joyfully for a long time. And these four authors, Wheatley, Gronniosaw, Marrant, and Walker, demonstrate this point.

Please join the Friends of UW-Madison Libraries and the Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture in welcoming Dr. Tara Bynum to campus on Thursday, October 19, 4:30pm at the Wisconsin Historical Society Auditorium, 816 State St. in Madison, where Bynum will deliver the 2023 Schewe Lecture, titled Obour Tanner’s Archive; or, How to Remember Your (Famous) Friend, Phillis Wheatley.

In addition to Dr. Bynum’s lecture, the Department of Special Collections is hosting an exhibit titled On Various Subjects: 250 Years of Phillis Wheatley, which is on display from August 23 to December 28 in the Department of Special Collections, located on the 9th floor of Memorial Library in Madison.