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Obour Tanner’s archive offers unique historical perspective

Dylan Pichnarcik / THE GATEPOST

By Jack McLaughlin

Arts & Features Editor

Tara Bynum, author of “Reading Pleasures: Everyday Black Living in Early America,” spoke about her studies on 18th century African American writing in the Alumni Room Oct. 12.

The event was co-sponsored by Arts & Ideas, as well as the Division of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement, and the History and English departments.

Bynum was introduced by History professor Lissa Bollettino, who offered insight into the importance of their studies.

Bollettino focused on how Bynum’s studies had the goal of remembering that despite the hardships that African Americans faced during Early America, their emotions “played a vital role in fueling the courage and resilience they displayed in the face of the traumas they suffered.

“Bynum’s visit provides us with an opportunity to trace the history of Black joy, and to affirm its centrality to ongoing movements, and affirm Black Americans’ full humanity and rights,” Bollettino said.

Bynum was invited on stage and introduced her talk, which she explained would be mostly focused on her book.

Her book is about how four Black writers “talk about feeling good in their writing,” she said. Bynum wants to focus on the positive emotions felt by Black writers during Early America to offer a different perspective on it.

“Oftentimes, when it comes to thinking about Black people before the 21st century, the presumption is that the experience of Black living is one that requires us to center around suffering or a certain level of hardship,” Bynum said.

In relation to this, she also said, “I think my work is very much interested in expanding out the many ways in which Black people have been able to experience a variety of feelings.”

Bynum introduced attendees to Phyllis Wheatley, a poet, and Obour Tanner, two friends from the 1700s who exchanged letters. She said most of their letters were archived and began by displaying one on screen for attendees to look at.

She said Tanner collected and kept the letters exchanged between her and Wheatley. Bynum described the importance of these letters to Tanner as “it’s of value based on who she is to Wheatley, and what she knows of her deceased friend.

“Every letter is evidence of how much both women cared for each other,” Bynum said.

Tanner kept these letters between her and Wheatley safe for over 60 years, Bynum said, and explained how important this is considering the excellent condition the letters were kept in during that long period of time.

“The letters are well kept. Wheatley’s cursive is legible and easy to read, the ink isn’t smudged, the creases of the original folds linger,” she explained.

Other indications of delicate care taken to these letters included Wheatley’s wax seal still being evident on some of the letters, and the letters were seemingly kept folded in the same way they were originally folded.

Bynum emphasized how long 60 years can be for an individual when it means keeping something safe.

She asked the audience, “Has anyone kept anything for 60 years yet?” and continued to emphasize how long this is by following up with, “for some to even envision getting something at 20 and keeping it for 60 more years.”

These letters that were kept for so long were entrusted to the wife of Tanner’s preacher, who then donated them to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1863 due to the importance of Phyllis Wheatley’s involvement with these letters, Bynum said.

Bynum noted how the Massachusetts Historical Society’s footnote explaining the history of these letters does not fully grasp the friendship between Tanner and Wheatley.

“What’s easy to miss in this footnote is the friendship between these two women, or the source of care required to hold onto Wheatley after her death,” she said.

The personal connection that Tanner held to these letters was brought up as well, with Bynum explaining that “to read the correspondence between these two women is to glimpse one friend’s mourning.”

Bynum went into detail about what was discussed in the letter being presented on screen. In the letter, dated 1772, Tanner had been selling Wheatley’s poetry books in Boston and wrote to Tanner encouraging her to keep selling the books in wake of the tea parties occurring in the city at the time.

“Wheatley’s postscript seems to expect, and rightly so, that Tanner will keep selling her books,” Bynum said as she reflected on the end of the letter.

When they weren’t discussing the successful sales of Wheatley’s books, Tanner and Wheatley were also discussing the rise in war in the country at this time, and how it was troubling their lives and faith profoundly, she said.

“Both women shared affection in ways that demonstrate their willingness and maybe eagerness to care for and tend for each other,” Bynum said.

Bynum emphasized the care that Wheatley had for Tanner in this letter. The penmanship, writing, and delivery of these letters are what Bynum cited as evidence of the amount of care put into these letters.

The archived letters between Wheatley and Tanner were described by Bynum as a reflection of what mattered to Tanner during her life, and that included her strong relationship with Wheatley.

“It’s those letters that speak to the truth of who Tanner is. She is a friend and she is worth remembering, and Wheatley remembers her everytime she sends a letter,” Bynum said.

Bynum said these documents are available to view online via the Massachusetts Historical Society, and made sure to note the importance of what these letters represent.

“It seems we’re noting that the Massachusetts Historical Society likely has the largest extent and easy to find collection of 18th century correspondence between two enslaved Black women with a well-documented prominence,” she said.

The discussion then opened up to questions from the audience. One attendee asked if there are more letters from Tanner to Wheatley. Bynum explained that these letters are not archived, but there is evidence of their existence.

These clues included Wheatley’s acknowledgement of receiving letters from Tanner, and references to them are throughout the ones that are archived.

Another member of the audience asked about other items that were archived outside of the letters, and how it could have affected Bynum’s relationship with the sentimentality of preserving items.

Bynum responded to this by explaining the importance of archiving the items of individuals who died, and related this back to how there is a sizable amount of items that belonged to Wheatley that are archived including books, manuscripts, and the letters between her and Tanner.

“We know who Phyllis Wheatley is precisely because there is stuff,” she said.

An attendee asked Bynum if there was any information or clues to how Tanner and Wheatley originally met, which was met with a defeated “no.”

“Why couldn’t you anticipate me 250 years later? Of course I wanna know how they met!” Bynum joked with the audience.

Bynum concluded the event by recognizing Tanner as one of the first people to help add to the archive that would become a remembrance of Phyllis Wheatley.

“We think about Tanner as among the first to do the work of gathering Wheatley’s things very intentionally and giving them value,” she said.


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