Eighteenth-century writings by African Americans reveal lives of deep religious belief and activism
“Black lives have always mattered to black people,” says Tara Bynum, assistant professor of African American literature and culture. “When you read the writings of African Americans in the eighteenth century, during and just after the Revolutionary era, their sermons, letters, and narratives, written to and for each other, communicate friendship, faith, love, and activism.”
In her forthcoming book, Reading Pleasures, under contract with the University of Illinois Press as part of their New Black Studies Series, Bynum argues that the written works of early black Americans went far beyond expressions of suffering and resistance to include “affective expressions of joy, exclamation, and delight.”
“Black people didn’t feel bad all the time,” says Bynum. “The focus of scholars on early African Americans to date has been on one story: trauma. The truth is so much more nuanced than that.”
Bynum’s classes explore the many ways in which people experience blackness as a racial identity or a cultural category. She asks students to question their assumptions and reflect on topics that are important both to history and to the present: What makes lives matter? What is literature? What do race and culture mean, both in the past and today?
This semester, she’s teaching two courses: a Div I class called What Is African American Literature? and a more advanced class, #HipHop to @BarackObama: 21st C. African American Literature.
Ché Williams, a Division II student who studied with Bynum last year, continued this year with what he calls “the hip-hop class.”
“Dr. Bynum asks open-ended questions,” he says, “and has a wide view of what literature is — anything with text. I really appreciate that. When I took African American literature last year, she literally cut up my essay and rearranged it because the paragraphs were out of order. She helped me make it into a more cohesive piece of work.”
In Reading Pleasures, Bynum writes about both acclaimed and lesser-known literary figures — Phillis Wheatley, John Marrant, James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, and David Walker — who “wrote of feeling good in very explicit ways,” Bynum says.
All practiced Christianity—what Bynum dubs “Atlantic world Protestantism”—rooting their reading and, eventually, writing in the Word. The Bible and other Christian-inspired works helped them “make meaning” in a dynamic world of “books, letters, enslavement and captivity, friendship and love,” she says.
In her opinion, based on her reading of these writers, black Christians, such as the main figures in Reading Pleasures, weren’t hoodwinked into practicing Christianity. They were believers. She offers as one example John Marrant, a free-born black man who wrote about his conversion experience in his 1785 Narrative. In it, he recorded how God saved him repeatedly from various threats, such as bears in the forest, wartime battles, and starvation.
Bynum debunks stereotypes not only of misery during this era but also of illiteracy. Boston-based poet Phillis Wheatley, enslaved in a household there, wrote letters to her “sister friend” Obour Tanner, a fellow enslaved woman in Newport, R.I.
In some of her latest research, likely the basis for a future book, Bynum has located a series of interrelated black communities of writers and activists that stretched across colonial territories from Nova Scotia to Philadelphia. During the Revolutionary War, the British promised black Loyalists opportunities to own lands, such as these, controlled by the crown and to create self-governing communities, but they didn’t always honor their promises, Bynum explains.
The British also set aside Sierra Leone as a space for blacks to live freely in their own domain. (Although they’d imagined this precursor to Liberia as a possible homeland, the reality was far bleaker. They found a place of hardship rampant with diseases and violent conflict.)
One colonial stronghold with a literate black population, Newport, RI, evolved into a center of black writing and thinking.
“African American literature wasn’t created only by discrete figures like Phillis Wheatley, Lucy Terry, and Frederick Douglass,” says Bynum. “The reality is that there were folks in different places who were in conversation with each other as part of what scholars might label ‘networks’ or ‘interrelated communities,’ but they’d have simply have used the word friend.”
Bynum was attracted to the writings of early black Americans in graduate school, at Johns Hopkins University. These pieces — sermons, narratives, and letters —didn’t “do the work they were supposed to,” she says. “Some blacks didn’t have an escape story. Some were born free.
Among Bynum’s publications are the scholarly articles “Phillis Wheatley on Friendship,” in the compilation Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers (University of Nebraska Press, 2014); and a study of the writings of a slave in the household of Rhode Island Governor Josias Lyndon, “Cesar Lyndon’s Lists, Letters, and a Pig Roast: A Sundry Account Book” (Early American Literature, University of North Carolina Press, 2018).
From the Revolutionary era to the present, Bynum makes African-American writing compelling for her readers and her students.
According to Judah Doty, a James Baldwin Scholar in What Is African American Literature? Bynum “pushes us to think critically. The enthusiasm she displays in every class is positively contagious.”