on Reading Pleasures

January 2024

Tara Bynum is an Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies at The University of Iowa. She recently discussed her first book, Reading Pleasures: Everyday Black Living in Early America (University of Illinois Press, 2023), with graduate students Samuel Lyons (PhD Candidate in English Literature, UC San Diego), Courtney Murray (PhD Candidate in English and African American Studies, Penn State), Nicole Musselman (PhD Student in English Literature, University of South Florida), and Colby Townsend (PhD Student in English and Religious Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington). In Reading Pleasures, Bynum makes the case for a joyful, rather than painful, approach to Black literature from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Bynum reads the work of Phillis Wheatley, John Marrant, James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, and David Walker, arguing that studying Black lives through a lens of pleasure—finding the joy and feeling in their work and archives, rather than only pain and suffering—emphasizes that Black lives matter to Black authors. Bynum interrogates how pleasure unveils modes of materiality and interiority in the everyday that were politically and socially significant to those like Wheatley, Marrant, Gronniosaw, and Walker. Bynum’s approach is informed by religious studies, literary criticism, and archival research, thus offering pleasure as a method that should be taken more seriously by contemporary writers and scholars when they think and write about past, present, and future Black lives. 

In this conversation, Bynum speaks about her writing process from dissertation to book, her thoughts about Black materiality and interiority, Black pleasure and enjoyment, and expanding the archival imperative. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Courtney Murray (CM): To do a project like Reading Pleasures, you also had to read and write about and for pleasure, which may diverge from what we are taught as graduate students. You’ve also discussed how teaching during and after graduate school guided you from dissertation to book. Where did this project and your engagement with pleasure start? What processes and experiences made reading and pleasure crucial for you during this process?

Tara Bynum (TB): If you read the dissertation and you read the book, they are not the same in any way because I wrote the dissertation a long time ago. What struck me first (I was in a class with Dr. Michael Moon) was that there was Black writing other than Phillis Wheatley in the eighteenth century. I was intrigued by the various forms of writing that I saw. There were these narratives that didn’t quite read like slave narratives. They felt a bit more akin to conversion narratives. There were sermons as well that seemed like Puritan sermons of the eighteenth century. I was first drawn to the writing from my own ignorance–I hadn’t encountered these writers before. When I paid particular attention to them, there were ideas and themes that came up for me that I also didn’t know to pay attention to. At some point, I decided to take their Christianity seriously, and if I did, then there's something very powerful about their faith (thinking about John Marrant or James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, for example). I realized my questions weren’t good enough. Wondering “how they learned to read” or “what they thought about freedom” was not as generative as I wanted it to be. They don’t necessarily talk about it in the way I needed them to in the twenty-first century. I also realized that the criticism that I'd read up until that point hadn't quite engaged with the possibility of Black people enjoying themselves, certainly not in centuries past, and barely in the present at the time. One thing I've learned about research is that it can guide you for the rest of your life. So I was like, I want my research to be fun. I want my research not to be somber.

I wanted to be the person that was associated with pleasure and not something else. Then, it became all the more important to me to figure out how to actually talk about what I was seeing and not necessarily “reading against the grain” so much as genuinely seeing in the texts themselves. I didn't have to look hard for joy. I didn't have to look hard for happiness. I didn't have to look hard for pleasure. Nerding out on whatever your dissertation topic is, there is the pleasure itself. From the dissertation process and over the years, the more I’ve learned, the more pleasurable the experience has been to explore and dive deeper into the eighteenth century and try to do the work to begin imagining what it looks like to humanize all the more the authors I’m interested in. 

CM: There are more directions toward that now, with people thinking about how to insert care into citational practices and reading practices, other than just pain and social death.  It’s nice to hear you talk about that. 

TB: I also think that the pain in social death, just to borrow your words real quick, doesn’t speak to the whole of the experience either. Part of the impulse in terms of the topic came out of very selfish sorts of reasons. If I had to think how Wheatley is often framed as this enslaved woman genius poet exclusively without a life beyond that, is that how Wheatley would describe herself? Maybe. But what are the other ways that she would describe herself? I just started thinking about the Black people I know: would they think of themselves exclusively in these politicized ways, or would it simply be the external gaze, the external eyes upon them, that would determine who they are and how they interact with themselves?

That’s what also had me thinking about pleasure and about the possibility of having a space within oneself, friends, and family where Black authors are not completely consumed by those external forces imposing identity on them. Simply put, the Black people I know are more complicated than that. My students sometimes think that things start when they are born. Complicated Black people didn’t just start when they were born but have existed centuries before and for all human life. 

Sam Lyons (SL): Your article “Cesar Lyndon’s Lists, Letters, and a Pig Roast” in Early American Literature centers on a more “peripheral” text and historical figure, whereas Reading Pleasures centers more on public and canonical figures of African American literature. I see a similar reading methodology in both book and article. What was the process between Reading Pleasures and “Cesar Lyndon’s List”? 

TB: I started working on “Cesar Lyndon’s List” as I’m also working to finish up the book. I first encountered the document and account book in 2015. Elyssa Tardif, who now works for the Massachusetts Historical Society, showed it to me because she, at the time, was working at the Rhode Island Historical Society, where they are housed. I see this document, and I’m like, oh my goodness. Once again, I’m confronted with my own assumptions about what Black people can and cannot do. I know I have to talk about the list. When I found out that Lyndon had a whole account book, I knew I had to talk about it. It takes me a couple of years to get to an article about Lyndon. That was published in 2018, somewhere around there. I am also getting a book proposal together. That gets done in 2016. I have to finish the manuscript. The Lyndon essay ends up being a pleasant interlude while trying to figure out what I’m doing with the book. If memory serves me correctly, the important part I’ll say about Lyndon is that it helped me expand my thinking about what joy and pleasure can look like in the eighteenth century and what a text can be. As someone with a PhD in English, I don’t think about account books as texts, so I had to learn how to read eighteenth-century account books. It is very useful to think about something else while moving through the book-writing process. It also helped me think better about the ideas that I had in the book. Up until that point, I may have been inclined to make the experiences of the four writers almost a bit too local. Lyndon and some other archival materials have helped me expand my ideas about text, the certainty of pleasure, and the various forms that it might take. 

CM: That leads to our next question on interiority. You speak a lot about materiality and interiority throughout Reading Pleasures. How do you think of these concepts through feeling? What do materials and interior feelings, such as pleasure, do or reveal for reading and thinking about Black life?

TB:  We are still at a place where Black interiority is not discussed when thinking about real people. Maybe a fictional character in a fictional text has some interiority, but when thinking about real-life Black people, there’s less engagement with interiority. Some of that is the presumption that there’s no way to know that because Black people didn’t leave anything behind, and I am increasingly troubled by that assumption. There are many ways to access interiority. I might not know the depths of Wheatley’s inner life, and I don’t think I’m supposed to, actually. That’s the nature of interiority, but there are ways to access her thinking as a three-dimensional person. Even without Obour Tanner’s letters to Wheatley, there’s a way to also see Tanner’s interiority by way of Wheatley’s recounting their conversations or shared interests. First, when it comes to Black interiority, there is some visibility to it. The materiality connects to trusting that there’s stuff there, and that stuff may not answer the questions that we want to be answered, but still answers some questions that we have to think about. 

So, sticking with Wheatley and Tanner, do I want Tanner’s letters to Wheatley? Absolutely, of course. I also recognize that that’s my twenty-first-century want. Wheatley might’ve destroyed those letters. They might’ve gotten lost in a fire. Who knows? That’s for them to know, and it is not any of my business. That’s why I’ve been wrestling with where materiality and interiority meet. What’s actually my business to know? What can I know, and is it okay for me not to know and have that be my problem, not a failure of them in the past or an archivist in the twentieth century? The interiority is there nonetheless. It behooves us to take seriously the possibility of it, especially in the eighteenth century. There are more people now talking or writing about African American literature. Something is shifting, and yet, it’s not a whole lot of us working in the eighteenth century and before and African American literature. 

SL: You are working with this relation between interiority, community, and publicity in Reading Pleasures, especially with #BlackLivesMatter as a reading practice. Can you elaborate more on this relation between interiority, community, publicity, and reading for what matters?

TB: The guiding principle that lurked in the background while writing this was thinking about what one particular author was thinking about when not confronted by or even interested in the white gaze. My way of thinking about this is: what Wheatley was thinking about when she was brushing her teeth. I’ve said before that historians were like, there were no toothbrushes. I’m like, okay, that’s not the point. The point is that there are probably moments when Wheatley or any Black person in the eighteenth century is going through some mundane task and is not lamenting their social condition. As I was beginning to turn this into a book, #BlackLivesMatter emerged as a hashtag first, movement second. I am among those who initially thought, “duh.” We already know this. Yet, the way that those three words galvanized so many people and inspired a movement, there’s something happening by putting those words together. It took me a second to think about it, but it dawned on me that it might be a way to frame my reading practice. I am going into these texts, the American Antiquarian Society, the Library of Company, and the John Carter Brown Library assuming that the Black people I’m looking for had lives that mattered. Even if it didn’t matter to the institution of slavery and the institution of the archive, historically, they mattered to someone. I wanted to get at who they mattered to and also, indirectly, why they mattered to me as a contemporary writer. That’s what I had in mind about #BlackLivesMatter. The way the phrasing works for our moment is that the plural “lives” suggests that there are many, and that’s where the community lives. The sentence is somewhat unfinished, like “Black Lives Matter” to whom? Black lives matter to the individual Black life and the community implied by the plural. As a reading primer, Black Lives Matter helped me see the text in different ways and expand the conversation about how we think of any eighteenth-century Black writer. Maybe we can get at a different set of questions because we can go in there assuming that the author is someone who matters to someone. How can we read differently when we assume that this is a life that matters?

Nicole Musselman (NM): I am so glad that you mentioned the archival aspect of the work. With the archives being places of institutionalized power and often unable to serve Black lives, how can emerging scholars and graduate students incorporate alternative recovery and reading practices of care concerning this material and Black lives?

TB: I am not convinced that Black life is inaccessible in the archive. The archive is a site of power, or at least the big ones. The more I sit with the idea of the archives as a place that collects things of enduring value, I get that from archivist Dorothy Berry, I don’t know if the archive is always this wholly inaccessible place. Some libraries have historically collected Black materials. If I’m thinking about historically Black college libraries and the Schomburg, they also have archives and special collections. We can’t stop at the idea that they’re inaccessible. We can talk about the power that gives rise to the archive and the racism that historically precluded folks from accessing certain information. But step number one is to assume that there’s stuff there. We have to go look at it. Once we, especially those with PhDs in English, assume there’s something there, the next step is to be very expansive about the kinds of texts we engage. If we’re interested in account books, laborer’s lists, poems, manuscripts, copy books, and other genres, then the world can open up in a really big way. Also, let the archive give us the questions because what we often face is disappointment. I want us to expand ideas about the archive a bit further. If we decide that the archive is one particular way (this big institution that has white power and white money), then we obscure or neglect to see something like Tanner’s archival collections and the choices she makes to get her letters to Katherine Beecher, who gets them to her nephew-in-law, Reverend Edward Hale, who then gets them to Charles Dean at the Massachusetts Historical Society, which is why you can Google Tanner and see Wheatley’s letters. Yes, the archive has its limitations, but we should be prepared to explore the many possibilities that also come from thinking about the archive as a fruitful space, as an abundant space. 

NM: If we just expand what we think about, especially when you mentioned an account book that has survived all these years, we can still look at that and learn from it important information about how people lived in the eighteenth century. 

TB: Here’s the thing about an account book. It’s like looking at someone’s online banking statement. There’s a lot of information that you can learn about somebody. Like Lyndon’s account book, you can see relationships between people who he keeps accounts with. Who is he doing work with? The community itself becomes all the more apparent. There’s so much in these archives. Simply put, if we keep saying there’s nothing there, we will miss what is there, and what’s there needs its story told, too. What’s there has important information for us to add to the stories we have been told and not told. 

Colby Townsend (CT): My question is very much related to everything that we’ve been talking about, especially when thinking about what Wheatley thought while brushing her teeth and the historians’ responses. Some historians with a capital H have disparaged methods like reading between the lines and reconstructing the unsaid that scholars such as Jennifer Morgan use in the archives to deal with archival malaise, while many in literary history see her methods as useful. How can we overcome that malaise and the pushback that capital H historians give us when we ask those questions about Wheatley? 

TB: That’s why I got my PhD in English and not History. Respectfully, I’m going to let the historians do what they do. I’m going to be over here doing the interpretive work that is meant for English PhDs and literary criticism. I’m realizing the difference in questions and methods. For example, “critical fabulation” has been a big buzzword. It is naming an interpretative practice that has been around for centuries, looking at a text, and deciding what it means. Sometimes, you use the context; sometimes, you don’t. When the historians have pushback, I might take note but also recognize that we’re doing different work. I am doing the work of pursuing story, and the historians are doing the work of pursuing context. Stories writ large need the contextual and interpretative work of the story itself. Historians have been a go-to community for me because the literature side is still slow to go back in time. I have learned a lot from the historians in terms of thinking about the context. I can concede that I’m not all English, but I still recognize that my interest is less about telling the story as a historian would and more about interpreting it. I appreciate what historians do, and we can dance together. 

CT: You described the inward-looking reading methods that Wheatley, Marrant, Gronniosaw, and Walker engage in as a readerly faith. As literary scholars, especially of early America, this emphasizes an awareness of religious and literary intersections in our objects of study. What would you recommend to graduate students or burgeoning scholars studying early American literature to consider when studying religion and literature?

TB: I would urge them to consider that, at least for Black writers, and likely all of them who are Christian-based in American literature, but certainly Black writers, is take the religion seriously. There's an impulse to sidestep the religion because of our own secular moment or to downplay the religion because we are talking about Black people. The impulse or thought is that Christianity is imposed on them bc it’s assumed that Black people don't have their own minds to interpret religion, so they've just been given Christianity. Take the religion seriously and do the work of learning what the faith looks like and also what they're referencing. Thinking about Tanner and Wheatley's letters, or even Wheatley's poetry, Marrant, Gronniosaw's narratives, or even David Walker, they have assumed that their audience knows the Bible.

There are all kinds of Biblical references there that you end up outside the joke. You end up outside the point because of a lack of Biblical knowledge. You don't have to come in knowing the Bible, but I do think that when dealing with these writers, it seems really important to do the work of knowing what texts they must be reading so that we can catch what they're doing. There's a student in my class now whose Biblical knowledge has been fantastic in the classroom setting. What they've been able to do is say, “that reminded me of Gethsemane. That reminded me of Saul on the road to Damascus,” and that's what the eighteenth-century reader could do. That's what we need to be able to figure out how to embody, which isn't to say that we suddenly have to be converted, but I do think it is a knowledge base that we have to grow and be willing to do so in order to understand the text better.

NM: In your introduction, you mentioned your “trickiness of play” approach, which opens up opportunities for reading Walker and Wheatley in ways that reject examining Black lives through the lens of suffering. Can you share some of your experiences using this critical approach to reading and writing as a foundation for graduate students’ future scholarship and research?

TB:  Once I realized these writers were doing more than I needed them to, it became apparent and easy to see those places where they were simply enjoying themselves and talking about enjoying themselves or imagining certain kinds of enjoyment. What became important to me was assuming that that could be possible in any sort of text I was engaging with by eighteenth-century Black people. Since then, looking at Lyndon's account book, the Brown family business records, and all sorts of eighteenth-century documents helped it become more clear to me, the fact that pleasure is possible and represented and that I need to lead with the presumption that my assumptions aren't welcome because they're always wrong. Some scholars tend to think too small about Black living. What I have returned to is an approach that’s delighted in the experience of exploration rather than, in the end, discovery itself. What am I going to find here? What am I going to see here? What's going to show itself to me?

I was recently at the John Carter Brown Library. Kim Nesco, a librarian there, brings out “Petty Ledger Number Two.” I have no idea what it is, but it is my task to go through it. There's all kinds of stuff, all kinds of names that I recognize from different places. There's a whole world that opens up looking through this ledger. From my side of things as the researcher, that's part of where the play comes in and allowing myself to truly not know and to have some vague sense. Kim knew I was interested in Black people, so she was like, “well, I think there are Black people in here. Take a look.” That's what I advocate for. We might have a vague sense of what we are pursuing. How one lands at what it is we're looking for is where we should be less firm and be willing to explore and also be willing to have the archive or library or special collection speak to us and show itself.

Dr. Tara Bynum is an Assistant Professor of English & African American Studies and a scholar of early African American literary histories before 1800. She received her PhD in English from Johns Hopkins University and a BA in Political Science from Barnard College. Her current monograph, Reading Pleasures (University of Illinois Press’ New Black Studies, fall 2022), examines the ways in which eighteenth-century enslaved and/or free men and women feel good or experience pleasure in spite of the privations of slavery, “unfreedom,” or white supremacy. This work is part of a larger, ongoing project that thinks more deeply about how black communities in the early republic made and shaped the very meaning of nation-building in the greater New England area and beyond. Related essays have appeared or are forthcoming in: Early American Literature, Common-Place, Legacy, J19, Criticism, American Periodicals, and African American Literature in Transition, Vol. 1, 1750-1800. Dr. Bynum’s work has received and is indebted to generous financial support from: Washington College’s CV Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience and the John Carter Brown Library, the National Endowment for the Humanities, American Antiquarian Society, Library Company of Philadelphia’s Program in African American History, Rutgers University’s Department of English, University of Pennsylvania’s McNeil Center for Early American Studies.