H-180v. Six Degrees of Phillis Wheatley

Tara Bynum

“Never has a single professional development opportunity so profoundly transformed my research, thinking, and teaching.” – 2021 student

If you Google “Phillis Wheatley,” the widely reproduced engraving of her silhouette is easy to find. The image remembers the young (and at times, enslaved) poet sitting alone with pen in hand. It memorializes the writer at her craft, and it also fixes a lone, singular Wheatley in time. This course will introduce students to another story for the young poet and, by implication, a new story for early African American writing. Put differently, what if Wheatley is not by herself? What if she is an active interlocutor, friend, writer, and lover in various communities throughout New England, England, and elsewhere? What if she is part of a larger writerly community (with a nod to the work of Katherine Clay Bassard) of Black women and men too? The course pursues—with a careful certainty—the idea that Wheatley is not actually alone despite how she is portrayed. She is, in fact, part of various communities, and she speaks of them often in her letters. They are communities of friends who buy Wheatley’s book of poems, who live through a war, and who will have to mourn the loss of their friend. They are communities, too, that write, read, and leave behind a legacy in manuscript and in print. These legacies can be found in Cesar Lyndon’s account book, the meeting minutes of the Free African Union Society, the pamphlets and sermons of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, and the correspondence of Prince Hall, among others. Led by the accessibility and popularity of Wheatley, students in this course will pay particular attention to the many forms that this early writing can and does take—to include account books, letters, and sermons; this writing is sometimes printed, but not always. What does this fact mean for our understanding of the “book” and its history to these communities of writers and readers? 

 The aim of the class is to ask new questions; to situate this writing amidst old, new, and different ways of reading; and to center the living of black women and men in the latter half of the eighteenth century. The course is particularly suited to students with a broad interest in early African American writing, but who may have little training or exposure to the subject. 

In their personal statement, applicants are requested to describe the nature of their developing interests in this writing and to summarize briefly their interest in the field, current research, projects, and topics or issues that they would particularly like the course to address

Course History

Tara Bynum teaches this course online (12 hours).
Tara Bynum teaches this course online (6 hours).

Course Resources

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Tara Bynum

Tara Bynum

Dr. Tara Bynum is an Assistant Professor of English & African American Studies at University of Iowa and a scholar of early African American literary histories before 1800. She received her Ph.D. in English from Johns Hopkins University and a B.A. in Political Science from Barnard College.  

Her current monograph, Reading Pleasures (under contract with the University of Illinois Press’s New Black Studies series), 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. It is a pleasure that isn’t beholden to social expectations or systemic oppression, but instead is experienced because of an individual’s commitment to religious faith, friendship, or community building. 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

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