SEA Scholar of the Month for January 2019: Tara Bynum
Stacey Dearing, the SEA social media specialist, conducted the email interview with Prof. Bynum and with the other Scholars and Junior Scholars of the Month. Thanks to Stacey and to her predecessor Kirsten Iden for running the SOTM feature for more than a year now. It has been a big success.
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
It was a bit of an accident. I went to graduate school to study contemporary black women writers, but there were no relevant courses. I took an early American literature course with Dr. Michael Moon and learned that not only were there people writing before 1800, there were black people writing before 1800. And there was a lot of early African American literature that I didn’t know existed. There were, for example, execution sermons, narratives, letters and the “blacks as authors” subject heading in the Evan’s Early American Imprints database. There was Venture Smith, Prince Hall, Phillis Wheatley, Obour Tanner, the Free African Union Society of Newport. I wanted to know more about them and of course, too, I wanted to know why I didn’t know about them before. I started reading and wondering more about who these women and men are and realized that it was exciting to read about everyday living before 1800.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
It changes often. But, on this day, my favorite author is Cesar Lyndon (I wrote about him for EAL 53.3). He’s an enslaved black man in Newport, Rhode Island who keeps an account book or a book of his account holders’ debits and credits. The account book notes Lyndon’s extant business transactions, from 1761 to 1771, with Newport’s famed slave traders as well as enslaved persons, and he sells all kinds of stuff: pickled lobsters, leather breeches, and sow pigs. I like it because it tells a story for which I have to work. It’s a book of numbers and lists. It’s not in print or even in chronological order. It is not an easy-to-read, plot-based story. Because it’s not a narrative with a plot, Lyndon troubles any expectation about how early African American literature should look. Lyndon’s account book has compelled me to question what I think early African American literature is supposed to do or who it is supposed to serve.
What are you currently working on?
I have a story to tell about the various ways black people created “writing communities”—to borrow from Katherine Clay Bassard and Hortense Spillers—across locale and time. I’ve learned to be less interested in how alone or extraordinary Phillis Wheatley is and more interested in how she participates in these writing communities that connect her to England, Rhode Island, Nova Scotia, and elsewhere. This concern informs my book project, Reading Pleasures, as it explores how black people experience good feeling in an early American context; it is currently under contract with University of Illinois Press as part of its New Black Studies series.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I’m reading, yet again, the proceedings of the Free African Union Society of Newport. The FAUS is, maybe, one of the first black racial uplift organizations in the early republic. They serve their community as a financial resource, as a place to organize and fellowship. Their commitment to fellowship reaches Nova Scotia, Philadelphia, Sierra Leone and elsewhere. It is, yet another, kind of writerly and readerly community.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
There are many scholars who have inspired me to think about how and where black people create ideas and culture in early America. They have challenged my thinking and have reminded me to explore more deeply the library and its holdings; here are just a few (but there are many more): Katherine Clay Bassard, Joanna Brooks, Frances Smith Foster, and Lois Brown.
Tara Bynum is Assistant Professor of African American Literature & Culture at Hampshire College.