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  • Phillis Wheatley on Friendship
  • Tara Bynum

I often wonder what the poet Phillis Wheatley thought about as she brushed her teeth. I’ve never come up with a definitive answer. At the time of this writing, there is no extant information about Wheatley’s tooth-cleaning practices. (Historians have assured me, though, that toothbrushes were not available in the eighteenth century.) Whenever I think about Wheatley brushing her teeth or walking down the street or writing letters, I can’t help wondering if she thought about her racial position or her enslavement all the time (e.g., “Dag, I’m still a slave”). I happened upon this question by accident when I tried to imagine Wheatley in the midst of her most mundane activities, such as cleaning her teeth. What if Wheatley didn’t care about proving her humanity or how black she was or was not to anyone, especially historians, writers, and cultural critics, in 1774 or at present?1 As the “first” in so many categories of African American literature, she is asked to prove how black she was; the proof—that she is black enough to lead a literary tradition—lies in the certainty of her suffering as a slave and as a black woman (Bassard, Spiritual Interrogations 31).2 But when I listened for this certain suffering in her verses and letters, I didn’t find it. I didn’t hear the sadness or even the proof of a black agenda that would make her a likely predecessor of Frederick Douglass and onward of Toni Morrison. Her writings led me to another question: What else might have concerned Wheatley if she wasn’t thinking only of her enslavement or the burdens of her black womanhood?

When Phillis Wheatley writes letters to her friend Obour Tanner of Newport, Rhode Island, another enslaved woman, she doesn’t lament her black skin or her enslavement. She doesn’t belabor her sadness over how black she is or is not. Rather, Wheatley’s letters to Tanner—only a handful of them, from 1772 to 1779, extant—are decidedly ordinary glimpses into a friendship between women.3 Wheatley keeps Tanner abreast of her book sales, her bouts of sickness and asthma, her travels to the country and out of the country, even the [End Page 42] death of her mistress, Susanna Wheatley. These seemingly mundane occur-rences, in fact, serve a decidedly Christian end for both Wheatley and Tanner: to praise their “Crucified Saviour,” for “[i]n his Crucifixion may be seen marvellous displays of Grace and Love, Sufficient to draw and invite us to the rich and endless treasures of his mercy” (“To Arbour Tanner” 19 May 1772). Each letter offers the mundane as the beginning of mutual prayer for continued blessings and God’s mercies on their lives. Together, both women worship on the page as they might have at either of their respective Congregationalist churches: Tanner at Rev. Samuel Hopkins’s pastorate, First Congregational Church in Newport, and Wheatley at New South Congregational Church and later Old South in Boston (Carretta, Phillis Wheatley 42–43).

Wheatley’s letters document a collective worship and reveal a friendship that asks us to consider what pleasure and friendship might look like to two enslaved women in New England. Their friendship asks us to confront a possibility that “Mammy, Jezebel, and Hagar were not the only names by which women of African heritage could or should be called” (Foster, “Mammy’s Daughters” 281). Wheatley calls Tanner “friend” often. Yet, it is not often that scholars speak of black women as friends now, and it is even less common to speak of friendships among the enslaved then. That slaves had friendships with each other presumes a kind of leisure that may be misconstrued as a moniker for “happy slave” or a kind of normalcy that should not make sense in the midst of the horrors of enslavement. But here are two women who understand that their mutual fellowship is a friendship between one another and with God.

Theirs is a story that dares us to rethink what kinds of sociability are possible between black women in the revolutionary era. For example, these letters...