This week we talk to scholar of early African American literature, Tara Bynum. When Tara tells people that she researches African American pleasure in the eighteenth century, they often respond with puzzled looks, but Tara asserts that interrogating pleasure re-centers the focus on black cultural production and uncovers the ways in which African American people make meaning in their own lives. We discuss eighteenth-century Methodist minister, John Marrant, a free black man who found pleasure through practicing his Christian faith. Marrant’s experiences challenge traditional constructions of southern geographies and literary histories and invite us to rethink the role of Christianity and pleasure in the lives of African Americans in the eighteenth century.
Born in 1755, John Marrant was a well-established itinerant minister. After moving with his mother to Charleston, he converted to Christianity, left his family at age 13, and lived in the wilderness before being captured by Cherokee Indians. According to the ordination narrative he published in 1785, he succeeded in converting several members of the tribe before he returned to Charleston. His narrative, published in 1785, is subsequently published 15 times, making it the most popular early African American narrative and one of the earliest extant narratives by a free black person.
Academics often (and accurately) view Christianity in the early South as a tool used by the planter class to bolster enslavement. However, John Marrant’s experience as a free black man who derived pleasure from practicing his Methodist faith demonstrates that early African American people understood and practiced Christianity in ways that provided them with comfort and pleasure. Tara explains that refocusing our attention on black pleasure offers a model wherein blackness is no longer analyzed in relation to whiteness; it is instead the center of its own story.
John Marrant’s story also reminds us that the South moves, which is particularly important for Tara, who grew up in Baltimore, a city whose southernness is often contested. We end today’s conversation discussing the ways in which the South travels, particularly as people move and take cultural objects (e.g. quilts) to new places. These objects remind us that there are other ways outside of geography to be connected to the South, even if we are not always aware of those connections.
We would like to thank today’s special guest, Tara Bynum. She is a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Long-Term Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society and a Visiting Assistant Professor at the College of Charleston in the Departments of English and African American Studies. We would also like to thank the American Antiquarian Society for allowing us to host this conversation.