Book Review: ‘Reading Pleasures: Everyday Black Living in Early America’ by Tara A. Bynum

Book Matters: Tara Bynum

Prairie Lights, Iowa City, Wednesday, March 22 at 7 p.m., Free

Scholar Tara A. Bynum, an assistant professor in the University of Iowa Departments of English and African American Studies, is exploring interiority — and exemplifying it.

In her recently published monograph Reading Pleasures: Everyday Black Living in Early America (University of Illinois Press), Bynum leverages her research in pre-1800 Black literary history for a deep dive into the lives and writings of a selection of early Black intellectuals. Beginning with Phillis Wheatley and moving on to names perhaps not well-known outside of academia, she examines the ways in which each pours their interiority onto the page, how they hope, how they dream and how they love. And as she does so, she sinks into the subject matter, revealing her own pleasures at every turn.

The pleasures in question, she advises in the introduction, are not sexual or even necessarily physical. “I’m describing what looks like those quotidian and simple pleasures that make life easier,” she writes. And, quoting James Baldwin, invokes a definition of “sensual” that embodies the ability to “respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.”

This is no easy task, of course, even in the modern day. Anxieties and fears stalk our thoughts; the uncertainty of the future is often a hovering cloud. It’s a remarkable phenomenon that these early Black Americans found and expressed those pleasures. It “bears proof,” Bynum writes, “of the taking care of or the tending to an inward self.”

The existence of these examples, and Bynum’s choice to present them in this way, is reminiscent of current trends toward defiant joy: from the ideas of Black boy joy and Black girl magic to the insistent refrain that “trans joy is resistance,” historically marginalized communities in the U.S. and across the world have been advocating for the power of expressive pleasure instead of taking pleasure in expressions of power.

Writing about pamphleteer David Walker, Bynum is direct in discussing his obvious anger, but argues that it’s “well-intentioned and purposefully excessive.” And it is utilized in pursuit of happiness: “namely,” she writes, “a world where his brethren are no longer enslaved.”

What is most beautiful about these chapters is the way that Bynum maintains a delightful voice, a first-person perspective that centers her own pleasure in the researching and writing of this book. Her curiosity permeates each page. “I still wonder sometimes,” she writes, “what Phillis Wheatley thought about as she brushed her teeth.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek moment — Bynum acknowledges self-effacingly that she’s aware toothbrushes weren’t around in Wheatley’s time — but it gets at the heart of her questioning. There’s a lot that these explorations of interiority can reveal, but we can never know how the authors truly see themselves.

Through these intertwined readings, Bynum searches for throughlines and truths, finding relevance in the writers’ shared Christian faith and tracing that influence. But mostly, she models for the reader what it is to read with curiosity and how to allow the interiority of others to inform our own, resulting in a communal experience.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s March 2023 issues.