In these poems, Jeffers imagines a first accidental meeting of Obour Tanner and Phillis Wheatley, fast friends and frequent correspondents. The two women shared the traumatic experience of enslavement and the perilous Middle Passage, and the challenge of holding on to their identities as African women even as their masters demanded that they build new lives in New England without reference to their pasts. Here, they reflect on the joy of finding chosen sisterhood on the streets of Newport, Rhode Island, a major center of the brutal Atlantic slave trade that brought them both to the shores of North America. This set of poems was filmed inside the Old South Meeting House in honor of their letters, which often concerned religion.
Obour (also spelled “Arbour”) Tanner was an enslaved woman in the household of James Tanner in Newport, Rhode Island. Tanner and Wheatley communicated in a series of letters for several years beginning in 1772, though the exact occasion of their meeting is unknown.
Obour Tanner was a baptized member of the First Congregational Church in Newport; by 1793, records indicate that she was both a free woman and married to a Barra Tanner. It is unknown, however, just how long she had been free. She had married Barra in 1789. Wheatley and Tanner wrote to one another on a variety of topics, but most prominently they engaged together in discussions on religion. Tanner died in Newport on June 21, 1835, 59 years after the passing of her dear friend, Phillis Wheatley Peters.
Links to documents and artifacts relating to the moment and events referenced in the poem.
In this letter, Phillis Wheatley discusses her delicate health and religious views with Obour Tanner. Religion, in particular, was something the two connected deeply on.
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In Phillis’s Words
Excerpts of Phillis Wheatley Peters’s writings that resonate thematically with Jeffers’s poems.
“...I hope the correspondence between us will continue...which correspondence I hope may have the happy effect of improving our mutual friendship. Till we meet in the regions of consummate blessedness, let us endeavor by the assistance of divine grace, to live life, and we Shall die the death of Righteous. May this be our happy case… Friend & hum. Sert. Phillis Wheatley”
Links to additional resources.
- Phillis Wheatley on Friendship By Tara Bynum
- The Poems of Phyllis Wheatley Edited by Julian D. Mason Jr.
- “Most Affectionately Yours” By Tara Bynum and Alexis Pauline Gumbs
- Phillis Wheatley is Baptized at Old South ChurchJeffers imagines Wheatley Peters’ thoughts at the moment of her baptism, which might have included a mix of joy at a deepened connection with Christ and frustration at the church’s treatment of African Americans.Read more →
- Lost Letters: Phillis Wheatley and Obour TannerIn this pairing of poems, Jeffers imagines a first accidental meeting of Obour Tanner and Phillis Wheatley. The two women shared the traumatic experience of enslavement and the perilous Middle Passage, and the challenge of holding on to their identities as African women even as their masters demanded that they build new lives in New ...Read more →
- How Phillis Wheatley Might Have Obtained the Approval of Eighteen Prominent White Men…As Phillis Wheatley sought to publish her first book, there were many who doubted that an enslaved Black woman was capable of such an accomplishment. Jeffers here imagines the courage it likely took 20-year-old Wheatley to face down their judgment and manage the balancing act of intellect and subservience that was likely required to secure ...Read more →
- The Replevin of Elizabeth Freeman (Also Known as Mum Bett)Elizabeth Freeman helped to end slavery in Massachusetts through a lawsuit she filed in 1781. In this poem, Jeffers imagines her speaking to the profound injustice of being forced to seek her freedom in a system where only white men could argue her case and living in a world in which a Black person’s word ...Read more →
- “Lost Letters”: Phillis Wheatley and John PetersAfter she had achieved international fame, Phillis Wheatley met and married John Peters, a free Black man. In this deeply romantic pair of poems, Jeffers imagines their relationship.Read more →
- Blues: Harpsichord, or Boston MassacreWe think of the Boston Massacre as the start of the American Revolution. In Jeffers’s hands, it becomes a moment to call out the hypocrisy of white colonists in comfortable circumstances who protested their “enslavement” by the British even as they held Blacks in bondage.Read more →