Lost Letters: Phillis Wheatley and Obour Tanner
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.
Massachusetts Historical Society, Letter from Phillis Wheatley to Obour Tanner, dated July 19, 1772
Massachusetts Historical Society, Letter from Phillis Wheatley to Obour Tanner, dated October 30, 1773
In this letter, Wheatley encloses a copy of her proposals to her friend Obour Tanner.
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”