Religion, Culture, and the Question of Equality in Equiano
As a civilization grows and develops its own distinct culture, a religion is often formed to best understand how the world around the tribe works. While some cultures have a very distinct set of beliefs, customs, and practices, most can be linked under broad umbrellas. In the abolitionist piece “The Interesting Narrative,” Equiano uses his native country’s religion and compares it to Judaism to form a bridge between the the two cultures and establish a set of matches, in order to best link European and African roots together under the collection of humanity.
During the time of slavery, white Europeans insisted on distancing themselves and dehumanizing the ‘others,’ in an attempt to justify their actions. Othering is “an ideological and discursive mechanism built on conceptions of darkness, difference, dehumanization, and absence” (Culea). As Europeans were seen as emissaries of the light, the notion that Africans of all tribes were dark, not only in complexion, but intellectually, spiritually, and culturally, prevailed. The concept of slavery was warped until it fit under Christian guidelines, and was seen as beneficial to the recipients. Many white Europeans thought that taking black Africans from their homeland, insisting on instilling the Christian doctrine, and forcing hard labor, was a way to save their everlasting souls, if they even had any. Through Equiano’s comparison of his native tribe’s religion and the origins of Christianity, the Jewish faith, the notion of ‘othering’ unravels.
When Equiano first begins comparing religions, he mentions how both believe in “one Creator,” but highlights a few differences as well (Equiano). Such as, the African creator living “in the sun” and how there was perhaps no “doctrine of eternity,” that compares to the Jewish idea of Heaven (Equiano). But he also mentions the transmigration of souls in the African culture, similar to that of the Jewish or Christian souls moving towards Heaven or Hell. Both supreme beings “govern events,” and seen as all-knowing, all-powerful male god, and that His judgement is to be accepted without questioning (Equiano). Regardless of what culture, the fact that it is a male god in control “embodies the prevalent patriarchal arrangement of society” (Leeming). Therefore, both societies reflected a male dominated culture- a tie that binds the two together.Similar practices are also compared in Equiano’s piece.
As Europeans typically thought of themselves as clean, alternately the Africans were seen as filthy, with no concept of cleanliness. Equiano instead challenges that his native culture was “extremely cleanly” in all rights, as there were “many purifications and washings” that took place (Equiano). In fact, many of the purifications were “on the same occasions … as the Jews” (Equiano). Another similarity included was that both religions practiced circumcision. Judaism preaches for circumcision as “Abraham was commanded by God to circumcise himself, all male members of his household, his descendants and slaves in an everlasting covenant,” yet Equiano does not divulge the reason as to why his homeland also practiced circumcision (BBC). Offerings and feasts were also common in both religions, and again the Africans celebrated “on that occasion in the same manner as (the Jews) did” (Equiano). A daily offering for Equiano’s tribe included members “put some small portion of meat, and pour some of their drink, on the ground” in reverence to their dearly departed (Equiano). Jewish customs also involved meal offerings of man-made foods as they “represented the devotion of the fruits of man’s work to God” (Rich). Both religions also practiced animal sacrifice to their god, although Judaism “only permitted to offer sacrifices in the place that God has chosen for that purpose” (Rich). While distinct executions of and meanings behind rituals exist between the two, both religions can be linked again through their similar religious customs.
Equiano remarks how in his tribe, names have significant importance. Noting that “like (the Jews) also, our children were name from some event,” after an important figure in their culture’s religion, or signified as foreshadowing for the child’s life (Equiano). Equiano’s first name, Olaudah, “signifies vicissitude or … one favoured” in his language. And in the introduction to the piece, Equiano even portrays himself as “a particular favorite of Heaven,” thus giving recognition to his original name’s significance (Equiano). A certain subsection of Judaism, called the Kabbalists, also agree that when naming a child parents “experience a minor prophecy – because, somehow, that child’s destiny is wrapped up in the combination of Hebrew letters that make up his or her name” (Chabad). Many names, such as Abraham, Adam, and Jonah contain Jewish roots and were often used, and still are even till today. By combining the fact that both cultures place a high importance on names, Equiano again bonds the two religions as more similar than different.
Equiano’s “The Interesting Narrative” creates a striking position against the concept of “othering” in British imperialism by comparing religions and linking them together under many facets. Although the civilizations grew and developed independently, both demonstrated commonality by having a male supreme being in a monotheistic fashion, similar purifications and offerings on same occasions, and placing significance on names. Equiano’s abolitionist piece served to be useful to the movement as it effectively presented a connection between Judaism, the predecessor of Christianity, and African culture.
Passive Vs. Oppressive Appropriation in Equiano and Get Out
Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography “The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano: or Gustavus Vassa, the African,” presents a created identity of the “enlightened slave,” as a means of appealing to the pathos of the British and American people regarding the trans-Atlantic slave trade. By establishing that he desires to be perceived positively as a Judeo-Christian, Equiano is essentially saying that blacks can behave similarly to whites and thus deserve equality. Furthermore Equiano’s transformation into a Christian is self-explained as one of the most important aspects of his life, and is thus an appeal to be treated the same as whites. This seems dissimilar to modern African American art as Equiano persuades his audience that assimilation is the condition in which equality will occur, however Equiano’s new identity is not necessarily conformed to whiteness, but rather shaped by his freedom to experience other cultures and not defined in terms of creed. So by reinventing himself Equiano can obtain his freedom.
Conversely, Jordan Peele’s horror film Get Out, contains African-American characters that experience assimilation through subjugation and fetishization rather than free will and understanding of self, and ultimately the modern black characters of Get Out seem less capable, but equally determined to fight for their freedom. In the final moments of the film, the protagonist Chris does not fight to experience more and to become an entirely new person with his newfound freedom, but rather he desires to maintain his own identity. Furthermore, the freedom obtained by Chris is only realized after assuming the identity of the hyper-masculine “super-predator” that was assumed of him to begin with. Chris plays the passive role for the entire film because the opposite is assumed of him, and then the antagonists force their predisposition to be true by threatening Chris’s already limited perspective. Peele presents Chris in a nearly identical manner to Equiano’s perception of himself, and this is as a passenger learning to free themselves from the social and emotional prisons wrought upon them by their captors.
Equiano’s narrative as opposed to Peele’s presents the audience with a longer period of subjugation and is essential to the abolitionist movement as it demonstrates the cruel monstrosity of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Equiano despises slavery as any decent person might as he says “I had thought only slavery dreadful; but the state of a free Negro appeared to me now equally so at least, and in some respects even worse, for they live in constant alarm for their liberty, which is but nominal.” (Equiano). The narrative tells us that in slavery one knows the source and blame of the oppression. There is a sense of defeatism from Equiano’s perspective, but in his words there is not absolutely no hope. Abolition removes the necessity of fear, and that is why slavery cannot objectively be solved on a case by case such as his own, but rather in one fell swoop as to remove the disposition of blacks as property rather than people.
Peele’s Get Out, reunifies the modern black with the concept of re-entering the harsh dominion of slavery. When Chris is sent to the “Sunken Place,” he is mortified, and when Jim begins to explain the process to him, Chris sinks his head in understanding and says to him “You’ll be me,” (Peele, 1:24:10). Peele’s film does a lot to emotionally expose its protagonist, and ultimately the film decides to pursue the motif of reclaiming ones identity by denouncing the mannerisms in which those that would choose to assimilate you would choose for you to have. This rebellion, like abolition, is not only for Chris and it ultimately ends the process in which the Armitage’s kidnap and body-snatch these young black men. Chris was characteristically passive and despondent for much of the film, and we see his desire to avoid confrontation with Jeremy and the memory of his mother’s death; in the third act of the film Chris finally expresses his fears by frantically begging Rose for the keys, who abandons her façade and dons a sadistic smile begging the question as to how he was supposed to escape to begin with. While Chris is set up to have his identity stolen by the Armitage’s it is peculiar how Jim attempts to justify to Chris his intentions with Chris’s body. He claims that he doesn’t really care about race, and that is interestingly probable; Jim just wanted those “things you see through,” (Peele). Jim recognizes the incognito racist sayings and micro-aggressions performed towards Chris at the party, and they share a moment where they are both admiring each other’s work objectively rather than in terms of color. Jim says that it is “ironic” that one can spend all the time in the world in a dark room developing these finite images of how they perceive the world and then wake up one day in complete darkness. This foreshadowing tells us that Jim at least relatively understands his actions prior to bidding for Chris’s body during the bingo/slave auction. He understands Chris’s dilemma of constantly being considered only valued in racial terms, and only truly considered as a body and not a mind. The point that the film is trying to make is that despite understanding the power-structure will still do what it wants as long as it is self-serving. Jim wants eyes, and he finds a new set of eyes so he takes them, regardless of skin color.
Similarly in 1796, one Thomas Atwood Digges seemingly forged a letter from Gustavus Vassa to signify their correspondence and presumably to contextualize himself in Equiano’s narrative as Digges had placed the letter in his limited edition version of the book. Equiano scholar Vincent Carretta Ph.D says that the handwriting when compared to both Equiano and Digges were “Inconclusive,” suggesting that either of them let another scribe pen their work, assuming either because of Equiano’s deterioration of health, or Digges’ desire to not have his handwriting give him away. Furthermore, this letter mentions Equiano’s wife Susanna as if she were still alive, and it is dated after her death. It is unlikely misdated and suggests that Digges assumed Equiano’s identity to increase either the monetary or social wealth of his possession. In many ways this forgery simply defines Digges as characteristically uncaring about others despite the apparent desire to associate himself with Equiano. This letter along with Peele’s film demonstrate the desire of the seemingly progressive to be a part of something inherently apart from them as a brag about humility. Digges forged Equiano’s letter out of the desire to salvage depictions of his character.
Lisa Guerrero’s article “Can I Live: Contemporary Black Satire and the State of Postmodern Double-Consciousness,” explains relevant details about black identity and suffering points for those that identify as such. She studies postmodern sketch comedy such as the director of Get Out, Jordan Peele’s and associate Keegan Michael Key’s “Key and Peele.” as well as “Chappelle’s Show,” and Richard Pryor. Guerrero focuses in specifically on the idea of double identity within the context of Keegan Michael Key’s portrayal of Luther, former president Barack Obama’s anger translator. In this sketch Barack is portrayed as a soft spoken and tactful leader who tiptoes around situations in a calm, and passive voice, and then after every line enters Luther with the “street” vernacular equivalent of Barack’s previous statement. Barack (Peele), says that he has “received a fair share of criticism” from fellow Democrats, and Luther would follow up on queue with a line akin to “these motherfuckers right here.” (Key/Peele.). This dual identity is representative of the pressures on even the most seemingly powerful person in the world Barack Obama being subject to the standards of assimilating to “white” mannerisms to be perceived by the public as articulate. Furthermore it demonstrates the need to keep composure in a situation that stresses the individual on an emotional level because they feel attacked based on external power structures.
Peele continues this analogy in Get Out by maintaining this sort of back and forward vernacular change based on who Chris is talking to, and there is even some strange interplay when Rose directly addresses the police officer who is asking for Chris’s identification after they hit a deer in the beginning of the film. Chris passively attempts to listen to what the officer is asking, but Rose gets aggressive for him as to assume the identity that she believes he has, and this identity may not be entirely accurate as to how Chris would handle the situation of confrontation with a police officer, but it voices some of the feelings that Rose assumes of Chris because of his racial identity, much like Luther can go overboard at times and miss the point of what Barack is trying to say. Additionally When Chris is talking to his best friend Rod over the phone we see a complete change in vernacular as opposed to the respectful language that Chris uses at the dinner table with the Armitages. Chris changes his word choice and tone based on his familiarity, even with Rose alone he seems to use significantly lower densities of vernacular than when conversing with Rod. Lisa Guerrero says “The consequences of post-raciality on communities of color, especially African Americans, has been the contradictory yet simultaneous processes of being cut off from claiming the significance of their racial identities while being singularly defined by society through their race, which, supposedly, society has ceased to see anymore.” (Guerrero). In Get Out this is made evident for the fact that the Armitage’s clearly only desire the African-American body with complete disregard for the culture and social minutia of those that they kidnap. In “The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano: or Gustavus Vassa, the African,” it is made evident that Equiano’s education was simply a by-product of his indoctrination into Christianity. Equiano’s double identity comes in the form of his writing, Equiano plays the part of a faithful slave, but is essentially in Peele’s idea of the “Sunken Place,” whereas internally like Chris he can see the external world and the horrors of slavery and he described them as “Tortures, murder, and every other imaginable barbarity and iniquity,” (Equiano). His dual identity is a survival mechanism, just as the black men whose bodies are stolen from them exist exclusively in the deepest orifices of their former selves, the slave must play the role of a “passenger,” while their experiences exert their power into the world.
Get Out as a horror genre film seemingly avoids instantaneous scares, and instead uses a deep cutting anxiety to lull the watcher into a fearful stasis. Peele on multiple occasions demonstrates jump scares as essentially harmless, instantly gratifying moments of anxiety of which are immediately recovered from. The pacing of this film matches itself thematically in that the anxiety of returning to captivity is constantly looming, whether through prisons or paranormal hypnosis. It is a horror more-so for the black audience than the white because of the history associated with the captivity and reduced identity of black people, and by using a police-officer to demonstrate this low-key anxiety and performative weakness, Peele demonstrates the clear separation of white people from an understanding of the situation. By demonstrating this anxiety Peele suggests that this misunderstanding of black anxiety is the reason that African-Americans are skeptical about neo-liberalism and white guilt, because they are without inherent benefit to the people who hold those ideals. It is not risky to say that you believe in those things because social liberalism doesn’t directly make white people’s lives better. The anxiety is that this social justice crusade is a trend, that when threatened those socio-liberal ideas would cease to be more important than the individual necessities of the person. This form of political malleability makes a culture around defending ones image as a white savior to a downtrodden and incapable people, and the ideology can retreat into indifference when it is convenient.
Cultural appropriation in both Get Out and Olaudah’s faux letter demonstrably move beyond what Professor James O. Young would call “profoundly offensive,” but stoop into a fearful and reprehensible thievery of identity. It is perceivable that Jim from Get Out is not harming out of the desire to harm, but rather to salvage his life, and likewise to Thomas Digges, but it is still harmful in that it indirectly oppresses minorities through cultural appropriation. Cultural Appropriation in these two literary works is demonstrated not through admiration of culture, but rather the body is taken instead of the spirit. Get Out explains subtly that the culture that these outsiders have fallen in love with so deeply and desire to imitate is simply one that their own ancestors have tagged onto the black image. The film makes this explicit by having Dean Armitage (Rose’s father) use outdated and appropriated language to push his faux interpretation of black culture back onto Chris. For example Dean is taking Chris for a tour through the Armitage’s household and shows him many cultural souvenirs and says “it is such a privilege to be able to experience another person’s culture. Know what I’m saying?” (Peele, 0:17:00). He then proceeds to show Chris pictures of his father Roman running against Jesse Owens prior to the 1936 Olympics. This demonstrates a desire to appropriate things, and a jealousy within the patriarchal structure of the Armitage family. Furthermore it is later revealed that Walter the groundskeeper is actually Roman Armitage in a young black man’s body, and Walter is infatuated with performing physical activities such as chopping wood and running. He too appropriates what he perceives as the language that Chris would use whilst directly addressing Chris referring to Rose as a “Doggone keeper,” (Peele, 0:39:20). What the film says through these two generations and their actions towards those of another race, is that these slang terms are essentially empty if said wrong, and/or said just to appeal to the type of person that is being impersonated. After speaking with Walter, Chris says to Rose he was acting weird and that it wasn’t what he said, but rather “how he said it.” The uncomfortably formalized vocal patterns of those whom had already undergone the procedure to take a body are evidence that the culture and mannerisms in which they remove during the surgery are not preserved and are thus unimportant. The desire for blackness is simply a desire for youth rather than an attempt to become more culturally attuned to modernity. The procedure ensures that those who are on their penultimate years can continue living through their lives as they would have in youth, by abusing those who are downtrodden and already perceived negatively.
Ultimately Get Out and “The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano: Or Gustavus Vassa the African,” work together to demonstrate public anxieties about loss of identity in the communities that are appropriated from or simply have a long history of oppression. They demonstrate that although the situations have drastically improved there are lingering trust issues based on the divisive nature of the issue and a long withstanding history of white American terrorism on people of color, examples being the “War on Drugs,” “Black Wall Street,” and “Slavery.” it is ingrained in the culture to be afraid, or to “Stay Woke,” in the words of Donald Glover who sings the opening title for Get Out. It also doesn’t help to cure these anxieties that men like Thomas Digges essentially assume the identity of an Abolitionist hero like Equiano and bolster his reputation with association. Modernly Rachel Dolezal had pretended to be an African-American to have a voice in the community, but the harm of appropriation isn’t entirely that what you are doing is wrong, it is that who you are has not changed and that you do not have to undergo the same anxieties outside of your playing pretend.
Olaudah Equiano Book Report
Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano is one of history’s most raw and multifaceted arguments for the abolition of slavery. Seized and forced into the slave trade when he was only eleven, Equiano tells his story as a member of the African upper class, to a subjugated slave, and finally as a free man. This novel stands out because it provides more insight into the wrongs of slavery other than simply describing its physical horrors. Thus, Equiano’s narrative proves to be an effective antislavery text because it looks at slavery from a three-dimensional perspective, and aims to convince the reader of slavery’s crimes toward social stratification, intellect, religion, and economics.
As aforementioned, Equiano originated from an upper class family of the Kingdom of Benin in Africa, and his upper class background strongly shapes Equiano’s views of slavery. As a result of his family’s privileged status, Equiano was exposed to the institution of slavery at an early age, as his family owned many of them. However, what Equiano aims for readers to understand is that the slavery Westerners know is much different than the slavery that took place in Africa. In the west, slaves are treated as second-class citizens, while in Africa slaves were treated exactly the same as regular citizens, with the absence of their freedom only. “How different was their condition from that of the slaves in the West Indies! With us, they do no more work than other members of the community, even their master; their food, clothing, and lodging were nearly the same as theirs” (40-41). Though most likely due in part to his former upper class status, it is interesting to note that Equiano never once denounces his village’s use of slavery, even as his arguments become increasingly against slavery as the book goes on. Thus, the value Equiano places with class makes him hate slavery all the more, as slaves are not only lower class, but essentially subhuman.
In addition, Equiano values knowledge and intellect, and appeals to his readers to abolish slavery, as slavery crushes any intellectual and societal potential African slaves would have. Already acutely aware of social status, Equiano realizes what the white men do to set themselves apart, and he longs to acquire these skills. “I not only felt myself quite easy with these new countrymen, but relished their society and manners. I no longer looked upon them as spirits, but as men superior to us; and therefore I had the stronger desire to resemble them…” (72). Thus, Equiano has a strong grasp on class lines and status, and what one must do or not do to transverse these sectors. Equiano’s eventual freedom from slavery was due largely to his ambition and longing for knowledge, as Equiano acknowledged that these things placed one higher on a class list. He learned to read and write and impressed his white masters and befriended them as tutors, enabling him to embark on a whole new mission within the abolitionist movement. Within Western society, slavery was not questioned because society put forth the idea that Africans and whites were not even of the same species, giving whites no reason to not enslave their black counterparts. Equiano’s desires to learn and please enabled him to challenge this antiquated thought and humanize himself for the good of his people. Intelligence allowed Equiano to renounce societal barriers and establish his own identity, but his experiences were rare, and most slaves were never given the opportunity to learn literary skills. Therefore, to Equiano, a man who values both knowledge and status, slavery is appalling because enslaving a person prevents them from blooming into an upstanding member of society, disabling them from reaching their full potential, a right which every man should have.
In his quest for knowledge, Equiano is introduced to Christianity, which thereby becomes one of Equiano’s strongest antislavery arguments. Often quoting directly from the Bible, Equiano points out the “Golden Rule”, or Matthew 7:12, which states, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you…” (Matthew 7:12 NIV). Equiano uses this verse to denounce readers for their lack of exerting even the most fundamental human compassion and the most fundamental Golden Rule. After Equiano’s conversion to Christianity, he is faced with the remarkable incompatibility that the institution of slavery poses for Christianity. Whether slave owners are kind or cruel to their slaves, slavery is not in accordance with Biblical teachings, especially in the New Testament, which Equiano highlights by saying, “Jesus tells us, the oppressor and the oppressed are both in his hands” (108). In this way, Equiano pleads with readers to consider the horrors of slavery as both people of faith, as family members, and as friends.
Although Equiano was set apart by his intelligence and ambition, Africans were nonetheless thought of as animals. Equiano’s rationality throughout the novel but especially in his appeal to faith, defies his stereotype in a society that relied on this animal stereotype to perpetrate slavery by dehumanizing them. Using Scripture allowed Equiano to remind his audience that slaves too are humans, despite the animals society tries to make them out to be. Not only did Equiano use his faith to argue against slavery, he also relied heavily on prayer and what he believed was God’s plan for his life during the more difficult times as a slave. Thus, Equiano’s faith became an increasingly large portion of the argument against slavery, as slavery is in discord with Biblical teachings of how men should treat one another, as well as their value in God’s eyes.
Although horrible because Equiano comes upon this realization after himself propagating the horrors of slavery, another argument Equiano makes for slavery’s abolition is that its abolition would help Britain’s economy. In an effort to acquire enough money to purchase his freedom, Equiano finds himself a slave trader, witnessing firsthand the “tortures, murders, and every other imaginable barbarity and iniquity” (194). While he stoops to the level of enslaving others in order to free himself, his experiences added bulk to his antislavery argument. “Population, the bowels and surface of Africa, abound in valuable and useful returns… it lays open an endless of field of commerce to the British manufactures and merchant adventurer. The manufacturing interest and the general interests are synonymous” (194). An uncommon argument for slavery’s abolition, economic impact is certainly of considerable value. As stated, Africa was a land saturated with lost riches sure to spark the curiosity of industrialized Britain, who could, if slavery was abolished, act upon this advantageous opportunity. Trading with Africa as a free people would westernize Africa as well as increase Britain’s production and trade, proving to be beneficial for both parties.
Though its means of realization were abhorrent, the positive economic effect of abolishing slavery was no doubt very appealing to Parliament when Equiano pleaded with them near the end of the novel. Slavery’s graphic horrors are usually the basis for antislavery arguments, but Equiano adds credibility to his argument by giving it depth, and appealing to even the uncompassionate ones, because everyone loves economic gain. Thus, already a leader in the abolitionist movement due to being born in Africa and having been captured and sold into the slave trade, Equiano makes sure to fully develop his antislavery argument by proving slavery’s detestability in many different areas other than the typically cited physical and emotional horrors. Slavery makes Africans into second-class citizens, stifles any potential for intellectual growth, directly conflicts with Christian teachings, and limits possibilities for a more westernized and economically healthy world. Therefore, Equiano’s antislavery narrative surpasses the persuasive potential of one-dimensional, emotional arguments, and once again reinforces the idea that Africans are to be re-humanized and slavery is unfavorable for all parties involved.
Equiano’s Multilayered Appeal for Abolition of Slavery
By the time Olaudah Equiano died in 1797 he had amassed a sizable fortune, visited four continents, and written a detailed account of his enslavement in the British colonies (Carey). It was this latter act that reserved him a place in history as one of the earliest influential Black abolitionist authors. His autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano was an adventurous tale, reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe, and coupled with Equiano’s gift for enthralling narrative, gave critics “no doubt that this was a book of the moment” (Carey). But more importantly, the narrative served as a “strongly political act,” a plea for the abolition of slavery (Carey). Equiano used his autobiography to convey this appeal in at least four distinct ways: he attempted to dispel notions of black inferiority, incorporated religion into his text to sway his pious readership, presented a pragmatic economical argument for the outlawing of slave trade, and used fervid imagery and narrative to connect with his audience on an emotional level.
Using his own character as proof, Equiano sought to dispel the myth that the African race was inferior because of its skin color.
Contemporary audiences should remember to examine the novel in its context; in the antebellum South and to the minds of his primarily Anglo-Saxon readership, one of the prevailing justifications of slavery was the supposed subhuman and animalistic status of Blacks. As one scholar asserted, “The charge that free black should be nothing but servants or thieves stung Equiano and forced him to take a public role in the slavery debate” (Equiano 16). To do this, Equiano cited several studies that demonstrated that “complexions of the same persons vary in different climates” and he hoped that this fact would “remove the prejudice that some conceive against the natives of Africa on account of their color” (56). He reiterated this several times in the novel, claiming that “understanding is not confined to feature or color” (56). He also pointed out that slaves were not unintelligent, just “ignorant of [the European] language, religion, manners, and customs,” and were kept uneducated because no “pains [were] taken to teach them these” (56). As for the supposed Black moral inferiority, he argued that it was caused by the misguidance of slavery, asking “does not slavery itself depress the mind, and extinguish…every noble sentiment” (56). And finally, in portraying himself as a well-spoken, benevolent gentlemen and a capable businessman, he disputed the theory that free Blacks behaved in an uncivilized manner.
Equiano’s arguments may seem painfully obvious to today’s readers, but during his era they would have been controversial. Were they effective? Although Equiano directly addresses color prejudice only once in his narrative, his entire novel portrays him as a man who is, in every respect, equal to his white counterparts in intellect and etiquette. If people had any doubt that a Black man could be accomplished and successful, Equiano’s narrative could likely challenge their notions.
Religion had a strong place in Equiano’s narrative, and was a major player in his argument against slavery. Equiano must have understood that a deep founded religious faith was prevalent to the nineteenth century and very influential to the politics of the era. Many historians feel that the extent of Equiano’s relationship with faith was ambiguous; some argue that he exaggerated the role of Christianity in his life in an attempt to appeal to religious readers, or to use religion as a social critique (Elrod). Regardless of how influential faith was in Equiano’s life, he certainly used it to claim that the slave practice not only violated basic human rights but “divine” laws as well. First, to make himself relatable to his devout Christian readers, he portrayed himself as a moral, pious and introspective man, even getting baptized: “I early accustomed myself to look for the hand of God in the minutest occurrence, and learn from it a lesson of morality and religion” (214). He then argued that the cruel and inhuman treatment of slaves was “unchristian” and insisted Black presence in the world was a natural result of God’s hand, saying “God carved them in ebony” (56). Quoting numerous passages from the bible, he claims that abolitionists and slave sympathizers will be rewarded for their Christian views, saying “the blessings of the Lord [will] be upon the heads of all those who commiserated the causes of the oppressed Negroes” (212). Equiano was certainly brave in using religion as justification to end slavery- especially considering that his opponents were attempting to do the opposite. Traditionalists would sometimes insist that “some people are slaves as part of the natural order of the universe, or as part of God’s plan.” (Southern) These people also noted that “in the Bible, Abraham had slaves” (Southern). To suggest that slavery was unchristian would undoubtedly trigger refutation by some, and because of the subjectivity of the debate, it would be hard to prove either contention. Yet Equiano appeals to religious sentiments in a way which would have made his argument compelling to many of his devout and sympathetic readers, especially if they believed him to be the pious man portrayed in his novels. In today’s world, using religion to support an argument is unadvisable, but Equaino was a man of his times; his religious arguments would have warranted serious contemplations in his day.
One of Equino’s most obvious pleas for the outlawing of slavery, placed cleverly at the end of his narrative so as to remain imprinted in reader’s minds, was in his analysis of its economic influence upon Britain; he argued that slavery was economically illogical, and that ending the institution would create vast new consumer markets that would prove financially lucrative. Calling for political leaders in Britain to heed his requests, he proposed that halting the slave trade would allow Africa’s population to regenerate itself, which in turn would enable “ a system of commerce [to be] established in Africa [causing] the demand for manufactures [to] rapidly augment as the native inhabitants…adopt British fashions, manners, customs &c” (Equiano 212). In fewer words, Equiano believed Africa’s inhabitants (and freed slaves) would create a huge consumer base from which Britian’s industries would benefit. He also believed in Africa’s potential to become an important trading partner to Britain, reminding readers that “the continent [is] nearly twice as large as Europe, [and is] rich in vegetable and mineral products” (212).
Perhaps Equiano’s arguments against the slave trade were logical, but were they founded upon any real evidence? Probably not, considering that slavery was still widespread and any predictions of the economic effects of its future abolishment would be pure speculation. But what really matters is whether or not Equino’s economic argument held enough weight during his era to convince his readers. Counterarguments of the period included the prediction that abolishing slavery would “have a profound and killing economic impact on [areas with agriculture based economies] where reliance on slave labor was the foundation of their economy” (Southern). Equiano’s argument, while introducing an optimistic possibility, neither discredits nor refutes such opposing arguments, and yet he calls it “a theory founded upon facts, and therefore an infallible one” (Equiano 213). While his argument is articulate and commonsensical, it certainly is not “an infallible one” because it ignores certain realities (for example that slaves cost relatively little in upkeep) and lacks the comprehensive analysis that would make it really effective. Therefore, it is the weakest of his for arguments against slavery.
The last and most obvious argument Equiano makes against slavery is that it is a cruel and unjust practice, and he does this by describing its injustices in a way that play to readers’ emotional sentiments. Especially to his potential allies in the North, he conveys a more accurate and appalling image of slavery than the one which had been widespread by biased proslavery authors. It is imperative to consider that Equiano’s narrative was one of the first of its kind; few slaves were literate enough to document their experiences, let alone publish them to widespread appeal and audience (Halsall). So, while the evils of slavery are well accepted contemporarily, during Equiano’s era, it is not a stretch to assume that many northern Whites had been fed imperfect and biased information on the practice. Equino’s experience surely produced new emotions of anger and disgust toward slavery and eliminated some of the ignorance of its cruelties. Equiano described horror stories of slaves being killed to collect insurance money, flogged until beyond recognition, and overworked until their life expectancy was a mere seven years. He documented various torture devices used on slaves, the “neck-yolks, collars, chains, hand-cuffs, leg-bolts, drags, thumbscrews, iron muzzles, and coffins; cats, [and] scourges” and described the “human butchers, who cut and mangled the slaves in a shocking manner on the most trifling occasions, and altogether treat them in every respect like brutes” (Equiano 105, 213). He accounted his own mistreatment at the hands of racism, detailing an incident in which a ship captain punished him without warrant: “He made some of his people tie rope round each of my ankles…and hoisted me up without letting my feet touch any thing. Thus I hung, without any crime committed” (194). He also described his grief at being forced to separate from his beloved sister, saying “my sister and I were then separated….while I was left in a state of distraction not to be described. I cried and grieved continuously; and for several days I did not eat anything” (58).
Equiano’s personal experiences are rich enough to draw readers in and informative enough to leave audiences with a distinct and negative image of slavery. His character is amiable and keeps readers invested in his fate, and his accounts of the experiences of others also helps demonstrate the universally negative effects of slavery. Equiano presents the horrors or slavery with vividness and clarity, and invokes sympathy from readers. Emotional appeal is clearly the most effective tool Equiano employs in his argument against slavery; he uses it to his advantage often and with great skill but never goes so far as to appear histrionic.
Equiano could have faded into obscurity, but he used his outstanding intellect and affinity for writing to create an engaging and lasting piece of abolitionist literature. It’s important to remember that Equiano’s arguments against slavery were most effective because they were made in conjunction with each other- his devotion to religion would have made him seem human, his humanness would have helped touch reader’s sensitivities, and that emotional appeal would have made it easier for readers to buy into his economic argument. While his pleas for the abolition of slavery were certainly effective (perhaps with the exception of his economic reasoning and his religious argument only by considering his audience), his narrative also managed to be a thoughtfully written and enthralling adventure story. And although his arguments are outdated today (by 1797 the slave trade had been outlawed in the British colonies), Equiano’s narrative serves as a reminder that at some point, two hundred years ago, they had to be made (Olaudah Equaino).
Carey, Brycchan. “Olaudah Equiano: A Critical Biography.” Brycchan Carey. 03 Aug 2007. Web. 17 Oct 2009. <http://www.brycchancarey.com/equiano/biog.htm>.
Elrod, Eileen. “Moses and the Egyptian: Religious Authority in Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative – Critical Essay.” Business Network. 2001. Web. 17 Oct 2009. <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2838/is_3_35/ai_79758785/pg_2/?tag=content;col1>.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin, 2007. Print.
Halsall , Paul. “Modern History Sourcebook: Life of Gustavas Vassa.” Fordham University . Aug 1997. Web. 17 Oct 2009. <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/Vassa.html>.
“Olaudah Equiano.” PBS. Web. 17 Oct 2009. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1p276.html >.
“The Southern Argument for Slavery.” U.S. History Online Textbook. 2009. Web. 17 Oct 2009. <http://www.ushistory.org/us/27f.asp>.
Analysis Of Equiano’S Travels Abolitionist Text
Throughout his text, Equiano’s definition of abolition desired to end the slave trade while reforming slavery into a more considerate, cordial institution. Furthermore, this was illustrated throughout the novel because although Equiano was a slave himself, he believed in private property. In addition, he is an honest man and says that he will by no means escape his master unless he is treated unsatisfactorily. In contrast to slavery as a whole, Equiano firmly believes that if slaves were treated in a more humane manner, there would be a mutual respect, therefore, slaves would be more faithful and easier to comply.
As Equiano’s feelings change throughout the text, his definition of freedom slowly evolves with his time during the slave trade. For example, in the beginning, when Equiano was first kidnapped he desperately prayed he would be returned back home to Africa. He states that he cried continuously for days and he refused to eat anything except what he masters forced him to consume. This illustrates Equiano’s beginning belief on how evil the slave trade is because it was tearing families apart. This also demonstrates how being captivated within the slave trade was affecting Equiano mentally and physically. He was confused as to why he was taken from his home and was being told what to do.
In contrast, Equiano’s perception commences when he arrives at his first master’s home after several days of traveling on the sea. When he arrives, Equiano acknowledges their treatment towards him in the text and describes how it caught him by surprise. He states that his master’s wife treated him like his own mother and that the entire family attempted to comfort him. These kind gestures during his vulnerability are a representation of Equiano’s transition of beliefs which shines a more positive light on the slave trade. For example, when he arrives in Tinmah Africa, Equiano is purchased by a widow and her son. He describes the treatment from them as superb in his eyes. This demonstrates how African slave owners tended to be more open to helping their slaves out and making sure they are comfortable in the home. In contrast to this, when Equiano comes in contact with the European slave owners he realizes the vast differences between the Africans and Europeans. The Europeans in his eyes were unbelievably malicious and treated their slaves like animals while starving, beating, and neglecting them.
In addition, Equiano observes how the European owners ate fish that they caught and instead of feeding their slaves, the leftover fish was tossed back into the ocean. Tossing the leftover food into the ocean represents how the Europeans purposefully daunted their slaves while making them feel inferior and helpless. However, when Equiano was bought by his first master he states the day after he was purchased, he was given a bath and perfumed and then guided to dinner to eat with the master’s wife and the son. In continuation, Equiano declares that their allowance made him forget he was a slave. This example illuminates another example of Equiano’s transition regarding his judgment on the slave trade.
The message this abolitionist text portrays is to broadcast the viciousness of the slave trade. Equiano tends to cope with his sufferings by turning to God and reading biblical verses. He mentions that he realizes the slave trade cannot be good because it violates independence, equality and the right of mankind which God wouldn’t have ever wanted. This affirms Equiano’s realization that the practice of buying and selling human beings is inhumane, therefore he questions the slave trade because God would not approve. By questioning the slave trade process, Equiano develops his desire to abolish the slave trade and reform slavery. This was a turning point because it marks the main message of the book, which is to broadcast the barbarous effects of the slave trade.
Moreover, Daniel Queen was a man who became attached to Equiano and taught him how to read the Bible. Once Equiano had the capability to read the Bible, he became more intrigued about human rights and God’s plan for humanity. Daniel Queen was a fatherly figure to Equiano, and he voices that Daniel paid attention to his morals and didn’t expect him to lie because of the consequences and how God would not love him any longer. Henceforth, the practice of Christianity displays an aspect of freedom in his remarkable journey which allowed him to escape his reality and turn to God in his time of need. In addition, the message of slave trade evils is shown when African Americans are stripped of their identity and forced to take upon new names and traditions. Equiano was not fond of taking a new name when his captain and master renamed him, Gustavus Vasa, he declared to be called Jacob, which resulted in Equiano being abused by his captain. After he was abused, Equiano was scarred into thinking he would constantly be abused. Likewise, Equiano states that the white slave owners acted savagely, and he has never seen his community experience such brutal cruelty. Therefore, the horrors of the slave trade depict the message Equiano is attempting to get across within his abolitionist text.
Equiano is against the slave trade as a whole because the enslavement process tends to be worse than death. He describes the conditions as utterly harsh and watched children on the ship be thrown into tubs and suffocated. Equiano assumed this would happen to him as well and accepted it because he wanted to be put out of his miseries. This confirms that the conditions were so dehumanizing that the slaves were pushed past the point of sanity. In addition, due to the abrasive conditions, the slaves became more unwilling to do tasks because they were fatigued and miserable. Likewise, Equiano states an incident where he was too depressed to eat, so when the Europeans offered him food he declined. Due to him declining, they held Equiano by his hands and tied his feet while they proceeded to beat him severely. This demonstrates the control the masters had over the slaves and depicts their lack of say in any situation. In continuation, since the slaves had no say in personal choices they started small acts of rebelling such as what Equiano did, which was denying food. In contrast, Equiano states a message that if slaves were treated as human beings, they would tend to be more honest, faithful, and intelligent. This goes against the book as a whole because Equiano has a consistent philosophy regarding the slave trade, and the belief that slaves would comply easier if treated like humans goes against what he says. This also means that Equiano is stating that if slavery was reformed it would be more suitable, which is not what he believes throughout his abolitionist text.
This abolitionist text regarding Olaudah Equiano’s slave trade experience shines a light on the desire to reform slavery as a whole and abolish the slave trade. Throughout the text, Equiano tells the story on the differences regarding African slavery versus European slavery. The differences severely contrasted each other in harshness and horror. When African slaves were in the presence of Europeans, they were mutilated and starved to death. However, when they were in the presence of African slave owners, they were treated with more respect and dignity. Equiano describes the dehumanizing exposure to abuse that all slaves will endure during the slave trade and how it affects them mentally, emotionally, and physically. Throughout his journey, Equiano was able to develop his personal definition of freedom and work towards his goals despite being a slave. In contempt of his struggles in the slave trade, Equiano used his developed knowledge and skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic to pursue his own freedom as a free man. Moreover, Equiano was fortunate enough to be able to gain his freedom while voicing his opinion against slavery.
Comparative Analysis Of The Slave Narratives By Olaudah Equiano And Mary Jemison
There are a variety of aspects that contributed to the European colonization in North America. But specifically, there was a blending of cultures from the Africans, Dutch, French Europeans, and Native Americans. These interactions of these cultures differed from every area and depended on economic, social, and political factors. During this specific period, most Europeans didn’t see Africans and Native Americans as equal, but rather as inferior to them. Ultimately, Native Americans and Africans had a continuous battle with these opposing forces of power who wanted to colonize them. Native Americans retaliated out of anger and this is apparent within the writings “Mary Jemison, A Narrative of Her Life, 1824”, as she describes her journey as a young girl taken captive by a Seneca Indian Tribe. African slaves went through a variety of tragedies during the Middle Passage and this is apparent in “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, 1756” as he recounts about his personal experiences as a slave encountering the horrific conditions of the Middle Passage and describes how he was brought into a “world of bad spirits”. The blending of these cultures ultimately caused the death and mass enslavement of Africans & Native Americans, retaliations of the enslaved, and adoption of cultures.
Olaudah Equiano, an African slave writes about his journey and fight for survival while encountering the Middle Passage in “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, 1756”. His journey begins as he arrives on the slave ship where he soon encountered the tortuous maltreatment of the whites. He explains the horrific conditions that the slaves are kept below the deck and the state they’re in has caused the spread of disease because of all the emesis, feces, urine and all the other factors that contributed. Throughout the narrative, it is apparent that Equiano is very observant and learns a lot about these individuals just by observing their behaviors and actions. A key aspect within his writing is that the slaves found a sense of freedom in death and this was because of their religious background. They believed that they would be reunited with their ancestors when they chose death over slavery. On the other hand, Mary Jemison, a young girl taken from her family by the Seneca tribe describes her journey in “A Narrative of the Life of Mary Jemison, 1750” as she is adopted into a new family. Her fight for survival begins as she is taken away from her family because the Native Americans were retaliating against the English for the reason that they slaughtered many of their people. Her mother’s last words to her before she dies will forever leave a lasting impression on Jemison as she fights to survive this unfortunate situation. And this is vital throughout her writings because she has this recollection of memories that make her miss her family and reminds her that she was forced to abandon her true identity.
Jemison and Equiano are both stripped of their identity, taken away from their homes, and forced to conform to lifestyle changes that will forever affect them. This is key within both writings because they both were ultimately used as objects of use. Equiano being used as a slave of labor to further the economic goals of the colonist and Jemison being used as an object to replace a family member who was killed. As these individuals were deprived of ever returning home, and forced to conform they recognize key aspects of their experience that explain how they were used as objects. Equiano writes, “I now saw myself deprived of all chance of returning to my native country, or even the last glimpse of hope of gaining the shore”. He understood that he no longer had a chance of returning home, and this is important because overtime Equiano realizes that he had been brought to a new world where he had to survive. This is important as Equiano realizes he is no longer home and must conform to these white men who would inflict pain if he disobeyed them. He saw how these men used Africans as objects and treated them badly. This correlates directly with Jemison’s writings as her mother mentions “Don’t forget, my little daughter, the prayers that I have learned you, say them often”. Her mother expressed her last words to Mary as she is taken away. In other words, the survival of these individuals depended whether or not they would accept and conform to their new societal expectations. Jemison’s mother reminds her not to run away from the Indians and to do as they please to survive the brutalities that were soon inflicted on her. This is key to Jemison’s survival as she remembers her mother’s last words that will forever linger with Jemison. This is important as Jemison recognizes that is forced to conform to this new identity or she will face the same repercussions as her family did. Overall, a key aspect of both these writings is that these individuals were used as objects to fulfill the desires of others. This is important because this also recognizes that it wasn’t only Native Americans and African slave who faced the unfortunate brutalities of the colonist but other whites like Jemison who acknowledge this within their writings. Death, was something key within both writings as both individuals were surrounded by it. This is an important factor within both writings as they recognize how many African slaves died during the Middle Passage and some immigrant families died as the Native Americans retaliated because of the white men.
After closely examining “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano” it’s apparent that a lot of slaves died before arriving at land due to the confined spaces they were in and they want to choose death over slavery. Equiano says “The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying rendered the whole scene of horror almost inconceivable”. This quote confirms that slaves were in these disgusting conditions which lead to the spread of disease amongst the slaves causing them to die off especially because they were not used to being in these confined spaces with urine, emesis, and feces. Equiano also mentions that “I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me”. This acknowledges that Equiano was surrounded by death and wished to face death because he could not stand the torment of the Middle Passage. Unlike Jemison, Equiano was forcefully taken from his homeland for the whites to pursue their economic prosperity in the colonies while Jemison was taken by the Seneca out of retaliation because of the killing of the tribe members which was soon inflicted on her family.
In comparison, Jemison acknowledged within her writings that “Having put scalps, yet wet and bloody, upon the hoops, and stretched them to the full extent they held them…knives commenced scraping off the flesh”. This brutal instance confirms how immigrant families during this period faced the repercussions of the brutalities that were initially done to mass amounts of Native Americans. The key point to take away is that death surrounded both individuals and the main cause of each horrible circumstance was caused by the white men. Within both documents, both individuals are ultimately in their position because of the brutalities the whites inflicted on the enslaved population. Jemison mentions “On our way we passed a Shawnee town, where I saw several heads, arms, legs, and other fragments of the bodies of some white people who had just been burnt”. This is key because Jemison identifies the fragments of whites who were burned by the Shawnee because of the unlawful killings they inflicted upon their people. This is idea is apparent throughout Jemison’s writings as she is taken by the Shawnee and her family is treated just as the whites who were killed previously. This correlates directly to Equiano as he writes “I was carried on board…I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits and they were killing me. Their complexions too differings”. This confirms that Equiano was in this unfortunate position because of the economic pursuits of the white in the New World. This is where these two sources differ, yet fit in the context of colonial America. Jemison acknowledges how the oppressed individuals being the Native Americans were treated brutally by the colonist and in retaliation, they would kill these families or choose to spare their life which is what happened to Jemison. This also important because Equiano recognizes how the slaves were oppressed by the English and forcefully brought them to the New World to expand and profit economically. Ultimately, the enslaved individuals were in unfortunate circumstances because of the colonist whose primary goal was to expand and profit economically in the New World which effected these groups of people. It also caused retaliation from the Native Americans because of the killings that were inflicted on their people. The main idea present within both writings is that as individuals were forced into slavery and forced to adopt the beliefs of the Shawnee the conditions of these individuals were caused by the imposition and brutal treatment of the colonist.
Olaudah Equiano And The Realities Of Servants And Slaves In 17th Century
Back in the 17th century long ago there was a man by the name of Olaudah Equiano who was taken from his native land and family at a young age; He kept a detailed journal in which he described the horrors of slavery, being kidnaped and sold off at a young age. In this journal he included his memories about the sacrifices that he and many others were forced to live through for the Englishmen of Jamestown. Indentured servants were English men and women who were desperate for better opportunities but had no money to voyage to Jamestown. To make this happen they were to sign a contract that would cover their living expenses in exchange for labor work and after 7 years they were promised to be compensated with land and riches. Even after recruiting servants the supply and demand for tobacco and other goods continued expanding and their only alternative was to travel to Africa and enslave natives. These people were taken from their homes and forced to go to Virginia where they were sold to landowners and were made their property giving them no rights or freedom; Snatched against their will and separated from their families, they were beaten, starved and lived under horrible conditions left with nothing but a man to call master.
Although being a servant and a slave were two different things it did not change that both were treated harshly; They were mistreated, overworked, underfed, beaten, and were given no value. While they did everything in their power to avoid getting punished, mutilation for the sake of advocating dominance was inevitable. On many occasions the treatment got so unbearable that they would take manners into their own hands and try to escape. Ultimately this led to nothing good because they would either be found and executed, or they would die while fighting for survival. Undoubtedly, they were both treated inhumanely but servants had the sense of security that allowed them to keep going because they knew this would just be temporary, sooner or later it would be over, and they would be set free onto a better life. In closing, although we could say servants had it better than slaves, we cannot deny that both had to face agonizing circumstances that potentially affected them permanently; especially in the stance of these natives that had no power to one day be free. It is writers like Equiano who documented his and many others experiences which allow us to firsthand view that makes this more of a reality that what these people went through was utterly horrifying.
Comparison of Conversion Narratives: Olaudah Equiano and John Marrant
Spiritual autobiographies, or conversion narratives, were popular forms of literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with Americans and Europeans alike. Daniel Shea explains a spiritual autobiography is “primarily concerned with the question of grace: whether or not the individual has been accepted into divine life, an acceptance signified by psychological and moral changes which the autobiographer comes to discern in his past experience” (XI). Accordingly, these type of texts were often used as religious, political, or cultural propaganda. With this in mind, Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African by Himself (1789) and John Marrant’s Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black (1785) do not ostensibly seem interconnected. Equiano’s narrative tells the story of an eleven year old Black boy who is captured and must endure the trials and tribulations of the slave trade and its related injustices. On the contrary, John Marrant is a free, educated black male who accepts Christianity, willingly abandons his family, and assimilates into Native American culture. While at first these texts seem completely unrelated, a closer look at their similarities reveals their belonging to the same genre.
Although Equiano’s text is generally studied as a slave narrative and Marrant’s as a captivity narrative, it is most beneficial to interpret both works as spiritual autobiographies, or tales of conversion. On that note, the mere structure of both narratives suggests their belonging to the spiritual autobiography genre. In general, spiritual autobiographies and conversion narratives are characterized by the author’s journey from rags-to-riches, damnation-to-salvation, or ignorance-to-grace. Indeed, both Equiano’s Interesting Narrative and John Marrant’s Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings follow this structure. For example, in Equiano’s case, the former slave becomes a well-known, well-educated, respected abolitionist. His narrative follows him from his African Pagan roots to his final achievement as a saved, free black man. Born in 1745 in present-day Nigeria, Equiano was captured and sold to slave traders headed for the West Indies at the age of eleven. After a brief stay in Virginia, Captain Henry Pascal purchased Equiano as “a present to some of his friends in England” and renamed him Gustavas Vassa (Equiano 36). It is under the ownership of Pascal where Equiano is exposed to Christianity, a force which guides his success up until the end of his life. After spending much time traveling with Pascal, he is again sold in 1763 to a man named Robert King. Working on Mr. King’s trading sloops, Equiano was able to profit from minor trading exchanges, ultimately enabling him to purchase his own freedom in 1766. Once free, he returns to England where he begins attending school and even obtains a job working as an assistant to scientist Dr. Charles Irving (Potkay & Burr 159-162). As commonly seen in spiritual autobiographies, Equiano’s humble beginnings are transformed into a life of accomplishments, ultimately aided by his discovery of Christianity.
Similarly, John Marrant’s Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings follows this same path of damnation to salvation. His narrative details his life as a free black child in the American colonies, his Christian conversion, his capture by the Native Cherokee tribe, his assimilation into Indian culture, and his subsequent spiritual and cultural transformation (Potkay & Burr 67-74). Feeling dejected and unaccepted by his family because of his newfound spirituality, Marrant wanders off into the wilderness “to go home altogether” (Marrant 16). Despite problems enduring and navigating unknown areas, Marrant explains “the Lord Jesus Christ was very present, and that comforted [him] through the whole” (18). Eventually, he stumbles upon an “Indian hunter” who takes Marrant back to his village after realizing how far from home he has travelled (19). Although his initial relationship with the Cherokee tribe leaves him jailed and scheduled for execution, it is his relationship with God that leads to his acceptance into the Native community. As Katherine Chiles points out in Transformable Race, the hopeless and fearful black wanderer transforms into a renowned and respected Indian preacher (123). Thus, John Marrant’s narrative, as well as Equiano’s, closely follow the rags-to-riches, grace-to-salvation structure commonly found in other spiritual autobiographies of the period.
According to Daniel Shea, spiritual autobiographies are characterized by the author allowing God and divine intervention to be the deciding factor in their life (XII). In both Marrant and Equiano’s narratives, God becomes the guiding force in their lives almost immediately after their first exposure to Christianity. For Marrant, this occurs when he is on his way to “play [music] for some gentlemen” and stumbles upon a “large meeting house” where “a crazy man…[is] hallooing in there” (10). Recognizing it as preaching a sermon, Marrant’s friend encourages him to disrupt the service by loudly blowing his french horn. When Marrant gets ready to do so, the “crazy man,” renowned Reverend George Whitefield cries out, “PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD, O ISRAEL” while looking “directly upon [Marrant], and pointing with his finger”
(10, 11). After this spiritual encounter, Marrant is struck to the ground “both speechless and senseless” by Whitefield’s invocation of God and falls ill for the following three days until a minister is sent to convert him to Christianity, healing him of his ailments (11). Returning to the requirements of a spiritual autobiography, it is this moment of divine intervention which makes way for Marrant’s subsequent conflicts where he must rely completely on God to pave the way for his life. Similarly, Equiano’s first encounter with God’s presence ignites his interest in the spiritual world and guides all his decisions thereafter. Upon his first arrival in England and his first sight of snow, twelve-year-old Equiano asks his ship-mate “the use of it, and who made it” to which his ship-mate replies, “a great man in the heavens, called God” (39). Through this brief explanation of God, Equiano’s “immediate ambition had been realized” (Walvin 91). Equiano goes on to describe the effect this moment had on him:
After this I went to church; and having never been at such a place before, I was again amazed at seeing and hearing the service. I asked all I could about it; and they gave me to understand it was “worshipping God, who made us and all things.” I was still at a loss, and soon got into an endless field of inquiries, as well as I was able to speak and ask about things (39).
Notably, Equiano views his newfound spirituality as the strongest force in his life as his faith in God begins to grow. It is this same unfaltering faith that makes Equiano feel safer and more confident in his ability to change into someone loved by God instead of his previous damned state. For example, when seven people, including Equiano himself, fell off of the ship’s upper-deck and no one was hurt, Equiano gave God credit for sparing his life: “I thought I could plainly trace the hand of God, without whose permission a sparrow cannot fall. I began to raise my fear from man to him alone, and to call daily on his holy name with fear and reverence: and I trust he heard my supplications (53). Similarly, the power of God directly saves John Marrant’s life as well. After Marrant’s family rejected him and his adopted religion, he takes to the wilderness, testifying “the Lord Jesus Christ was very present, and that comforted [him] through the whole” (18). When he initially encounters the “Indian hunter,” Marrant informs him he was “supported by the Lord” even though the Indian is ignorant to Christianity (19). Despite this, the Indian hunter convinces Marrant to join him in returning back to the Native village. Once Marrant arrives at the Indian community, he is separated from the man he met in the wilderness and forced to answer to the rest of the tribe about his intentions and purposes for his being there or he will be executed. Unable to explain his presence satisfactorily, he is thrown in jail and scheduled to be put to death the following day. However, the account that follows exemplifies the requirements of a spiritual autobiography and demonstrates the active role God plays in Marrant’s life. In jail, he begins praying in the native Cherokee language, supposedly “wonderfully affect[ing] the people” nearby (24). To his surprise, his praying converts the executioner who insists “no one shall hurt [Marrant] ’til thou haft been to the king” (24). As a result, he is “taken away immediately” to meet the King where his explanation of God’s word and the Bible converts the King’s daughter instantly (24). Just as Marrant experienced after hearing Reverend Whitefield, the young girl is overcome with “bodily weakness” and passes out ill, severely angering the Cherokee King who threatens to kill Marrant on the spot if his daughter is not immediately cured (27). When Marrant prays over the girl, he explains “the Lord appeared most lovely and glorious” and relieved her of her ailments (27). As a result, a “great change [takes] place among the people; the King’s house [becomes] God’s house” and Marrant successfully converts the entire Native village to Christianity. (28). As Marrant explains, he is “treated like a prince” thereafter and “the Lord made all [his] enemies to become great friends” (28- 29). In this way, the reader is able to understand the significance of God’s acting power in Marrant’s life. Also worth noting is the power of God to comfort the men through their trials and tribulations.
In Equiano’s case, when Captain Henry Pascal sells him to another owner after promising his freedom, Equiano wonders if he has done something to cause the Lord to punish him. In this moment, he believes it is God punishing him instead of the white man: “At the moment I expected all my toils to end, was I plunged […] in a new slavery […] I wept very bitterly for some time: and began to think that I must have done something to displease the Lord, that he thus punished me so severely” (59). He goes on to explain how he “felt the Lord was able to disappoint [him] in all things,” just as the Lord aids his success and happiness (59). By doing so, Equiano, as well as John Marrant, “appropriate[ed] God’s word to his individual purposes” which “constituted an especially bold form of self-authorization” (Andrews 1). These instances, along with several others in both Equiano’s Interesting Narrative and John Marrant’s Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings reveal what a powerful and guiding force God becomes in the lives of these men, further reiterating their belonging to the spiritual autobiography genre.
To continue, the most notable similarity between these two narratives is both Equiano and Marrant’s choice to adopt the racial “mask” of their captors. As Sisters of the Spirit explains, the Negro had traditionally been considered “a kind of Canaanite, a man devoid of Logos, whose low social status was a punishment resulting from sin or from a nature defect of the soul” (Andrews 1). In short, blacks were considered sub-human, and therefore unable to obtain salvation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As a result, “the black spiritual autobiographer had to lay the necessary intellectual groundwork by proving that black people were as much chosen by God for eternal salvation as whites” (Andrews 1). In order for Equiano and John Marrant to successfully demonstrate their potential for salvation, both men adopt the racial ‘mask’ of their captors. In John Marrant’s case, his adoption of the Cherokee mask begins almost immediately after encountering the Indian hunter in the woods. Before they have even arrived at “a large Indian town, belonging to the Cherokee nation,” Marrant has already “acquired a fuller knowledge of the Indian tongue” (21). Interestingly, he learns enough of the language in that short period to fully pray in Native Cherokee tongue. After converting the whole village to Christianity, he immediately “assume[s] the habit of the country, and [dresses] much like the king” (28). As Katherine Chiles points out, Marrant “assum[ing] the habit of the country” indicates “he dressed like the Cherokee and practiced their mode of living (such as learning their language), and that he took on the constitution or appearance of the Cherokee body” (Equiano 28, Chiles 126). He has transformed so much into a Native that when he returns home his family does not recognize him: “[the] singularity of my dress drew every body’s eyes upon me, yet none knew me” (32). Indeed, Marrant’s adoption of the Cherokee ‘mask’ is “less about disguising himself for a certain duration than about becoming something different from his prior […] state of blackness” (Chiles 122). In short, Marrant sheds his former blackness as a way to escape the historical exception of blacks from Christianity and establish himself as a spiritual autobiographer. Just as Marrant adopts the mask of his native captors, Equiano adopts the manners and habits of his white captors and counterparts. At first convinced white people are mean, savage, and cruel, Equiano comes to see whites as “magic” as the narrative progresses (140). He explains:
I now not only felt myself quite easy with these new countrymen, but relished their society and manners. I no longer looked upon them as spirits, but as men superior to us; and therefore I had the stronger desire to resemble them; to imbibe their spirit, and imitate their manners. I therefore embraced every occasion of improvement; and every new thing that I observed I treasured up in my memory (46).
In this moment, Equiano decides he sees himself more as a European than a black African. He wants to imitate the people that have held him captive because of their seeming intelligence and good manners. As a result, Equiano strives to achieve this whiteness through his education, especially concerning religion. Consequently, he surrounds himself with white, educated companions who assist him in his understandings of the Bible. Throughout the narrative, Equiano is eager to adopt the ‘white mask’ of his superiors so he will be considered their social and spiritual equal. Near the narrative’s conclusion, Equiano reveals: “I whitened my face, that they might not know me, and this had its desired effect” (119). Just as Marrant makes a complete racial transformation into a Native, Equiano adopts the persona of a white, Christian European in order to give himself the same opportunities for salvation as his racial counterparts.
To conclude, we return to Daniel Shea’s definition of spiritual autobiographies. As anticipated, Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African by Himself (1789) and John Marrant’s Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black (1785) fulfill the requirements of acceptance into divine life after psychological and moral changes. Furthermore, the structure of both narratives, their focus on divine intervention, and their adoption of a ‘racial other’ reveals their belonging to the spiritual autobiography genre.
Andrews, William. Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century. Indiana University Press, 1986.
Chiles, Katherine. Transformable Race. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. London, 1789.
Marrant, John. A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant: a Black. London, 1785.
Potkay, Adam and Sandra Burr. Black Atlantic Writers of the Eighteenth Century. St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Shea, Daniel B. Spiritual Autobiography in Early America. Princeton University Press, 1968.
Walvin, James. An African’s Life: The Life and Times of Olaudah Equiano, 1745-1797. Wellington House, 1998.