The Life of Olaudah Equiano
The Interesting Narrative by Olaudah Equiano, African American Slave Who Bought His Freedom
To begin with, this narrative of Olaudah Equiano is extremely powerful and inspirational. Not only does it illustrate his own narrative, but some key details such as: how he bought his freedom, what he did with his freedom, and how he became an abolitionist and public speaker. This narrative is well dissected in comprehensive detail that goes in depth about the time when he was kidnapped along with his sister, being around numerous masters in Africa, and how the Guerin sisters taught him how to read and write. In the following paragraphs I will be critiquing Equiano’s narrative in various ways.
Olaudah Equiano’s main purpose of writing this narrative was to explain the harsh conditions of African American slaves lived in and how they were treated. In my opinion, Equiano had two target audiences, the audience he was trying to attract the most were, the British Politicians who were arguing over the Slave Trade in Parliament. His second target audience, were future African American slaves, newspaper writers during that time period, future historians, and future generations of students like myself because he knew that slaves are not well educated, and he could make a major impact with it. With Equiano being a former slave, well-educated individual, and a public speaker, he knew in the near future he could have made a major impact on banning slavery for all slaves. Also, Equiano described his experiences in a vivid form where I could picture the sensory details. An example of a vivid sensory detail in the narrative, he stated, “My cries had no other effect than to make them tie me faster and stop my mouth, and then they put me into a large sack. They also stopped my sister’s mouth, and tied her hands” (P. 38). Also, in the narrative, Equiano explained the gruesome conditions when they were shipping them across the Atlantic Ocean, he stated, “The filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated, the shrieks of the women” (P.69). He handled this atrocious challenge by his willpower, he knew how physically tough these conditions were, but tried his absolute best to stay positive and survive.
This Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano had several strengths and weaknesses. Some of the strengths the narrative had, it was written in second person to appeal to the reader from a slave’s narrative point of view. Another strength, Equiano was an educated person, he used vivid sensory words that could make his target audience image able what he went through. Also, when he talked about the Middle Passage, it is well discussed in today’s history classes and it is a primary resource that Historians can rely on. It expressed that slaves are humans too, he stated, “But is not the slave trade entirely a war with the heart of a man? And surely that which is begun by breaking down the barriers of virtue involves in its continuance destruction to every principle, and buries all sentiments in ruin” (P. 110). On the other hand, I could not find many weaknesses within the narrative. If I had to choose one weakness in the narrative, the narrative was extremely powerful, however it took several decades for slavery to be abolished, many politicians who were against slavery did not consider it. Finally, Equiano mentioned a lot about his religion, Christianity, there were several pages in which he talked about religion. When he talked about it, to me, it seemed as if religion was a huge aspect of his life and he was very passionate towards it. He mentioned, that he was favored by Providence, he considered himself a Predestinarian, and that he believed that his soul’s course was ordained, and it was his duty to accept this.
In conclusion, the author set a very high standard in this autobiography. It explains what an African American slave had to go through during the Middle Passage, how he was treated by his numerous masters, how he bought his freedom, how the sister’s impact on him teaching how to read and write helped him grow in a abolitionist. The autobiography is a primary source because it emotionally and informationally present historians and students about one of the worse events in African American history, the slave trade.
The Theme of Slavery in the Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano
There are many things that people can learn from the lives that a few intellectual people have lived. Biographies are excellent ways of preserving history and learning points as the experiences of a person expresses a lot about the true nature of live events. The current generation faces many challenges, especially in societal issues brought by diversity. The race has become a concerning matter in every corner of the world, and black people have been affected as they experienced discrimination and harassment since the establishment of industrialization in Europe and the discovery of the Americas (Bugg 1431). Slavery led to the exploitation, suffering, and deaths of over 30 million people who were forcefully shipped overseas to offer free labor. Such historical injustices require a unique perspective of a story to be told to the society for such wrongs to be avoided (Bugg 1438). Olaudah Equiano successfully establishes such a perspective of telling the true nature of historical injustices, especially slavery in his autobiography entitled ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. This paper discusses how the theme of slavery has been portrayed throughout Equiano’s text.
Presence of Slavery in Equiano’s Early Life
Equiano expresses the issue of slavery in almost every aspect of his experiences as he starts his narration by expressing the presence of slavery in Guinea and his presence in his father’s and other judges’ condemnation of a person caught kidnapping a child. It is fascinating how, with no prior history to white people, he is still able to acknowledge the presence of slavery (Simmons 76). As upper-class individuals in society, Equiano and his family were already entitled to possess slaves. He, at one time, even looked back on his village’s utilization of slavery as decent and inhumanely as the one in West Indies (Smith 768). According to him, the slaves were treated almost the same as everyone since they were provided with similar types of clothing food housing (Equiano 41). He says that the slave in his Benin home did not do more work than the other members of the community, and it was tough for anyone to notice the difference between them and the rest of the society (Equiano 41). In their nation, some slaves could even have other slaves under them, but not it the new lands where he had been taken. Through such an early depiction of slavery, the reader can understand the theme and its play in the narration. In this way, both a sense of class order and humanity affected his early impression of slavery.
Equiano’s Linkage of Slavery with Life Class
In the slavery days, Africans captured fellow black men and sold them to white men who took them overseas like commodities waiting for buyers. The linkage between social class and the aspect of slavery never ran in Equiano’s mind until he found himself as a captive of his fellow black men waiting to be sold like a domesticated animal (Bugg 1431). In his view of the people who had captured them, Equiano sees uncivilized individuals with backward norms of life and is irritated by how they behave (Equiano 52). He has even to go ahead and make a comparison of how much people were fellow Africans but had a too much backward culture than his community. He notes that the capturers’ women were not well mannered as the ones from their community since they ate, slept, and drunk with the men (Equiano 52). Such behaviors and others made Equiano consider himself of a better community, which at least had manners in its culture.
Knowledge’s Influence on Slavery
When Equiano first saw the white men, he thought them of being some beats that would have eventually eaten him (Dias 5). Nevertheless, the fears eventually subdued when he arrived in the new land as his interest in education gave him a new perspective about life. At first, he did not like the idea of white people, but with the education, he started feeling more of being part of the European community as he was amazed by their type of society and the way they behaved (Simmons 77). He narrates how he developed a stronger drive of trying to look like the white people who had captured him, be able to imitate their way of life, and also imbibe their spirit since he saw them as superior men (Equiano 72). This is a different point of view for any person who has been under the harsh treatment of white masters. The new knowledge is the leading facilitator to his involvement in religious matters, especially reading the Bible and forming a friendship with white people (Smith 767). Somehow this new knowledge changes how he felt and viewed the institution of slavery and how he viewed white people’s involvement in it.
Conflict of Religion and Slavery
Whether direct or indirect, it is essential to accept the fact that religion had a significant impact in the slave institution. From the expeditions of missionaries into Africa to the final halt of the trade, religion shaped different aspects of the progress. Equiano conflicts a lot with himself when it comes to choosing between the white man’s religion and the abolition of the slave institution (Simmons 78). One may note that Equiano’s contradicting views about slavery may perhaps be because of his higher class distinction, which makes him not to be against all sorts of slavery in the new region (Smith 768). Equiano sets it clear that God is against those who inflict pain and misery on slaves but still sees it as God’s actions, not his owners intended actions when he sells to a new owner (Equiano 86). His point of view seems to be in support of the slave owners’ view that slaves do not deserve God’s love and compassion. This somehow makes him to be in contradiction with his main drive of trying to put an end to slavery. But on the whole, this part of the Narrative does put his fight against the slave owners in more jeopardy, as he does plan again to escape (Simmons 76). He eventually goes ahead to illustrate some of the cruelest slave treatment he has witnessed in his life. He even goes ahead to quote that, “Jesus tells us, the oppressor and the oppressed are both in his hands; and if these are not the poor, the broken-hearted, the blind, the captive, the bruised, which our Saviour speaks of, who are they?” (Equiano 108). This helps him to create the essence of moving away from the bondage created by the cruelty of slave owners and their actions on the slaves. From such a perspective, there is much contradiction in his belief of the slave owner’s religion and his stand against their actions on slaves.
Conclusively, Equiano offers a more in-depth look at how the international slave trade was conducted and showcased the presence of slavery in the continent, even before the appearance of white slave owners. Through his life journey, one can be able to know the factors that enhanced the practice and also what made it dormant. The religious point of view on slavery is not left out in his analysis and so creating an overall point of view on all events of the slavery era.
Honest and Dishonest White People in Olaudah Equiano’s Autobiography
Paper One Draft
A common theme in slave narratives is the influence of both honest and dishonest whites on slaves. Dishonest white people are most common in slave narratives, being those master who don’t feed their slaves well or have no regard for slave families. The honest whites are those that see slaves a people and not property, and usually help slaves along their tough journey. In The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (The Interesting Narrative), Equiano encounters many whites that treated him cruelly, but also a few that saw the inhumanity of slavery and actively worked to help him, showing that there was still hope in improving society.
When Equiano was first brought on the slave ship, he was offered food, but when he refused to eat, two white men punished him. “One of them held me fast by the hands… while the other flogged me severely” (Equiano 365). Punishment was a recurring conflict for many slaves, and it could hardly be avoided. When slaves got desperate and jumped off the ship into the water, they were recaptured and “most severely cut” (Equiano 365). Slaves that abandoned ship didn’t expect to escape; they’d rather die than be a slave. One day, when the white ship crew caught a load of fish to eat, the slaves expected to get some part of it, but the whites just “tossed the remaining fish into the sea again,” although the slaves “begged and prayed for some” (Equiano 366). Some slaves tried to sneak some fish to eat, but “the attempt procured them some very severe floggings” (Equiano 366). Slaves were not thought of as humans, so these whites had no sympathy towards them. These are examples of the cruel and inhumane treatments that many whites gave toward slaves.
Although there were many bad white people during the time of slavery, there were still some good ones. The first one that Equiano meets is Richard Baker, who went through many of the same sufferings as Equiano while on the ship. Richard Baker dies at at a young age shortly after he meets Equiano, but Equiano still regarded him highly; as a man who “discovered a mind superior to prejudice” (Equiano 370). His death was hard on Equiano because he was his interpreter, and Equiano felt although Richard understood him on a surface level, he also saw Equiano as a person and not a slave. When Equiano was sold to a new master, he met Daniel Queen, a captain’s attendant who helped Equiano a great way in his education. “Hee taught me to shave and dress hair a little, and also read the Bible, explaining many passages to me” (Equiano 373). Later, Equiano was sold to Robert King, who helped Equiano learn and better himself; he offered to put Equiano “to school, and fit me [Equiano] for a clerk” (Equiano 375). King was kind to Equiano and was captured by his character, but he got some flack for treating his slaves well. King had a fundamentally different approach with his slaves than most other white men, he treated slaves well so that “he was better and more faithfully served by them in return” (Equiano 375). All of these people had a positive impact on Equiano’s life by helping him while he was struggling, giving him an education, and ultimately helped him achieve freedom.
Along his journey to freedom, Equiano encounters many good and bad white people. The bad are those that are stereotypical to slave narratives, who seem to be the majority of people. These are your typically slave masters who punish slaves for every misstep and show no sympathy towards slaves’ families and humanity. The good whites are those that contradict these stereotypes of white people in slave narratives, and show that there are still those who believe in change. These people see slaves as people rather than property or tools to abuse, and they are the ones who believe in change. Equiano writes positively about these few people that he encounters not only because they are kind and helpful to him, but because these are the people that can ultimately end slavery. By patronizing the honest white men and antagonizing the dishonest ones, Equiano paints a picture that shows the reality of the situation. He hopes that the majority of white men will realize that slaves are intellectual human beings that are no lower than whites, and those that already understand this are the ones who must realize that they are the ones who can ultimately end slavery.
The Utilization of the Concept of Power of Knowledge in Literature
The Power of Knowledge: Greater Good or Greater Evil?
Since the beginning of time, people have educated themselves through imitating acts of others as well as reading educational literature. Throughout history, we have relied on education in order to teach ourselves a trade, as well as educate ourselves on the past in order to prepare for what may come for the future. In the stories and poem, “Little Black Boy” by William Blake, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano by Equiano, and “The Home and the World” by Rabindranath Tagore, all use knowledge to tell the tale of their times and situations. While education and knowledge can be used for good, can’t it also be used for evil?
In “The Little Black Boy”, Blake tells of a small African slave child with his mother. The mother tells him that there is nothing wrong with his skin, as he is a “cloud” that covers the white child (16). The mother during this time had no education but she based her tale around Christianity, and spoke to her son this way in order to give him hope. During this period, slaves were not allowed to have education, as owners wanted to keep them oppressed. The owners were afraid that if the slaves became educated, the would revolt against the way they were being treated. However, with the mother’s outside knowledge of the Christianity, her self-knowledge of trusting God during her hardships got her through the days. While she spoke of only the religion, and never read, I believe the relationship between her outside knowledge of the bible’s teachings were strained as she only knew what she remembered but her self knowledge was ever preaching to keep on praying and working on to serve the white owners. The mother’s lack of education didn’t necessarily hurt her, as she held on to the religious teachings of God in order to get her and her son through.
“The Interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equanio” was written by Equanio as he was pushing for the terrible acts of slavery to be abolished. Equanio’s experience of slavery wasn’t as abusive as we would like to think, however, he witnessed the mistreatment of slaves on many occasions. When first purchased by Micheal Henry Pascal, Equanio stayed and helped Pascal during the Seven Years War. While helping, Equanio learned of God and began reading and writing, gaining outside education that many slaves were never allowed to reach. As Equiano became traded around, he stayed in touch with his outside knowledge of God, as well as his self knowledge of the way the slaves were treated and direly needed to be freed. Equanio’s self knowledge combined with his outside knowledge complimented his life, as he was eventually freed and was accepted, however, it was also a deadly combination for the slave owners of this time. The evil treatment of slaves that Equiano had witnessed would become a part of his autobiography that would eventually be published in order to help combat and abolish slavery. Equanio’s outside education brought him power to tell and work towards the end of slavery, as well as his self knowledge, giving him the will to trust in God throughout his life.
“The Home and the World” tells of the lives of Nikhil, Bimala, and Sandip. In the tale, Nikhil wants Bimala to experience the outer world, as their love wouldn’t be true if she did not. Of course, Bimala wants their love to be true, however, she is torn. Bimala’s outside education had not been truly opened up until she becomes introduced to Sandip, an active leader of the Swadeshi movement. Bimala, even though married to Nikil, becomes attracted to Sandip, even though she is also repulsed by his actions when he cons her into stealing from her husband. While Nikhil pushed Bimala to gain outside knowledge, her self knowledge of her normal life and morals, brought tension when she interacted with Sandip. She knew his actions were not of good character or for the good of the movement, however, his ways of convincing her to fall for him and his wrong ways during the movement, caused her to realize his evil ways. Nikhil, even though upset at the thought of giving up Bimala, was at fault, in my opinion for telling her she needed outside knowledge of the world. He wanted her to get to know herself as a person but did not expect her to fall for someone else. Again both characters are brought tension in the plot due to their wants of the outside world, but their experiences with each other bring them back together. Bimala realized that Nikhil loved her but soon a riot takes place and her husband is shot and killed. The outside world that Nikhil had tried to get his wife Bimala to go for was the same world that killed him. Sandip had left and was no where to be found in this time, as he wasn’t willing to face what he had moved up to cause. Sandip’s outside knowledge of political matters and such were no help during this riot that caused pain to the people. Bimala’s lack of outside knowledge would have been better off if she had not met Sandip and gotten into his plans. Her love for her husband, even though questioned, was still in her self knowledge from their experience of a peaceful marriage.
Throughout the three stories, all characters had their outside knowledge of some sort that was combined with self knowledge. However, they all used their power of knowledge in different ways, whether for evil or good, the knowledge was required in order to make an impact on their situations. I believe that even though the education was needed, outside as well as self, the character’s relationship with knowledge truly made the stories what they are today.
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.
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). Works CitedCarey, Brycchan. “Olaudah Equiano: A Critical Biography.” Brycchan Carey. 03 Aug 2007. Web. 17 Oct 2009.
Abolition, Ethnicity, and Identity in The Interesting Narrative
Published in 1789, The Interesting Narrative by Olaudah Equiano is an autobiography detailing his experiences as a captive in the transatlantic slave trade. Equiano presents the narrative of his life as a story meant to inform and entertain, but also to further the cause of abolition.1 This underlying purpose must be considered in conjunction with other historical details in order to gain a full understanding of the author and his work. Firstly, it is necessary to recognize that Equiano was speaking as a member of a minuscule minority in the eighteenth century—that of the African scholar. In contrast, his intended audience was principally the wealthy, educated classes in the Western world that might have had some power to bring an end to slavery. Wilfred Samuels argues in “Disguised Voice in The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African” that the author’s handicap in achieving this aim was the prevalent, supposedly scientific belief that Africans were not developed enough to articulate themselves in an educated way.2 The Interesting Narrative is thus an entertaining biography, but also a plea to be treated as a serious, historically based work. The strength of Equiano’s abolitionist argument depended on the credibility of his evidence; many of his readers were loath to even believe that an African had written a book, while others attacked his assertion of African origin.3 It is the battle against such opponents that frames the story of Equiano’s life—the story of how an enslaved African escaped his unfortunate station by obtaining an education and, as the author himself said, by receiving the “mercies of Providence.”4 Additionally, in traveling back and forth across the Atlantic and transforming from a captive slave to an educated scholar, Equiano develops an identity as a displaced African, a resident of the New World, and eventually an Englishman. This unique combination enables him to become the rare spokesperson for Africans who truly understands slavery from both sides. Equiano’s diverse experience colors the tone of his autobiography, as he gently tries to show a hostile audience the evils of slavery. Equiano presents his antislavery argument on a variety of fronts, both subtle and explicit. In editing and updating his autobiography, Equiano refuted claims of fabrication and published a series of recommendations of his work by educated persons. A “List of English Subscribers” attached to The Interesting Narrative, including notable landowners from that era,5 establishes validity by indirectly suggesting to the reader that if important people actively follow Equiano’s work, then it must hold merit. In a more explicit way of directing attention to his true agenda, Equiano utilizes a supplicatory tone in an introductory letter addressed “To the Lords spiritual and temporal, and the commons of the Parliament of Great Britain.”6 He entreats the audience to look upon The Interesting Narrative with compassion, sympathy, and open-mindedness. Still, Equiano takes care to write with delicacy here; if he were to seem too bold, like a Negro who does not know his place, then he would certainly inflame anger and rebuke in the reader’s heart.7 Another point raised by the Narrative is the complicated question of Equiano’s ethnicity. When describing life in his homeland in Chapter 1, Equiano writes, “Our day houses are left open … we sleep … insects which annoy us during the night.”8 By identifying with the practices of Africans, he establishes himself as one as well. Equiano states that he is from “a section of the kingdom of Benin called Eboe.”9 Yet, as Byrd goes on to say, this does not necessarily create a sense of nationalism or pride, because Igbos may not have been self-aware of their country in relation to others nearby. The reader learns that Equiano is an Igbo, but not what the importance of this distinction is. Though Equiano is African by birth, he has lived so long with Europeans and New World colonists that he writes in a way they can easily understand. In fact, when Equiano published Narrative, he had spent three-fourths of his life traveling and living with Europeans and colonists in the New World.10 This time had greatly shaped Equiano’s character and opinion of whites. Three years after moving to England, he says, “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…”11 Equiano’s strong admiration for the English shows that he has adopted their ways and wishes to be recognized as one of them. It seems that although Equiano is African by birth and recalls with fondness his childhood on the continent, he identifies more readily with Western culture, mannerisms, and society. He strives to be like the English in all ways—except, of course, for their espousal of slavery. The Interesting Narrative offers great insight to the issues of race, ethnicity, and slavery as they existed in the eighteenth century. Equiano’s unique life history allows us to understand the viewpoints of (some) Africans during the transatlantic movement, slave traders, slave sympathizers, New World colonists, and Englishmen. The assortment of people and experiences that inform his account make it truly invaluable.____________________1Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings (New York: Penguin Group, 2003), 32.2Wilfred Samuels, “Disguised Voice in The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.” Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Summer, 1985), pp. 64-69. JSTOR.