The Life of Olaudah Equiano
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). 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.
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.