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.
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