Friday, August 5, 2011

Required Work: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

I just have to say that I am so glad this is the last traditional slave narrative that I have to read for the M.A. list. I’ve learned a lot, and I always enjoy reading Frederick Douglass’ Narrative, but I think I am over the topic of slavery for awhile. Equiano’s narrative does have the distinction of mostly taking place at sea as opposed to a plantation or a house in the southern U.S. He served a great deal on ships and continued to do so even after he bought his own freedom. So that, at least, was a nice break from what I am used to.


This is of course a slave narrative and was eventually used as a model for subsequent slave narratives. It is also a coming of age story as it follows Equiano from his life in Africa where he was kidnapped as a young boy and put into the slavery system, all the way through his many adventures through slavery and eventual freedom. It is also full of adventure as Equiano takes many voyages to and from Europe, the West Indies, America, and Africa.


The main over-arching theme throughout the book is that of the voyage or journey. There is the initial slave voyage that Equiano takes from Africa, to the Americas, and eventually to England. This same basic voyage was also taken by Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, and Phillis Wheatley in different forms. Of course, neither Douglass nor Jacobs were born in Africa but were instead born into slavery in America, but both ended up in Europe to join the abolitionist movement. Equiano would then repeat this journey in different variations over time as both a slave and a free man, mostly by choice but often by force.

Another voyage that Equiano takes is from slavery to freedom, which is true for all traditional slave narratives. And a parallel journey that is common to many slave narratives is that from heathenism to Christianity. This journey isn’t discussed much with Douglass and Jacobs, but Wheatley talks about this in her poem “On being brought from Africa to America,” and of course, most of her poetry is overtly Christian and speaks of the grace of God and the joy of knowing Him. Equiano often struggles with his faith and goes through many periods of self-righteousness as he harshly judges those around him who do not know God and/or do not act like they do.

The final journey that is common to most slave narratives is that from being only acquainted with an oral tradition to being able to read and write English. This is what helped spur Douglass on to escape and obtain his freedom, and it also plays a large role in the life of Jacobs. Wheatley is unique in that she benefited from a progressive master who made her education a priority after realizing how quick she was to pick up language and literature. Equiano is able to use just his ability to speak English to get out of many situations and gain favor with certain people. Because he can speak and understand the language of the English he is often seen as more civilized and worthy of slightly more respect. The journey to literacy is most often a key in slave narratives as most of the masters have a strong aversion to teaching their slaves, due to the common belief that this knowledge will lead to ideas of freedom and their eventual escape. For Douglass, this proved entirely true and he was successful. Also, this leads to slave narratives such as the ones I have covered and their use in the abolitionist movement.


Upon its publication, The Interesting Narrative was not only a great work of American literature by a new African American author, but it also made Equiano’s fortune and allowed him to work according to his own interests.

The book also presents the two differing views of slavery in Africa, of which he was a part before after his initial kidnapping, and the more brutal brand of slavery in America.

As usual, people were surprised at Equiano’s eloquence as not only a writer but also as a speaker. And of course, people have debated whether the accounts he gives in the book are entirely accurate. The book surprised many with the writing quality and, just like every other slave narrative we have discusses, was used in the abolitionist movement and was one of its most lasting contributions. Equiano became involved in the abolitionist movement in Britain, where he eventually settled down after travelling and started a family.

I may be doing two posts a week from here on out. Next week I hope to cover Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and The Rover.

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