Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797)
Contributing Editor: Angelo Costanzo
Classroom Issues and Strategies
I use Equiano as an introduction to American slave narrative literature and demonstrate the important influence of autobiographical form and style on the whole range of African-American literature up to the present day, including its impact on such writers as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison.
Students are particularly interested in the way the whites conducted the slave trade in Africa by using the Africans themselves to kidnap their enemies and sell them into slavery. Equiano was sold this way. Also their interest is aroused by Equiano's fascinating descriptions of Africa as a self-sufficient culture and society before the incursions of the whites. Students are moved by the graphic scenes of slavery, the Middle Passage experience described by Equiano, and his persistent desire for freedom. Most of all, they enjoy reading the first-person account of a well-educated and resourceful former slave whose life story is filled with remarkable adventures and great achievements.
Since students have no prior knowledge of Equiano's life and work, I give background information on the history and commerce of the eighteenth-century slave trade, placing in this context Equiano's life story--his kidnapping, Middle Passage journey, slavery in the Western world, education, religion, and seafaring adventures. I also describe his abolitionist efforts in Great Britain, and I say something about his use of neoclassical prose in the autobiography.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The students need to know about the slave trade and the condition of slavery on the Caribbean islands. As for the literary aspect of Equiano's work, the students should be instructed about the genre of spiritual autobiography, its structure, methods, and styles. In particular, information should be given on how spiritual autobiography was used in the formation of the new genre of slave narrative literature, mainly the three-part structure of slavery, escape, and freedom that corresponds to the spiritual autobiography's three parts that describe the life of sin, conversion, and spiritual rebirth.
Equiano's great autobiography illustrates influences from several popular schools of personal writing current in the eighteenth-century Western world. Among these are the spiritual autobiographical writings of St. Augustine and John Bunyan, the descriptive travel literary works of Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift, and the secular stories that display a hardworking youth's rise from rags-to-riches in the commercial world. The latter pattern can be seen quite well in Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, a work that shares some interesting parallels with Equiano's narrative. Equiano, like Franklin, is an enterprising young man rising up in life and playing numerous roles that help to develop his character in a free world of possibility. Both Equiano and Franklin use self-ironic humor to depict their adventures, and frequently they see themselves acting the role of the picaro figure--a stratagem used many times for survival purposes.
Another eighteenth-century mode of writing observed in Equiano's work is the primitivistic style that is related to the noble savage ideal. Equiano was aware of this type of writing, especially in the books on Africa by Anthony Benezet, the Quaker antislavery writer; when Equiano recalled his early days in Africa, he relied heavily on his reading in the primitivistic literature. However, Equiano's autobiography is remarkable in the account he gives of his African days because his re-creation is a mix of primitivistic idealism and realistic detail, in which he never expresses shame or inferiority regarding his African heritage. Africa is an edenic place whose inhabitants follow their own cultural traditions, religious practices, and pastoral pursuits. But although Africa is a happy childhood land for Equiano, he is not blind to the evil events that lately have befallen his people.
The Europeans have entered to plunder, enslave, and introduce the despicable inventions of modern technological warfare. Equiano himself is a victim of that situation when he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. His early experiences in the American colonies are recreated with a sense of awe and wonder as the young picaro slave observes the Western world's marvels. He is saved from a life of plantation slavery, but his seafaring service gives him the opportunity to witness firsthand the brutal practices of slavery in several areas of the world. Equiano's life story is a journey of education in which he goes from innocence in edenic Africa to the cruel experience of slavery in the West.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
I always discuss Equiano's work in conjunction with the whole genre of spiritual autobiography. I show how Equiano adapted the autobiographical form to his invention of the slave narrative. I also explain the primitivistic elements in his work and say something about the eighteenth-century neoclassical style of writing.
In accordance with the pattern of spiritual autobiography, Equiano's narrative follows the three-part structure of spiritual and physical enslavement, conversion and escape from slavery, and subsequent rebirth in a life of spiritual and physical freedom. Not until he gains his physical liberty is Equiano able to build his character along personal, religious, and humanitarian lines of development. This is the reason he places his manumission paper in the center of his narrative and records his jubilation on attaining his freedom. From that point on in the autobiography, Equiano uses a confident, exuberant, and crusading tone and style as he relates his immersion in the honorable aspects of Western society while he denounces the West's inhumane practices of slavery.
I emphasize the fact that Equiano's reading audience was mostly composed of American and European abolitionists. His immediate purpose was to influence the British political leaders who were debating the slave trade issue in Parliament in the late 1780s. However, Equiano's work was read and discussed by numerous religious and humanitarian readers on both sides of the Atlantic. His work went through nineteen editions and was translated into several languages. It appeared in print well into the middle of the nineteenth century, and its influence on the whole range of slave narrative literature was strong.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
The best comparison is with Frederick Douglass's Narrative (1845), which follows the three-part pattern of spiritual and slave autobiographical work. Douglass's work depicts the same search for identity involving the attainment of manhood, education, especially the ability to read, and the securing of physical and spiritual liberations. Other connections concentrating on the spiritual conversion account in Chapter 10 of Equiano's work may be made with the Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson and Jonathan Edwards's Personal Narrative.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. Questions may deal with definitions of primitivism, form of autobiography (spiritual and secular), history of slave trade and slavery, and eighteenth-century writing styles.
2. (a) Why does Equiano stress that the Africans are "a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets"?
(b) Chapter 1 contains a mix of borrowed information and personal recollections by Equiano on traditions, familial paractices, and religious observances of the Africans. Do you find this technique assists Equiano's aim to erase Western readers' misconceptions about Africa?
3. (a) Describe the primitivistic elements in Equiano's description of his stay in Tinmah.
(b) What kind of picture does Equiano paint of his African slave experiences as opposed to his later encounters with slavery in the Western world?
(c) What signs of European influence does Equiano observe during his slave journey to the coast?
(d) Discuss the reversal situation of the cannibalistic theme demostrated by Equiano's initial meeting with the white slave traders on the African coast.
(e) What are some of the white world's magical arts Equiano observes with a sense of awe and wonder?
(f) Equiano's account of the talking book is a commonly described experience in early slave works. What significant traits of the young enslaved person does the story reveal?
Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. (See especially Chapter 2.)
Costanzo, Angelo. Surprizing Narrative: Olaudah Equiano and the Beginnings of Black Autobiography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987. (See especially Chapter 4.)
Davis, Charles T., and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds. The Slave's Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. (See Paul Edwards' essay, "Three West African Writers of the 1780's.")
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings. Ed. Vincent Carretta. New York: Penguin, 1995. (Contains introduction and extensive explanatory notes.)
Much of my research and writing has centered on Equiano. As a result, a great deal of the information required for an understanding and appreciation of Olaudah Equiano's great work can be found in my book.