Second Place Essay

Title: A Comparison of Two Slave Narratives
Author: Tasha Miller
School: University of South Dakota
Instructor: Norma C. Wilson

Essay Assignment:
Focus on an aspect of the writing of one or two authors whose works are included in The Heath Anthology of American Literature.

A Comparison of Two Slave Narratives

In 1789, Olaudah Equiano published an autobiography that became the first in a renowned genre of American literature--the slave narrative (Lauter 970). Equiano called his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself. Frederick Douglass continued the slave narrative tradition with the publication of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, in 1845. Equiano and Douglass led lives that would have been envied by most slaves. Each man gained his freedom out of bondage--a privilege that the majority of their brethren never knew.

By merely examining the titles of these works, the reader can detect prejudices that had to be overcome by black people, as well as the assimilation of the slave system into our society.

Equiano and Douglass authenticated their works by including Written by Himself in the titles. White audiences held much skepticism towards the abilities of former slaves. John A. Collins, an abolitionist, even suggested to Frederick Douglass that he add "plantation language" to his speeches to keep his credibility with audiences (Lauter 1667).

Contrasting self-perceptions are also evident in the titles. Equiano referred to himself as the African; Douglass was An American Slave. These variations probably can be credited to the fact that Equiano was born in Africa. He was 11 years old when he was kidnapped and forced into slavery (Lauter 971). Frederick Douglass was born into the slave system in the American South. His mother was a black slave and his father was a white man, probably his master (Lauter 1676). Slavery had become so absorbed by our culture in this 50-year time span that American slavery was proclaimed as a man's heritage. This absorption was also seen in slaves' appearances. Douglass wrote, "it is nevertheless plain that a very different-looking class of people are springing up at the south, and are now held in slavery, from those originally brought to this country from Africa" (Lauter 1678).

Both men's works are classified as slave narratives; however, there are obvious differences between them. These differences arose from the authors' diverse upbringings as well as their adherences to social standards.

Olaudah Equiano, being one of the original slaves from Africa, began life as a free man. He wrote that, when he thought back to his childhood, he did so with pleasure (Lauter 981). The narrative opens with a bright description of his village. The people lived a plain lifestyle guided by their spirituality. They were an extremely clean and jubilant people; they didn't indulge in strong alcohol or condone laziness (Lauter 975-76). The cruelest aspect of Equiano's bondage seemed to be his separation from this haven of family and kin. His sister was kidnapped with him. When they were torn apart he wrote that the "wretchedness of my situation" was "redoubled" (Lauter 984). Equiano was eventually put on a slave ship bound for the West Indies. Aboard the ship, he wrote of people being chained together, living in their own filth and disease. Amidst the hideous conditions, Equiano found some comfort in the presence of other people from his own nation (Lauter 1678).

I felt saddened by this story of a young boy and other Africans who were taken from their families. However, after reading the narrative by Frederick Douglass, I noticed that Equiano's story left out many graphic details. For instance, when he described the first whipping he received on the slave ship, Equiano merely told the reader that he was "flogged severely" (Lauter 987). Compare this to Douglass' account of his beating: "he rushed at me... and lashed me till he had worn out his switches, cutting me so savagely as to leave the marks visible for some time" (Lauter 1702).

Equiano was probably writing within the realm of what his audience wanted in the late 1700's. Travel literature was a popular category in this time and, as Geraldine Murphy wrote in her essay on Olaudah Equiano, his narrative is an intersection of slave narrative and travelogue (553). She wrote, "Travel discourse in Equiano's narrative is an informal medley of natural wonders, remarkable sights, proto-ethnographic description, and scientific information" (566). As he wrote about his journey on the slave ship, he included passages such as, "in all the places where I was, the soil was exceedingly rich, the pumpkins, aedas, plaintains, yams, &c. &c., were in great abundance, and of incredible size" (Lauter 1702).

Equiano led the life of a world traveller. He was especially influenced by England, and as Murphy noted, he became Anglicized. Frederick Douglass did not describe his life as a slave with such "interesting" details. Comparing the two memoirs, Murphy wrote that Douglass focussed on authenticity rather than interest, and his main theme was escape, not travel (566). He related his journey from slavery to freedom-by-escape with blunt reality and graphic details: "The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest" (Lauter 1687). A common saying Douglass heard among his masters was that, "it was worth a half-cent to kill a `nigger' and a half-cent to bury one" (Lauter 1687).

Douglass' story angered me; I felt the rage the abolitionists must have known in their fight against this American institution. Douglass wrote with an urgency and passion directed toward these abolitionists--his main audience. He wanted them to feel the pain of the slave and to loathe the enslaver as he did. The "hell of slavery" he described was the epitome of human demoralization (Lauter 1700); furthermore it was splitting the country in two. This narrative gave the abolitionists the ammunition they wanted to fight their cause.

Warm memories were missing from Frederick Douglass' childhood. As I mentioned once, his father was most likely his white master. This was not known for sure, nor did it matter because the law called for the child to follow the condition of his mother (Lauter 1675). Douglass was separated from his mother at an early age, as were most slave children. Therefore, upon her death, Douglass felt the same emotions one would feel "at the death of a stranger" (Lauter 1677).

Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass relied on their faith to get them through hardships. This faith is reflected in the writings of both men, and they relied on it to question the hypocrisy of a "Christian" slave owner. As he described the separation of families sold into slavery, Equiano asked, "O, ye nominal Christians! . .. Learned you this from your God . . . ?" (Lauter 990). The final chapter of Equiano's narrative is devoted to his Christian re-birth. When he described his vision of "the crucified Savior bleeding on the cross," I felt like I was reading a spiritual rather than a slave narrative. The vision of Christ was similar to that given by Jonathan Edwards in his Personal Narrative: "I had a view . . . of the Son of God." (Lauter 581).

While Equiano seemed to veer off and use his spirituality to convert the nonbelievers, Frederick Douglass always used it to question the morals of human bondage. He was a believer in the "Christianity of Christ" (Lauter 1727); but he abhorred the "corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradleplundering, . . . Christianity of this land" (Lauter 1727).

Aside from the differences between Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass, both overcame racism and tyranny so that their message could be heard. They learned to read and write, became free men, and contributed to the abolishment of slavery.

Contents, No. XIII