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Olaudah Equiano

It is my belief that every action and occurrence recorded in this narrative is meticulously placed and worded with a main direct purpose in mind. In order for Olaudah Equiano’s interesting account of his life to truly transcend the barriers of race and modestly resonate throughout the pro-slavery faction of America – Equiano needed to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of cultivating an image of himself as an almost unbiased factual reporter without sacrificing the truly horrific imagery that he knew would stir the morality of man most.

In the beginning of the narrative he starts with a nostalgic look at his homeland and people. During this account he draws many parallels between the way of life of his own people to that of his target audience. This establishes him as a human being, he has roots, a family, and a life not so completely different from that of Americans. He is not cargo or some traded commodity – it is much harder to inflict such devastation on a group of people if you feel that you know them and even partially identify with them. Equiano realizes this and attempts to utilize it in his argument. He possibly even exaggerates the wonderfully utopian qualities of his prior life to make these parallels even stronger. It must have taken incredible strength and insight for him to realize that his point would not get across if his narrative became what slave holders would see as an abolitionist rant. He tactfully balances the horrors of an enslaved life with a distant level-headed approach to the entire process. Sometimes it is almost to much for me as at certain points during the narrative I felt that he was too distant and that I never got to know him as well as I would of liked to. His conversion to Christianity honestly bothered me a little bit. I realize the fusing of his old and new life was also essential to his argument and this text and his timely distance as a narrator can also be linked to his beginning claim that most narratives are marked in vanity, but I just still felt like I didn’t really know him even after finishing the text and maybe the narrative could have benefited from a little vanity at times.

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2 thoughts on “Olaudah Equiano

  1. I agree with you that the book would have been much more enjoyable if we’d gotten a chance to know a more flawed, or at least more emotional, side of Equiano. But I can’t imagine the sort of pressure the author would have been under, in writing a book like this. Slaveholders and those complicit in slavery would have been looking for any reason to discredit Equiano. I think that the author strategically presented a nearly flawless (and partly fictional) version of himself so that his book would stand up under intense scrutiny of all types. For this reason, I think that Equiano’s narrative does not function as well as it could as an autobiography, but probably did a very good job of fulfilling its main goal – to discredit the institution of slavery. Still, it makes me really curious to know what Equiano would have written, if he felt free to express himself without such intense scrutiny. Specifically, I wonder what it must have been like for him to exist basically without cultural identity. After all, his experience of slavery, as he notes, was so much different than most slaves. He was able to read, write, and converse casually with whites. He doesn’t mention having black friends. In many ways, he was raised similarly to a white servant. At times, he seems to self-identify as an English man. Yet he is never accepted as English because of his skin. He is not treated equally by the law. He is constantly reminded that he is not white. I wonder where he felt comfortable and how he saw himself. I realize that the physical abuses of slavery are the most shocking and horrific. But I wonder about the psychological repercussions on free blacks of the time, too. Does anyone know of any contemporary writings that addressed this issue?

  2. I agree that Equiano’s narrative does hold the reader at a distance. It allows the reader a directed pathway through the experiences and sites without making it personal to either himself or to the reader. I do think that this was done conciously. After all, they do say “Know your reader”. He needed to appeal to a certain audience and if the narrative had read more like an abolishist rant, it would probably have been less accepted. I think he took a very direct look at who his audience was meant to be and then structured his narrative in a way that would not offend, but rather demonstrate using a means that society could understand without feelinger personally attacked: Economics, Trade, Consumerism. These were the issues, and at the same time the solutions that Equiano points out, which could actually become more valuable if slavery were eliminated. Maybe it’s because it so soon afert the elections, but I saw this as a purely political peice that appealled not to the social concious of society but was instead meant to appeal to the policy makers on issues of nation.

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