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Literary Works’ Views on Slavery in the United States Research Paper

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Updated: Apr 17th, 2020


The view of American slavery and discrimination against black people has been widely discussed in various works of literature. In literature, the plight of American slaves is described through analysis and portrayal of their miserable life, disruption of family and brutality (Gates 153).

Also, most literary works attempt to describe the existence of a strong desire for freedom among almost all black slaves and their fate as they struggle to escape from slavery.

Secondly, some literary works have attempted to describe slavery from the point of slave hunting in Africa.

Most authors blame African kings and chieftains for capturing and selling their fellow African tribes to slavery, the whites who deal with slaves and the white settlers who purchase slaves in America and West Indies (Gates 153).

Perhaps, one of the best narratives describing the plight of the captured African people and their journey through slavery is Equiano’s ‘The interesting narrative of Olaudah Equiano.’

Olaudah Equiano provides an in-depth analysis of his real journey from Africa through slavery and his work after acquiring freedom. ‘The role played by various slave dealers and owners is brought into the limelight in this narrative.

An analysis of the narrative builds a negative perception of slavery in the United States because slavery is displayed as a true violation of human rights through disruption of family life and human relations, kidnappings and a wide range of inhuman actions against the black people.

The impact of Olaudah Equiano’s narrative on the perception of American slavery

Written as his autobiography, Equiano’s narrative describes his journey from a humble and normal life in West Africa to slavery in America and finally a free life in London.

The narrative, written by Olaudah Equiano in 1789, provides an analysis of the fate of Africans who are kidnapped from their homes in Africa to slavery in America and Europe.

The story begins with a description of early Igbo country, where Equiano was born. Being an Igbo, Equiano begins the story by describing the Ibo culture, customs associated with food, religion, and clothing.

He also describes the beautiful and productive nature of Igbo land, where he likens the Igbo people of West Africa with Jews (Shields 1).

From this introduction, a new perception of slavery is developed; the author attempts to describe how Africans were targeted in slavery simply because Europeans considered them as being inferior, less civilized and barbaric.

This notion may explain why Africans were treated like animals rather than humans (Bugg 572). Europeans thought that they had the right to force Africans out of their homes into slavery.

From this narrative, it is clear that Europeans are not the only group of people that perpetrated atrocities in Africa, but rather African leaders, out of their greed for wealth and power, were involved in capturing and selling their fellow Africans into slavery (Shields 1).

The new perception of slavery is that it was an evil act deeply rooted in Africa and perpetrated by European traders in collaboration with African merchants and chieftains.

For example, village traders, in the story, village traders are busy kidnapping children for sale. In chapter two, African slave dealers kidnap small children from their homes to sell them to African slave dealers, kings, and wealthy Africans.

Here, the reader is introduced to Equiano’s capture, alongside his younger sister, from their home in Eboe (Bugg 572). After their capture, the author and his sister are made for walking for a long distance before they are separated and sold to different traders (Equiano 61).

Also, the narrative creates a new perception of slavery, where it shows how slavery in America has instilled the spirit of kidnapping children for resale in West African traders. For instance, once he is kidnapped, the author is exchanged as a trade item from one trader to another.

He also has a brief tenure as a slave to a certain chieftain in a beautiful African country. Also, a rich widow in Timnah briefly enslaves him (Equiano 51). Finally, the author is sold to traders who bring him through different African regions to the West African Coast (Equiano 69).

Here, he is sold to a certain owner of a large slave ship headed for West Indies across the Atlantic. The desperations and difficulties faced by the author and his fellow slaves across the ocean are documented in the story.

On arrival to West Indies, the author witnesses the brutality at the slave market, but he is lucky to be taken aboard a Dutch ship heading to North America (Costanzo 64).

Here, a new perception of slavery is developed. The author attempts to show how African slaves had to be lined up in the slave market for the highest bidder.

Being muscular, young and energetic was an important feature that each buyer was looking for (Costanzo 128). It is clear that to the white buyers, African slaves were mere animals.

However, it is clear that some salves were being sold to Europe, though in few numbers. For instance, some European traders bought slaves for their friends and relatives back in Europe as a present or as domestic workers.

The perception created by the author is that slavery in America was meant to increase production in farms, while in Europe, it was taken as a small form of normal exchange of gifts (Bugg 574).

Moreover, the narrative by Equiano tends to create a perception that American slavery was deeply rooted in the beliefs held by Europeans that they had the right to purchase or sell a black slave at will.

This perception may have led to the belief in later years that the whites had the right to “own” black people as their slaves and determine how and where they live and what they do (Gates 159). For instance, they had the right to sell and buy slaves like animals.

Slaves were being sold for commercial purpose or as pets. For example, on arrival in the American Coast, the author is sold to a plantation owner in Virginia, where his tenure involves light field jobs and household chores.

After some few months, Equiano is again sold to Michael Henry Pascal, a member of the British royal navy and captain of a trade ship. He is bought as a “present” to the captain’s friends in England (Equiano 94).

At the time of the journey from Virginia to England, the author was around 11 years old. That was in 1757. The captain renames him ‘Equiano Gustavus Vassa.’ A white American boy named Robert Baker is present in the ship, and the two boys become friends (Shields 1).

On arrival in England, the author is introduced to Christianity. He attends church services and receives some bible lessons from Robert Baker (Equiano 105).

However, he has to return to the sea with Pascal. In the seas, he experiences successive sea battles between Pascal’s Ship and pirates as well as other merchants. By now, the author has become acquainted with the Europeans and their culture (Equiano 111).

Each time he accompanies Pascal to England, he has to visit schools in London, where he finally develops an urge to read and write. Again, he is sold to Doran, another ship owner, who takes him to West Indies and sells him to Robert King, a Quaker in Philadelphia (Shields 1).

Here, he works in various positions such as loading and offloading boats, clerk and personal secretary. Also, the author renders his services to various captains in the sea, who find him a knowledgeable navigator (Equiano 231).

During these voyages, the author decides to do a side business- he starts buying items in each voyage and sells them in America and Europe (Gates 156). However, it is difficult to sell his items to the whites because they abuse and discriminate him.

Others even failed to pay him, while some even assaulted him. This section of the story creates an additional perception of slavery in the USA by describing the problems facing Africans, even those who had bought their freedom (Shields 1).

It is clear that a free black person has to endure more problems than those in slavery because every white person in the street has the right to mistreat and discriminate an African (Shields 1).

By failing to pay for the items taken from such a small boy, the whites indicate that slavery was not just meant to improve economical gains, but also because the whites perpetrated it as they did not consider Africans as equal beings.

This perception indicates that the white people were not willing to give any form of freedom to the African slaves. Even if some Africans bought their freedom, they were supposed to remain inferior to the whites (Shields 1).

Despite this, he can accumulate enough money to buy his freedom before moving to London for education. As a free person, several captains hire him as a navigator or steward. In this position, the author visits several nations in the world. Also, he commits his life to Christianity.

After several voyages, he accepts an offer to work as a church leader in a Jamaican plantation, but tires off and returns to England.

Here, he works for Governor McNamara and is involved in a plan to relocate freed slaves to Sierra Leone. In 1791, he married Susanna Cullen in Wales. In the final chapter, the author appeals to the reader to contribute to the abolition of the slave trade and slavery.

From this analysis, it is clear that the author has made several impacts on the American view of slavery.

For instance, slavery cannot be fully considered as an atrocity created and perpetrated by the Europeans alone; rather it was a form of collaboration between African leaders and white traders. Both groups were driven by greed for wealth and power.

While Europeans were driven by the greed to gain money from agricultural production in the West Indies, African chieftains and kings were driven by the greed to sell their fellow Africans to gain wealth and political power.

Secondly, it is clear that slaves had a dire need for freedom and would do anything to buy their freedom. As portrayed by the author, he had to tolerate discrimination and abuse when selling fruits and other items in Virginia and Philadelphia.

His aim was just to obtain enough money to buy his freedom. Also, he was ready to convert into a new religion to give him hope for the best in his future.

This narrative builds a negative perception of slavery in the United States because it is slavery portrayed as a true violation of human rights by disrupting families, relationships, kidnapping children and carrying out atrocities against the Africans.

Works Cited

Bugg, J. “Deciphering the Equiano Archives”. Modern Language Association of America 122.2 (2007): 572-573. Print

Costanzo, A. Equiano, Olaudah. The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Equiano, O. The interesting narrative of Olaudah Equiano. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1789. Print.

Gates, Henery L. The Signifying Monkey. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Shields, E. Thomson, “,” American National Biography Online, 2008. Web.

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