There is no doubt that Black slavery will go down in history as one of the most shameful periods in European and American history. Just if they were soulless animals, Black Africans used to be rounded up and shipped over to various locations, throughout the world, where they would be required to perform a heavy physical labour, while being often subjected to physical abuse, on the part of their masters. At the time, it was very little known about what it felt like being a slave, among White people, because the overwhelming majority of Black slaves were illiterate, which meant that they simply could not relate their life experiences in the form of literary works.
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In fact, these slaves were not even considered being humans, in the full sense of this word. Christianity was there to provide an ideological legitimacy for such state of affairs, with Blacks being considered to be the descendants of Ham – cursed to have dark skin and doomed to remain servants forever. Yet, as time went by, more and more Black slaves began to question the moral soundness of the very concept of slavery. Some of them were able to get an education, due to their owners’ progressive socio-political attitudes. It is namely these ‘privileged slaves’, which had provided White people with internal insight onto slavery, for the first time in history.
The earliest first-hand account of slavery, written by a former slave in 1789, is assumed to be Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, in which author does not simply describe his life experiences of a person who had been bought and sold numerous times, but also refers to slavery as utterly immoral practice. Even though that many contemporary literary critics point out to the fact that Equiano could not possibly had been born in Africa, as he claims in his book, there can be very little doubt as to his autobiography’s overall authenticity.
In its turn, this allows us to refer to The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa as a book of not only a great literary, but also a philosophical value, because in it, author does not simply describe his life experiences, but also analyses them from a truly unique prospective of someone whose mentality has dual subtleties – while being Black on the outside, Equiano considered himself being White on the inside: “I believe there are few events in my life which have not happened to many; it is true the incidents of it are numerous, and, do I consider myself an European” (p. 6).
Therefore, we can only agree with Thomas (2000), who in her book suggested that Equiano’s autobiographical book cannot be thought of as being solely the intellectual by-product of Black mentality, simply because, while criticizing the practice of slavery, Equiano never ceases praising European civilization, thus proving its own worldview as being utterly euro-centric.
In its turn, this provides us with the insight onto the essence of the foremost message, Equiano wanted to deliver to his readers. This message can be formulated as follows: freedom can only be fully appreciated by educated and open-minded individuals, whose broadened intellectual horizons allow them to think outside of their racial affiliation.
As one of greatest African-American writers, Booker T. Washington (1901) had put it in his book Up from Slavery: “The individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his way regardless of his race” (Ch. X). In the next part of this paper, we will aim to substantiate the validity of an earlier statement, while pointing out at particulars of how Equiano strived to reduce any negative perception of himself, on part of the audience – namely, by emphasizing the fact that he was born to the family of African nobility and by confirming the strength of his determination to become an educated individual.
As we have suggested earlier, the reading of Equiano’s book leaves very little doubt as to author’s perceptional euro-centrism. In its turn, this explains why, throughout his book, author had made a point in mentioning the fact of his noble birth, whenever opportunity presented itself – hence, confirming his ‘otherness’ from the rest of Blacks in the eyes of readers: “My father was one of those elders or chiefs I have spoken of, and was styled Embrenche; a term, as I remember, importing the highest distinction, and signifying in our language a ‘mark’ of grandeur” (p. 14).
Given the fact that Equiano wrote his book in time when Europe was still being ruled by the members of Europe’s aristocratic families, it was only natural for him to end up praising the virtues of ‘noblesnesness’, while expecting to win favour with the reading audience, many members of which were affiliated with aristocracy, and therefore – literate. In its turn, this also explains another remarkable feature of Equiano’s book – throughout its entirety; author strived to promote his view on education as the only virtue worthy of praising: “I thought of nothing but being freed, and working for myself, and thereby getting money to enable me to get a good education; for I always had a great desire to be able at least to read and write” (p. 54).
Apparently, Equiano strived to attune the motifs of his book with what represented existential anxieties, on the part of great many White people, he had met during the course of his life. By the end of 18th century, Western civilization was only beginning to free itself out of intellectual imprisonment of Christianity, which is why, just as it was the case with the author, intellectually advanced people of the era experienced an overwhelming desire to indulge in secular educational pursuits.
Thus, by confirming his dedication to studies, Equiano was able to kill two rabbits with one shot: to increase his book’s literary and philosophical value – hence, increasing its appeal to the public, and to promote the cause of abolitionism, because book’s narrator is being represented as someone who, just as Whites, appreciates education and intellectual finesse above all.
This is also the reason why, unlike what it is the case with the novels of many contemporary Black writers, who grew up among Whites, the themes contained in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, are being the least concerned with author’s intention to talk about his ‘ethnic uniqueness’ as something worthy of exploring. Apparently, Equiano aimed at referring to the specifics of one’s racial affiliation as such that have very little role in defining the social worth of a particular person.
While criticising the practice of slavery, Equiano never ceased being aware of the fact that being a Black slave among Whites was still better than being a Black slave among Blacks, because in Western countries, even the people affiliated with lowest social classes, are still being given the chance of social advancement – Equiano’s own biography substantiates the validity of this suggestion better than anything else does.
The context of Equiano’s book implies that its author actually thought of the hardships, he experienced throughout his life, as having been proven beneficial, in the end. As it was pointed out by Washington, in the book from which we have already quoted: “Negro boy’s birth and connection with an unpopular race is an advantage, so far as real life is concerned.
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With few exceptions, the Negro youth must work harder and must perform his tasks even better than a white youth in order to secure recognition” (Ch. II). According to Doyle (2008), Equiano can be best referred to as the classical ‘Nietzschean character’, as his book does promote an idea that ‘whatever does not kill us, makes us stronger’: “His (Equiano’s) African identity, furthermore, fundamentally changes the meaning of his experience: what Europeans would consider disastrous he must consider fortunate” (p. 198).
It is needless to say, of course, that such Equiano’s stoic attitude towards facing life’s challenges resonated rather well, with what represented the essence of colonial era’s socio-political discourse. At that time, it is namely European explorers’ industriousness, courageousness and the sheer strength of their will power, which were believed to have contributed to the process of Whites imposing their undisputed dominance over the Earth. Therefore, after having been published in 1789, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa was bound to become popular with White readers, as book’s motifs corresponded rather well with the unconscious workings of their psyche.
Evidently enough, it was not simply by an accident that Equiano was able to turn from lowly slave into a respectable member of London’s society. One’s strong commitment to intellectual pursuits, regardless of his or her racial affiliation, has always been known as utterly self-rewarding, because it is specifically this commitment which allows a concerned individual to act as the agent of social, cultural and scientific progress – hence, wining the hearts of those who benefit from such a progress.
Doyle, Laura. Freedom’s Empire. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2008. Print.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa. London: Kessinger Publishing, (1789) 2004. Print.
Thomas, Helen. Romanticism and Slave Narratives: Transatlantic Testimonies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.
Washington, Booker “Up from Slavery”. (1901) 2000. Project Guttenberg Ebook. Web.