Olaudah Equiano Essay, Research Paper
On page six of the introduction to The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano , Robert J. Allison characterizes Equiano and his narrative in the following way:
His book is a meditation on power and liberty by one who knew what each word meant But the real power of the narrative lies in Equiano s perspective. During his travels and adventures in this strange world, he is an average man, as he says neither a saint, a hero, nor a tyrant, but an ordinary person forced to lead an extraordinary life.
I agree with Robert J. Allison when he says that the real power of Olaudah Equiano s narrative lies in his perspective (Allison 6). Equiano s perspective not only makes his narrative a powerful primary document, but a powerful argument for abolition in his time.
A major reason why Equiano s narrative was such a powerful argument against slavery in his time was because he wrote from a European perspective, and offered himself as proof that Africans are not inferior and are capable of thriving in European culture. Since no argument was necessary to persuade Africans in the Diaspora toward abolition, Equiano writes for a mostly white European audience. Equiano was not a writer but an abolitionist and did not want to merely document history, but to change his present society. His narrative therefore is of a persuasive nature and reflects the audience to whom he is trying to persuade. Had Equiano written from a purely African perspective it is possible that his words may have been lost. In his vivid descriptions of brutality, Equiano condemns slavery from a Christian understanding of do unto others as you would have them do unto you . Telling his story from a Euro-centric perspective allows his intended audience to identify with him more readily so that he can relate the distant slave trade to emotions and beliefs in Europe with an emphasis on Christianity. As neither a saint, a hero, nor a tyrant Equiano is able to establish that he is neither above nor below the beliefs of his readers and that as Christian people they will inevitably repudiate the slave trade. For those who may have already repudiated the slave trade but were unwilling to live without the economic benefits of it, Equiano offers, in the end of his narrative, an explanation that Europeans would benefit more from selling Africans European goods rather than enslaving them.
As well as being an effective argument against slavery, Olaudah Equiano s narrative is also valuable to the historian as a primary document. In the forward to the book, Natalie Zemon Davis says that, How a story is told may yield as much information as what it says (Davis V). This is especially true for Equiano s narrative. Because he is neither a saint, a hero, nor a tyrant he describes the everyday life, attitudes, perspectives, and social expectations of many different regions during the height of the slave trade. Present day readers would not want to read Equiano s narrative to study historical events, but rather to understand the complexities of life in the seventeenth century slave trade. For example, one can read that settlers interacted with native tribes on the Mosquito Coast but, in order to get a sense of how Europeans felt about these tribes, one would want to read a primary document like Equiano s which describes these interactions first hand.
However, what makes Olaudah Equiano s narrative such an effective argument against slavery also affects its value as a primary source. When reading The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano , one must be careful to take into consideration the reasons Equiano had for writing his narrative. Equiano writes to a specific audience condemning a very sensitive aspect of European and culture. He therefore, has to proceed very carefully. Had Equiano written a novel about his life with the interest of selling books, many events may have been written differently. If there had been an African audience for him to write to he might have written about his ambivalence for white Europeans (he had as much reason to resent them as to love them) and how he has dealt with his outright anger toward the institution of slavery.
Equiano is not an ordinary man in the sense that his extraordinary life experience makes him an extraordinary man. Most men of this time do not have the same conflict over identity that Equiano has. Equiano was socialized as an African and then resocialized as a European. However, he experienced the slave trade as an ordinary man and writes from the perspective of an ordinary European. We therefore see in Equiano s narrative a fundamental aspect of all slave narratives. Equiano s narrative is a persuasive document and therefore must be written with a double consciousness. He writes about his transformation from an ordinary African to an ordinary European. The reader therefore learns a great deal directly about the African experience in the slave trade and indirectly about the European view of the slave trade. Equiano appeals to Christianity as well as the economic incentives for abolishing the slave trade. By doing this, Equiano acknowledges the value of African life while at the same time marginalizing them as an economic asset.