Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings takes a particularly complicated stance in its critique of slavery. While Equiano has a (biased) tendency to focus on the good natured character of African slaves, he also tends to portray them as a commodity, a title he immensely fears. In addition, Equiano appears throughout the narrative to attempt to forsake his African identity, leading some to believe that Equiano is complicit towards his stance on slavery. However, Equiano also portrays slavery as an affront to all of humankind and argues against the separation of families caused by slavery.
This makes Equiano’s critique of slavery all the more difficult to access – yet – despite his propensity towards an ethnic double-ness, Equiano looks to debunk colonialist stereotypes of Africans through example of his own experience; in other words, Equiano becomes a spokesman for the Africans, showing his intended white audience that Africans have the ability to succeed in society and thus he becomes a major proponent for the end of slavery. It is indeed complicated when, as an advocate to abolish slavery, Equiano seems to reject his African heritage.
The name Gustavus Vassa is given to him by one of his masters, a name he only at first rejects. Equiano possesses a longing to be a part of the English culture, often seeking out lessons from his white counterparts in order to acclimate better in British society. Critics will point to page 78 as an example of Equiano’s harshest rejection of his African heritage “I no longer looked upon them as spirits, but as men superior to us; and therefore I had the stronger desire to resemble them; to imbibe their spirit, and imitate their manners; I therefore embraced every occasion of improvement” (78).
One can look at this text in two ways. The first is to deem that Equiano believes that Africans are specifically inferior in their society and manners compared to the Europeans to whom he is referring. The other argument is that Equiano is trying to distance himself from the “barbaric nature” of African slavery and thus acclimate himself with something that is more civilized in its nature. Both arguments can be made validly; however, I am inclined to agree more thoroughly with the second because of Equiano’s previous juxtaposition of Africa and Europe in chapter one. Let the polished and haughty Europeans recollect that his ancestors were once, like the Africans, uncivilized, and even barbarous. Did Nature make them inferior to their sons? And should they too have been made slaves? Every rational mind answers, No” (45). Not only does this statement express anti-slavery sentiments, it establishes that Africans and Europeans should be viewed on the same stratum, as Europeans were placed in similar situations of barbarianism in their past.
All of Equiano’s adventures then, aim to show he is as capable any European in his abilities to read, write, and become educated up to the lofty British standards. Equiano’s student-teacher relationship with Richard Baker further exemplifies his need to acclimate to the British standards of society. Equiano happily exclaims to embrace “an opportunity of improving myself (in speaking English)” and having “long wished the ability to be able to read and write” (78). This further demonstrates attempts to “civilize” himself and thus exhibit to his mostly white audience that Africans can possess the desire and ability to become educated.
This can be seen when Equiano rejects the African boy (on page 85), as he appears to no longer want to associate himself with the perceived dimwittedness of African slaves. This complicates the reader’s view of Equiano; in a way, he is reinforcing that very stereotype of African unintelligence by rejecting the black boy. At the same time, he is breaking that stereotype because he himself is fighting to dispel notions of African unintelligence in his attempts to become educated. Despite this complication, I am lead to believe that Equiano is fighting to break colonialist stereotypes of Africans, the other major ones being: 1.
African women are promiscuous 2. Africans are depicted as degenerate During this time period it was believed that African women were mostly promiscuous, a notion that Equiano completely dispels. “Our women too were, in my eyes at least, uncommonly graceful, alert, and modest to a degree of bashfulness; nor do I remember to have ever heard of an instance of incontinence amongst them before marriage” (38). He also notes that white women “were not so modest and shamefaced as the African women” (68), a comparison Equiano uses to enhance the good nature of African women.
Equiano is also amazed that the white people don’t participate in sacrificial services, eat with unwashed hands, and touch the dead (68). These observations show a distinct separation between the whites and Africans, to which Equiano seems to be caught in the middle. However, Equiano seems to go out of his way to portray Africans as “cheerful and affable” (“two of the leading characteristics of our nation”), especially in the aspect of family. This can be seen explicitly when Equiano recalls the instance where a women accused of adultery was spared the death penalty “on account of a child” (33).
Equaino sentimentalizes the notion of family bond in an “ethos” argument against slavery. His experiences with his sister – being ripped apart several times throughout their excursion in slavery together – ring a certain moralistic sense of pity to the reader. Indeed, Equiano labels slave owners as those “sable destroyers of human rights” (51). That statement reinforces a distinct hatred related to the African values of family, i. e. , slavery is bad because it fractures families.
Often, we see Equiano get close to the people he is around in an attempt to develop a surrogate family, somebody he can get close to. Alas, he is often pulled apart from these people before he can develop the strongest of bonds. This is one of the main reasons why he chooses to maintain the name “Gustavus Vassa,” (other, of course, than being cuffed for not answering to it). It is an example of a type of family which Equiano adopts, and in turn exemplifies the dual life that slaves often lead; one identity from their biological family, and one identity (or several) from their slave “families. My last observation about “The Interesting Narrative” is that Equaino’s approach to slavery is further sentimentalized through his experiences aboard the slave ships. He often paints images of dehumanization and downright filthy conditions. Furthermore, he is often afraid that his masters are going to “eat” him. This subjugation to “barbaric conditions” leads Equiano to an animalistic fear that encapsulates the primitiveness of African slave conditions and further leads the audience to sympathize against slavery.
Overall, Equiano’s double-ness leads him to a complex and often misconstrued stance on slavery. He is a major proponent against it; however he does wish to distance himself from the memory of its barbaric conditions and furthermore break the colonialist stereotypes of African slaves. This is why we see Equiano dedicate himself to education, and as a result of this book, he is able to prove to the rest of society that an African can be just as well civilized and educated as a British citizen.