Sunday, November 05, 2017

Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789)

This is the longest of the slave narratives gathered up in the Library of America volume, just over 200 printed pages. It's also from the 18th century, published in 1789. It has nothing to say about the American Revolution, but then Equiano's experiences in the North American colonies were limited and among his worst, in a life full of misfortune. He identified more as a European and lived his slavery years in the West Indies. I say his life was full of misfortune, but compared with many he had a good life. He chronicles some of the depravities he sees—he has particular revulsion for manufactured articles such as iron muzzles and thumbscrews. But what's more often shocking to me is the utter lack of value of Africans in society, except as property, in terms of money. For example, a black man's testimony couldn't be taken against a white man. It was against the law. Against the law. Thus, when Equiano is robbed and swindled, as he often is, he has no legal recourse whatsoever. I know it's arguably still like that now with the way many police departments operate, but at least there's the fig leaf of formal laws. At that time, in that place, it's as if Equiano's existence were simply negated. Another interesting theme I hadn't anticipated, but could have, is a continuing preoccupation with kidnapping. For obvious reasons it is actually the central fact of his life and many African lives, often occurring, as in Equiano's case, in childhood. He was 11 when he was kidnapped with his older sister, separated from her, and heartbreakingly reunited with her briefly. Then he never sees or hears of her again, nor indeed any of his family. As with the previous slave narrative, by James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, Equiano also focuses on his Christian awakening and/or rebirth. It's certainly easier to see the appeal of religion in the context of 18th-century slavery. What I like about both of these first two memoirs is the sunny disposition of their authors. They are enduring levels of pain, privation, and danger I can barely imagine. They see a great many terrible things, and they are affected profoundly. But somehow they carry on. If it's from belief in the goodness of Christ, well, all right. I'll take those morals if a person really lives them. Equiano lived them, there's no question of it. There are always questions when it comes to text. I understand that. Even though it's the longest one here, it feels compressed and "edited for space." He lived a long, full, aware, and, yes, interesting life, and he left us this account of it as well. Wonderful stuff.

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

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