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Slavery and Literacy. The Triumph of a Poor Slave


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 heavy physical labor while being often subjected to physical abuse on the part of their masters.

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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 could not relate their life experiences in the form of literary works. 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 a 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 perceptional insight into 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 the author does not simply describe his life experiences of a person who had been bought and sold numerous times but also refers to slavery is an utterly immoral practice.

Even though that many contemporary literary critics point out the fact that Equiano could not possibly have 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, the author does not simply describe his life experiences, but also analyses them from a truly unique perspective of someone whose mind has dualistic 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 a European” (Equiano, p.6).

Therefore, we can only agree with Helen Thomas, who in her book “Romanticism and Slave Narratives: Transatlantic Testimonies” suggested that Equiano’s autobiographical novel 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: “Equiano’s text fuses the doctrines of divine grace, mystery, and prophecy with essential tenets of African epistemologies and manifests a literary paradigm of cultural symbiosis” (Thomas 229).

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In its turn, this provides us with insight into 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 the greatest African-American writers, Booker T. Washington had said in his book: “Up from Slavery”: “The individual who can do something that the world wants to be done will, in the end, make his way regardless of his race.” (Washington Ch. X). In the next part of this paper, we will briefly outline the novel’s content in order for us to be able to get a better understanding of how Equiano was able to attain freedom and become an educated individual.

Brief summary

Equiano begins his story by telling readers how he was being kidnapped by the members of rivaling tribe in his native Africa while still a child and turned into a slave. By doing it, the author dispels the myth that it is only White people that should be held historically accountable for practicing slavery – apparently, slavery had existed in Africa even prior to the time when first European explorers had arrived there. It was, namely, Black tribal chiefs who had sold Equiano to Brits as if he was a commodity.

One of the book’s most memorable parts is when Equiano describes his experiences aboard the ship that was taking him and hundreds of other Black slaves to the West Indies: “The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable” (Equiano 25). After the ship with the cargo of slaves had finally arrived at its destination in the New World, it turned out that only half of the slaves survived the voyage. Therefore, it is quite explainable why Equiano was utterly happy to be able to leave the ship, even though that he was convinced that he would spend the rest of his life as a lowly slave.

However, at this point, fate had finally smiled at Equiano – he was sold to Captain Pascal, who, despite being quite an intolerant person, had taught Equiano how to read and write and introduced him to the basics of maritime navigation. In its turn, this had automatically improved Equiano’s social status – he was considered too valuable to be sent to work at plantation: “My master was several times offered by different gentlemen one hundred guineas for me: but he always told them he would not sell me, to my great joy” (Equiano 61).

Eventually, Equiano was able to save enough money to buy his way out of slavery while deciding to settle in London, where he was able to make a fortune by indulging in a variety of commercial activities and also by popularising his book, which was republished eight times, during his lifetime.

Nevertheless, although Equiano was able to gain freedom and even become a rich man in Britain, the fate of millions of his less unfortunate brothers never ceased bothering him. This is the reason why, throughout his life, Equiano continued to promote the idea that slavery had to be abolished. It is namely this idea that serves as a closing note for his book: “Tortures, murder, and every other imaginable barbarity and iniquity are practised upon the poor slaves with impunity.

I hope the slave trade will be abolished. I pray it may be an event at hand. The great body of manufacturers, uniting in the cause, will considerably facilitate and expedite it; and, as I have already stated, it is most substantially their interest and advantage, and as such the nation’s at large” (Equiano 78). Thus, it would not be an exaggeration, on our part, to refer to Olaudah Equiano as the most prominent Black abolitionist of all times, because it is namely due to his literary activities that more and more Whites in Britain and in America began to consider Black slaves as being just as human-like themselves, which in its turn, created objective preconditions for the abolishment of Black slavery in 19th century.

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Analysis and Conclusion

As we have mentioned earlier, Equiano’s book contains strongly defined euro-centric motives, which are now being commonly overlooked. However, it is namely these motives that actually provide readers with insight on how Equiano was not only able to achieve freedom but also to become a rich man.

In her article “Dominant and Submerged Discourses in The Life of Olaudah Equiano,” Katalin Orban says: “Although Equiano’s embrace of Christianity and Englishness is certainly not whole-hearted, it should be taken more seriously than the current critical debate seems to allow” (Orban 1993). We can only agree with the author – unlike contemporary Black writers, Equiano never seemed to be preoccupied with exploring its “ethnic uniqueness,” which partially explains the fact that despite impossible circumstances, he was still able to attain social prominence.

While criticizing the practice of slavery, he seems to be aware of the fact that being a Black slave among Whites is still better than being a Black slave among Blacks because, in Western countries, even the people associated with the lowest social classes are still being given the chance of social advancement. Equiano’s own biography substantiates the validity of this thesis better than anything else does.

Therefore, Equiano’s attitude towards life can be best described as stoic. It is not simply a coincidence that Booker T. Washington, who was also born as a slave, considered Equiano as one of his favorite writers. In its turn, this explains an apparent similarity in how both individuals addressed existential challenges – no matter how cruelly life would treat them at times, they have never been noticed pointing out to the world’s injustices as justification for their inability to lead a meaningful existence.

As Washington had said 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. 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” (Washington Ch. II). As it appears from Equiano’s book’s context, the author always strived not to focus on negativity, even in times when it was quite impossible to do. However, while knowing perfectly well that he had almost no control over his own destiny, Equiano never missed a chance of taking advantage of opportunities that he would stumble upon. In its turn, this formulated the particularities author’s worldview.

In her book “Freedom’s Empire,” Laura Anne Doyle brings readers’ attention to the fact that Equiano may very well be considered a “Nietzschean character” because it appears that, throughout his life, he remained strongly affiliated with the 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. He reveals the contingency of political/racial identity, and he uncovers the deep divide in experience between Africans and Europeans” (Doyle 198).

The close reading of “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa,” reveals the fact that Equiano never thought of attaining freedom as something that has value in itself. In his view, becoming a fee man would open up a door for him to gain an education: “I thought now of nothing but being freed, and working for myself, and thereby getting money to enable me to get a good education” (Equiano 51).

Therefore, it was not simply an accident that author was able to turn from a lowly slave into a respectable member of London’s society – one’s strong commitment to intellectual pursuits has always been known as utterly self-rewarding. Apparently, Equiano was well aware of this idea’s validity, which explains the fact that his book is best described as such that contains two equally powerful: abolitionist and pro-educational messages.

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Black, Daniel. Dismantling Black Manhood. NY: Taylor & Francis, 1997.

Doyle, Laura. Freedom’s Empire. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2008.

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa. London: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

Orban, Katalin. Dominant and Submerged Discourses in ‘The Life of Olaudah Equiano’. 1993. Bnet. Web.

Thomas, Helen. Romanticism and Slave Narratives: Transatlantic Testimonies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Washington, Booker. Up from Slavery. [1901] 2000. Project Guttenberg Ebook. Web.

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StudyCorgi. "Slavery and Literacy. The Triumph of a Poor Slave." November 2, 2021.


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