This autobiographical account, written by Olaudah Equiano, is not only a story about the horrors and hardships of slavery, but also documented evidence of a slave’s experience. It reflects the relativity of ethical standards and explores the issue of civil equality. It is crucial to note that this autobiography had great influence in the author’s society, and it has given a push to the prohibition of human trade, and later, of slavery itself. The purpose of this essay is to consider the way the acquisition of foreign religious beliefs by the main hero affected his worldview and life.
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It is worth mentioning that the book by Equiano is a synthesis of several cultures—American, African, and European. The author emphasized his African past and noble origins. In particular, he wrote that he was born a free man, and he kept a close relationship with African religion and folklore; however, the knowledge of the English language allowed him to explore new activities, to become literate, and to come to an appreciation of Christianity. The complexity of the character is revealed in the beginning when readers take this book in their hands. In particular, the portrait of the author reveals its essence—a man with African-American roots and appearance is dressed in clothes of late-eighteenth-century Europe. Moreover, the man is holding an open Bible in his hands, attesting not only to the literacy of this person but to his thirst for education and knowledge. Thus, the writing speaks to the complex historical, cultural, and psychological path that the main character took while revealing both ethnic and puritanical images.
It can be argued that the hero’s awareness of his lowly position motivated him to become an individual from the standpoint of the Enlightenment era. It can be proved by the fact that he constantly strived for personal growth. He perceived slaveholders as superior to himself and wanted to adopt the same manners and beliefs (Equiano 63). He believed that through education he would be able to gain status in society. Moreover, he did not acquire capitalist business practices just to fit in with the European culture. They enabled him to learn skills and capabilities since even as a slave, he was able to earn some money and make small profits.
Nonetheless, the book displays an internal resistance within the main character. In describing the horrors and the problems of slavery, Equiano also dwells upon the national and religious background that surrounded him at a time when an African-American person saw Christianity and literacy as sources of freedom from slavery. Therefore, religion and education were the medium and the way to get rid of slavery and human trade. However, in learning a different culture and worldview, the hero criticizes Christianity and European principles in terms of the conduct of the slave-owners in England and their lack of morality, wondering, “but is not the slave trade entirely at war with the heart of man?” (Equiano 124). Thus, the theme of racial discrimination and social exclusion of slaves has a dual nature. On the one hand, a different culture could bring deliverance, and on the other hand, it also reflected a worldview in which inequality was common.
Importance of Christianity
Nevertheless, even though it is possible to condemn Equiano for his adaptation to a foreign culture, it can be assumed that Christianity was the source of knowledge that truly saved him as well as all the others. For the Africans who were made slaves, the only source of literacy and knowledge was the Bible (Equiano 236). It was the only book through which they could learn to read. Moreover, it was not only a resource of knowledge but also a foundation for moral ideas and philosophical and ethical guidelines that have allowed people to rethink the deepest problems of their society. Thus, the Christian ideal allowed the identification of the absence of true Christianity in slavery for the first time.
In general, the Bible is the leitmotif of the entire book. Constant references, quotations, and appeals to the Bible are the sublime basis on which the narrative of the book is built, as well as the starting point of the evolution of the author as a spiritual person. Faith in God helped Equiano to recreate his journey of life and gain freedom.
It is reasonable to state that religion allowed Equiano to engage in a dialogue with the white people and to understand their population better (Equiano 225). However, his close reference to religion did not imply or show evidence of giving up on his roots. Caught in a different and alien world, Equiano, like many other African-Americans, resorted to books as a source of understanding the world in the first place, rather than as an initial resource of deliverance from slavery. He stated that “I had a great curiosity to talk to the books, as I thought they did; and so to learn how all things had a beginning” (Equiano 62). Christianity was the spiritual salvation of the hero. This worldview sought to unite all people of all races and classes. Appropriately, many African-Americans turned to Christianity to find a remedy and spiritual comfort in a foreign environment. In its turn, the Bible helped its readers to learn the origin and essence of things. That is why these people wanted to read the Bible first: to obtain true knowledge of the world. It is crucial that his African-American origins remained present in the main character to the Bible and Christianity. The Bible was perceived as a magic item that revealed a commitment to the pagan understanding of the world. Therefore, this duality is disclosed in a compound coexistence of paganism and Christianity in Equiano.
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Moreover, the author did not betray his roots but rather emphasized his African origin. For instance, he put the name that he was given at birth in the title of his book, and he stressed that he was African. Also, it can be argued that the author’s relationship with his homeland is expressed in his religious syncretism. Despite the adoption of a new religion and Western culture, Equiano honored the indigenous beliefs of the native people. To be more precise, he told the reader about their belief in spirits, sacrifices, healers, and cults, which were characteristic of the African-American culture.
Thus, it can be concluded that there is no point in limiting Equiano’s thirst for education and cognition of another culture to the need to become free since the character and his destiny are much more complex; the setting offers complexity, as well. The ability to read and write was indeed a way to avoid enslavement; however, literacy allowed the main character to grow and develop his identity. The issue of identification on Equiano’s part has a complex philosophical, social, religious, and psychological nature. It occurred on various levels—cultural, racial, personal, and universal. The juxtaposition of African and Western cultures, along with the concepts of racism and freedom, mythology and religion can be traced in the hero to show the process of spiritual enrichment and to expose the system of slavery.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. I. Knapp, 1837.