It is worth noting that the work “The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African” occupies a significant place in the history of African-American literature and has become an archetype of a certain genre that influenced the modern life of people. It is crucial that this book is part of the historical, socio-cultural, and geographical phenomenon of slavery and reflects all the horrors, hardships, and experiences that slaves had to endure.
Nevertheless, this text revealing the experience of the author has contributed greatly to the mutual enrichment of African, European, and American cultures and people’s self-identity. Moreover, this intensive interaction of contexts allowed transforming both culture and society. However, the protagonist of the writing is rather complex for several factors. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the tensions and contradictions in the main character of this autobiographical account.
The Intricacy in Equiano
Overall, the possible contradiction in the main character can be observed throughout the entire book as it dwells upon the interaction of several cultures in one person. Notably, the author stressed that he was African, and this understanding was an integral part of his essence. Also, he made a particular emphasis on the fact that he had noble origins.
Initially, he was never born a slave, and he felt a close connection with African religion and traditions (Equiano 23). Nevertheless, the acquisition of another culture has transformed his personality. When the main character learned English, he became capable of understanding new occupations and could interact with people coming from different cultures. Also, Equiano became literate through learning the English language. The new skill and knowledge provided him with an opportunity to cognize and appreciate Christianity, which has gradually become an important part of his personality as well.
It should be mentioned that the Enlightenment era and the social forces at work have strongly influenced his self-identity, but they did not make Equiano obsessed with his social status. In particular, this period could be characterized by the strivings of people for personal growth, and it was the aspect that was pushing the main hero to become literate and evolve as a person. Equiano was always aware of the manners and traditions exhibited by the slaveholders, and he tried to absorb them.
Therefore, his initial intention was to become an educated person, which later granted him a status in society (Chiles 150). However, the acquisition of status was a consequence rather than the inner pushing force. The same reasoning could be applied to European business practices. The person was not motivated by the desire to be accepted by European culture, but the opportunity to make money gave him a chance to buy his freedom. Therefore, the urge to become literate and the desire to adopt the European religion enabled Equiano to grow as an individual in the first place.
Interestingly, at first glance, the cover of the book also reveals some form of contradiction. The book cover shows a man of African-American origin with a book in his hands. The man is wearing clothes of late-eighteenth-century Europe. Importantly, this compilation does not reveal the tension or inconsistency but the reverse – it exhibits a person who is educated and has a hunger for knowledge. The book in Equiano’s hands is the Bible, which has been one of the main sources of knowledge and understanding of the world. Therefore, it can be stated that the book cover does not reveal a contradiction but the complexity of the person who was able to preserve both his ethnic and puritanical features.
Despite the arguments provided earlier, Equiano did have an internal tension, which was linked directly with Christianity and the culture that he adopted. The negative manifestations of slavery were interwoven with the religious setting. The religious environment in which the main hero found himself carried a contradiction, and the more Equiano immersed himself in spirituality and Christianity, the more this tension was growing. For the man, religion was a way to become an educated person and free himself from slavery.
Also, it was the platform for building his spirituality. Nevertheless, Equiano disapproved of the conduct of those who belonged to this religion. To be more precise, he stated that “but is not the slave-trade entirely a war with the heart of man?” (Equiano 79). This interrogation implied that slave-owners were strongly religious; nevertheless, they allowed themselves to torture and use others for their benefit while treating slaves inhumanly. Despite the acceptance of foreign religion, he excoriated certain European principles. Therefore, the inner tension in Equiano was connected to the fact that the new culture could bring freedom and enlightenment while preserving or ignoring severe social inequality.
Abandonment of Roots and Religion
It is crucial that the feeling of belonging to Western religion did not imply the abandonment of the African roots by Equiano. Moreover, his appreciation of Christianity and the emphasis on his origin reflected the duality rather than a contradiction in the character. To be more precise, the Bible was the first book a slave could get to learn reading, and while diving into it, a person started understanding the foreign world with its views better. The author wrote that “I have often taken up a book, and have talked to it, and then put my ears to it, when alone, in hopes it would answer me; and I have been very much concerned when I found it remained silent” (Equiano 42).
This book carried a sacred meaning since it satisfied the spiritual needs of slaves. Therefore, the acceptance of Christianity by Equiano proceeded gradually with reading and analyzing the Bible. Nevertheless, it is incorrect to accuse the man of abandoning his roots. When interpreting the Bible, Equiano attributed it with a magic meaning and continued supporting the rituals and customs of his original culture. Therefore, the duality was reflected in the religious syncretism characteristic of the main hero. Apart from that, although being dressed in European clothes, Equiano placed the name given to him at birth in the title, which proved his deep connection with the African culture as well as with the Western one.
Thus, it can be concluded that the life of Olaudah Equiano was indeed complex and the tensions in his character that evolved in the course of his development should not be referred to as contradictions. Even though he was away from his homeland since childhood and was separated from his heritage, he did not abandon his roots and connection with the African culture. By turning to religion and becoming literate, he was able to regain his social status in the Western World and made other people think critically about their worldview. However, more importantly, his life path and contribution made the abolishment of slavery possible.
Chiles, Katy. Transformable Race. OUP USA, 2014.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Dover Publications, 1999.