Tuesday, January 22, 2019
January 22, 2019: African American Life Writing: Olaudah Equiano
[For this year’s MLK Day series, I’ll be AmericanStudying African American lives in texts. I’d love to hear your responses, as well as other lives and texts you’d highlight, for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the controversial autobiography that should be required reading whatever its genre.
In the same year that the Bill of Rights was approved and the Constitution ratified, the ex-slave turned British sailor, hairdresser, French horn player, and abolitionist (among his many other roles) Olaudah Equiano published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789). Equiano’s book was an international bestseller and has remained famous and significant as the first published autobiography by an African American (although that category, like any, is complicated when it comes to Equiano’s identity), but in recent years elements of its authenticity have been challenged. Scholar Vincent Carretta has unearthed evidence that suggests that Equiano may have been born in the Carolinas, and thus that the narrative’s African-set opening chapters were fabrications, created to enhance Equiano’s credibility as both an ex-slave and an abolitionist. The evidence is very ambiguous and open to continued debate, but certainly Carretta’s work has complicated any easy categorization of Equiano’s book as autobiography.
I dedicated a chapter of my second book to Equiano’s narrative, and addressed this controversy at length there. I made a couple of central points about the book’s opening images of Africa: that whatever their factual authenticity, they reveal a great deal about late 18th century images of Africa, and its relationship to the multiple other places (America, the Caribbean, England, the world of transatlantic trade) through which Equiano moved; and that Equiano’s choice to define himself, from his book’s title on, as “the African,” whether purely autobiographical or more voluntary, is an important one that can tell us a lot about constructions and complications of identity in his era, in those different settings and communities, and in how we have perceived and read him and his book in the centuries since. None of that means that the archival work of scholars like Carretta isn’t important, or that trying to learn the factual details of Equiano’s life doesn’t impact how we read and analyze his narrative—but to my mind, autobiographical writing is always more about contexts and communities, multiple and constructed identities and audiences, than the life story of one individual; and Equiano’s has much to tell us on those levels in any case.
Of the many such lessons Equiano’s book has to offer, the many reasons why I believe his narrative should be just as famous and foundational for American audiences as Ben Franklin’s, I would highlight in particular his striking evolutions, that huge range of stages and roles to which I alluded in my opening description above. In his time in the Caribbean alone Equiano was both a slave and an overseer, a sailor and a captain, a laborer and a merchant, among other shifts. Those changes, like the opportunity to purchase his own freedom that enabled most of them, were far from the norm for African slaves, and it would be important not to see Equiano’s life or book as broadly representative of that (or any) community. If we did make Equiano’s narrative required American reading, that is, we would want to pair it with a text like Frederick Douglass’ or Harriet Jacobs’, one that better captures the realities and histories of slavery. But on the other hand, just as Douglass and Jacobs moved through multiple stages and identities in their inspiring lives, Equiano’s amazingly varied life exemplifies such evolutions, and his narrative thus presents a unique and vital way for us to understand the constructions, revisions, and stories that have always comprised identity in America.
Next life writing tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other African American lives and/or texts you’d highlight?