By: BRENDAN MCDANIEL
The white, middle-class university student from Indiana forgot that February was Black History Month, and nearly missed the opportunity to come up with a column on it? Shocking, I know.
I would like to take this opportunity to highlight one of my favorite black writers. Due to the fact that this is a column written by me, and I cannot make a normal decision to save my life, this writer is likely going to be highly obscure to most people.
The only reason I know of him is because I took an English class last semester that introduced me to him, and I was so enchanted by his book that I used it for every assignment I could fit him in to.
When I first saw “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African,” I had no expectation that I would like it nearly as much as I did. In all honesty, I had no expectation whatsoever going into it; it was simply another text that I was assigned to read for my L-350.
The most initial interest I had in it was giggling at how in the 1700s, it was apparently illegal to publish a book with a title any shorter than the first chapter.
If you had, perhaps, thought that calling your own autobiography interesting right in the title is a little presumptuous, then think again; if anything, Equiano was holding his cards very close to his chest when he gave his book that name.
Equiano was born in the mid-18th century, in the Kingdom of Benin (modern-day Nigeria). He was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery several times. He was first a slave in Africa, then sold to the South Carolina colony, and finally purchased his freedom as an adult in London.
He was able to accomplish this by means of his final master, a merchant who taught him basic literacy and allowed him to retain profits from his slave labor so that he could buy his own liberty.
Not only did Equiano take these opportunities and run with them, he learned to write and trade so well that this master asked him to become a business partner. Equiano turned it down.
Sure, it may have been a tempting offer. But for some odd reason, Equiano was none too keen on going into business with his slave owner, so that he could work in markets that sold, among other things, slaves, many of whom were kidnapped as free people so that they could then be sold as slaves.
In addition, even though Equiano was documented as a free man, it was common practice at the time to kidnap black people to sell them back into slavery (which very nearly happened to Equiano himself). Funny how that works.
In London, Equiano started working with various abolitionist groups, which he continued to do until he died. Part of his work of decrying the horrors of slavery was publishing his autobiography. “The Interesting Narrative” went on to become a best-seller in most of the slave-holding white countries, the US and Britain included.
In case you were under the impression that the first well-known slave narratives came with the likes of Frederick Douglass and Harriett Beecher Stowe, as I was (thanks, American education), then it may come as a depressing surprise that Equiano predates them by a full century.
If it is not a damning enough statement on human history that that it took 100 years, or, “more than the entire lifetimes of most people” of saying the same thing to convince the world that slavery was not quite on the up-and-up, then the opening line of the book surely is.
“I believe it is difficult for those who publish their own memoirs to escape the imputation of vanity; nor is this the only disadvantage under which they labour,” Equiano writes.
“It is also their misfortune, that what is uncommon is rarely, if ever, believed, and what is obvious we are apt to turn from with disgust, and to charge the writer with impertinence.”
Equiano, a man who had been a slave on multiple continents and had seen horrors most people can only dream of, starts his book by apologizing for his audacity in speaking publicly.
He had to, because back then, you really had to work to convince people to listen to you if you were non-white. This was a time where what few black writers existed were either written off based on race, or just outright assumed to not be real people (as was the case with Equiano’s contemporary, poet Phyllis Wheatley).
The reason I recommend Equiano’s narrative is not to shame or guilt people about their history. We absolutely should be ashamed of it, and that shame should inspire us to do better, but that is not the purpose of this column.
Equiano’s writing is just downright phenomenal; much of his first few chapters are spent painting incredibly vivid images of 18th century Benin and America, in such detail and completeness that it feels as if you had been there yourself.
He writes much like a travel guide, taking readers through both the everyday mundanities and horrific atrocities like Virgil guiding Dante through hell.
The world slips away as you read Equiano’s writing in a way much unlike any other. Seriously, read his book; it is not terribly long, and you can get it for absolutely free through a Project Gutenberg eBook.
Next week? Hopefully something a little lighter than the horrors of slavery, but this one was important.