I’m reading Vincent Carretta’s recent biography of Olaudah Equiano, an 18C slave who bought his own freedom, traveled around the world, learned navigation and became literate, wrote a narrative of his life that became very popular and influential, and became an anti-slavery advocate in London. The narrative (The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, published in 1789) is a very interesting read, telling his story from his boyhood in Africa, to his abduction by slave traders, his journey to the West Indies, his travels in various ships as a slave, his adventures in buying and selling commodities, his religious conversion, his attempted journey to the North Pole, and a bunch of other adventures.
The narrative is a mix of genres. It’s history, autobiography, and religious tract; it’s an early example of the slave narrative to become very common in the 19C, an economic tract (Equiano makes arguments about the economic value of Africans as trading partners, not as potential slaves), and a travel narrative. Combining all these elements, it doesn’t always hang together as one coherent narrative, but that’s part of what makes it so interesting — it’s a book that draws on a lot of important trends in 18C literature and makes its own sense of them, becoming something entirely new.
One of the most famous passages from the narrative occurs when Equiano begins to learn about books and literacy; it’s the “talking book” scene:
I had often seen my master and Dick employed in reading; and 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: for that purpose 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.
He watches and listens to other people reading out loud, and tries it himself; he talks to the book and expects an answer, not understanding how the book communicates its message. The power of the passage lies in the way it describes his eagerness to learn about the world, his naivete about reading, and his disappointment when he can’t make it “work.” All this makes his eventual triumph as a reader and writer that much more moving. He gains some formal schooling here and there, for short bits of time, but mostly he relies on people who are willing to tutor him privately and, beyond that, he relies on his own intelligence and resourcefulness.
Equiano is not the only writer who describes the “talking book” experience; in fact, he’s drawing on a trope that a number of other African writers (James Gronniosaw and Ottobah Cugoano) had already used and that others would later pick up on. He’s writing about an experience that is important to him as an individual, but he’s also claiming his place in a community of writers exploring the importance of literacy to Africans trying to survive in England and America.
But Equiano’s status as “African” is a question that Carretta takes up in his biography; Equiano claims to have been born in Africa, but there’s some evidence to suggest he was actually born in South Carolina, and that he might be fabricating the early part of his “autobiography.” Carretta writes about the possibly made-up story of origins not as a flaw in the truthfulness of the narrative, but as an ingenious rhetorical ploy, done in order to make his abolitionist argument stronger. According to Carretta, Equiano probably realized that the abolitionist cause, which was just gathering strength in England when the narrative was published, needed a spokesperson who had actually experienced kidnapping from Africa and who had endured the “middle passage,” the journey from Africa to the Americas. The abolitionists who were trying to end the British slave trade had made arguments about the horrors involved in slavery, but they were white men who had not experienced them first hand. So Equiano could fill an important gap: he was in a position to tell his “experience” directly to better convince readers that the slave trade needed to end.
We’ll probably never know for sure if Equiano was born in Africa as he claimed, or if was born in America, but the possibility that he was born in America makes the narrative that much more interesting — it, possibly, combines very realistic and convincing fictional passages along with all the other forms of writing Equiano had already found useful.