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Why It Matters?

In: English and Literature

Submitted By leady003
Words 1148
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Why it matters? It's a mystery of literature involving a man of words. Words which caused uproar back in 1789. The British readers were captivated by his personal experience of being enslaved at age 11, kidnapped from Nigeria, and brought into slavery of a New World in a terror-filled ship. Equiano's tale is viewed as an authoritative description of the villainous Middle Passage, one of the very first narratives from a slave, a story that gave the hatchling abolitionist movement a buzzing moral influence; except it may not be exact. Therein lays the mystery: Because if the gentleman who penned "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African" was not born in Africa, but rather born into slavery in South Carolina -- as Vincent Carretta suggests -- then who was he? Where did he learn to speak fluent Igbo? And how did he obtain such agonizing details about life aboard an 18th-century slave vessel? The air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains. . . . The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable. (Equiano, 1789)
In that lies the controversy: Carretta's findings, detailed in his biography of Equiano, have ignited a blaze in academic life, for the most part among those who have extensively considered Equiano the "black Ben Franklin" all on the weight of his auto biography. Given that Equiano's was in print first, Carretta argues that Franklin should be called the "White Equiano." No one questions that Equiano was the ultimate self-made man, cultured, and intellectual. A slave, who bought his own way to freedom, became a seaman and ran a plantation in Central America where owned slaves. But then he had a change of heart and became an abolitionist. Later, while living in England, he made a fortune off his self-published autobiography, that of which his biracial British daughter inherited. There is, however, considerable argument about the implication of two British documents Carretta has revealed: a 1759 baptismal record and a 1773 ship's muster, which both list Equiano's place of birth as South Carolina. I am extremely doubtful of the presumption of identity on which they rely. What individual doesn’t want to believe in the idea of individual uniqueness on which such memoirs depend? Unfortunately, the possibility that certain aspects of this narrative are not true leaves me apprehensive about it as a whole. As expected the story itself is quite compelling but Carretta’s findings would make rather bland the story of a man who bought his freedom to travel around the world. So much of Carretta’s suggestions make it hard to produce a narrative in which Equiano participated in the slave trade and contributed to a major movement that helped produce the world we know today. Such accounts would not have the same impact as The Interesting Narrative. After doing some research I wanted more discussion of the issues surrounding Equiano’s birthplace. Yet oddly enough, Carretta seems somewhat disinclined to explore this topic, or even to be dynamic in constructing his argument. Undeniably, Carretta provides more than substantial evidence that it can hardly be called a debate. He says on many different occasions that it will never be known for certain where Olaudah Equiano was born. He does note that he has raised “reasonable doubt” about Equiano’s claim of origin is in The Interesting Narrative, “reasonable doubt is not the same as conviction”. (Carretta, 2005) In spite of these credentials, Carretta demonstrates great analytical expertise in his discussion of the feasible symbolic benefit of Equiano’s invention of an African birth. He cautiously and insightfully scrutinizes the first chapter of the narrative where Equiano talks about Africa, and he positions this chapter in relation to other writings of the 18th century with a supremacy and simplicity that are quite inspiring. Equiano’s masterful innovations of an African delivery reveal that Equiano’s “literary achievements have been vastly underestimated” (Carretta, xiv). “If nothing else,” Carretta tells us, he “hopes that Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man demonstrates how skillful a writer Equiano was” (Carretta, xv). But more is at risk in declaring that Equiano “made-up” rather than “remembered” an African identity than our assessment of his storybook talents! As mentioned above, Carretta’s case of an American birthplace relies solely on baptismal records and ship’s registers. Whereas he spends a page signifying that he has in fact identified Equiano and then explains that Equiano could very well have listed an African birthplace. He reads these documents with less care than he does The Interesting Narrative. A ship’s register and a baptismal record represent completely different kinds of writing than a devout memoir. Carretta points out how other analyst have treated Equiano’s narrative as a sort of translucent memory of his life while considering the baptismal records with little insight and in need of a meticulous reading in order to be accurately understood. Carretta considers documents as having little rhetorical content worth reading. I would appreciate a more thorough discussion of what would happen if we accepted Carretta’s argument or not. Why is it that people have reacted so passionately to this notion? Granted this narrative fueled the abolitionist movement but why does it matter now? In my opinion I understand if this discovery was made during the movement. It could have destroyed the abolitionist movement from the start. But centuries later I do not see the significance. What stakes are involved in telling the life story of an eighteenth-century slave turned author? I think this is untrue. What could be more undeniable and modern than the implications of where a man of the 18th century, who we now call “black”, was born? From my outlook at least the troubles Carretta raised about Equiano directly confront the issues debated.

Works Cited
Perkins, Barbara and George. “Reason and Revolution.” The American Tradition in Literature. Vol. 1. Toledo: Mcgraw-Hill Humanities, 2008.
Equiano, Olaudah. “The Interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African, Written by himself.” New York: Norton, 2001.
Carretta, Vincent. “Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self Made Man (University of Georgia Press, 2005)
Carretta, Vincent. “Olaudah Equiano or Gustavas Vassa? New Light on an Eighteenth-century Question of Identity’, Slavery and Abolition, 20, 3. (December 1991), pp. 96-105.
Carretta, Vincent. “Introduction in The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, edited with an introduction and notes by Vincent Carretta (London and New York: Penguin, 2003), pp. x-xi.
Egan, Jim. “Olaudah Equiano: The Problem of Identity.” Brown University.

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