The book Equiano the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man is one of the most important historical documents of imperialism. The book narrates the story of a former slave – Olaudah Equiano (born circa 1750 and died 1797) – who is one of the earliest voices of African slaves. Reading this book has been an eye opening experience for me. For someone who was born into slavery and who survived its harsh conditions, Equiano was a man who had surpassed his obstacles with great tenacity and had emerged as an enlightened thinker and a gifted leader. The book draws heavily from the original autobiography by Equiano, titled ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: or, Gustavus Vassa, the African’, and yet adds new perspectives and primary research to make it a wholesome book. Author Vincent Carretta covers various aspects of the heroic life of Equiano, but this essay will focus on two prominent facets of the book, namely, the political and literary content.
It is easy to underestimate the political legacy of Equiano, for he lived in an era when even the very thought of racial equality was either treated with contempt brushed aside as ludicrous. Moreover, while scholars and historians paid much attention to the influence of pugnacious slaves such as Frederick Douglas (whose fight for freedom took place in the theatre of the New World), the voices of the oppressed in the Old World was not as rigorously researched and documented. It is by reading it in this light that the true value of Carretta’s book comes forth. By reading it, I learnt how England and Continental Europe saw parallel mushrooming of minority dissent at the same time African Americans were fighting for rights during the Civil War of 1861 and later during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. In many ways, Equiano has played the same inspirational role in Europe that Frederick Douglas and Harlem Renaissance writers played in the socio-political arena across the Atlantic.
Another facet of Equiano’s life that Carretta amply showcases is the former’s literary talent. Citing various passages from the classic autobiography, Carretta illustrates the felicity for words and the forcefulness of rhetoric that Equiano possessed. For someone who has not had any formal education, and as the title clearly suggests a self-made man, the range and depth of his thoughts are admirable. The fluidity of language and the nobleness of aspiration expressed through it are of the highest order. What is more important is its role as a historical document. Equiano lived at a time when subaltern voices were brutally crushed. Hence, the exception to the rule that his autobiography is, offers a vista into the ‘other’ point of view. Whereas the ‘authenticity’ of the voice of the oppressed is the literary merit of the autobiography, the skilful and fluid synthesis of it by Carretta is the literary merit of the book in question. For example, the richness of metaphor exhibited by Carretta is evident from the way he equates Equiano’s task to that of demystifying the Hercules and Hydra myth that was central to imperial propaganda.
Hence, overall, the experience of reading the book has been both pleasurable and illuminating. The book has changed some of my preconceived notions about what slave life was and has made me realize the criticality of political emancipation for their lot. The two most salient aspects of the book, namely, its political and literary content, continues to be of relevance to the contemporary audience.
Carretta, Vincent. Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man, University of Georgia Press, 24-Oct-2005 – 464 pages