Thursday, February 27, 2014
I had to offer a disclaimer at the beginning of class. Olaudah Equiano is one of my favorite people, notwithstanding he has been dead for over 200 years. Why? It's hard to explain, but when I first read The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano in graduate school, I so enjoyed his writing, his tone, his story, his travels. His conversion narrative is told beautifully. He ended up marrying a white English woman and they had two girls together. His wife Susanna Cullen died, their first daughter Anna Maria died, and then Equiano died, leaving their second daughter Joanna an orphan at the young age of two. So much about her life attracted me, a biracial girl living in London in the early 1800s, that I decided to write a historical novel about her. After a year of research and writing, I decided the novel needed some more drama, so I added the story-line of Equiano's sister, with whom he was kidnapped. They were separated before they reached the coast of Africa, and he never saw her again. His description of their separation is gut wrenching.
Equiano begins his narrative with descriptions of his native Africa. I believe he was born in Africa, as he claims in his memoir, though the eminent professor and researcher Vincent Carretta has uncovered documents that suggest he may have been born in South Carolina. Equiano describes the kidnapping, transport in a slave ship to Barbados, and then to South Carolina. He was purchased by a British naval officer, Charles Pascal, and served him for several years, during the 7 Years War. After the war Equiano believed he would be freed, but he was sold to another master, much to his horror. After working for this second master for several years he earned enough money to purchase his own freedom. He spent the next few years traveling and eventually settled down in England, becoming intimately involved in the abolition movement. Fellow abolitionists persuaded him to write his memoirs, to bolster the abolitionist cause.
My students had a difficult time with the text. Written in 1789, The Narrative does have some difficult vocabulary, but I am so familiar with the text, I forgot how I reacted to it the first time I read it. After we had spent the class discussing the text, the students warmed up to it a bit, but I just have to accept that not everyone is as enamored with Equiano as I am. Alas . . .