Generally regarded as one of the best slave narratives ever written, the book is Equiano describing his life, beginning with how he was kidnapped in Africa at age 11 and sold into slavery. The interesting thing about this book is that Equiano doesn’t just survive the Middle Passage, but actually crosses the Atlantic multiple times, traveling from South America to England to the American Colonies to the Caribbean to the Middle East, all while trying to win his freedom. It’s a passionate anti-slavery message, with Equiano unflinchingly recounting the horrors of the slave trade to make his readers cringe (I defy you to read his account of the Middle Passage, or how he mentions seeing 9 year old African girls raped by white men, without wanting to throw up) and making reasoned arguments against it. Whether or not the account is fully non-fiction (and I’ll get to that), the fact remains that this is a very affecting story.
So many negative reviews of this book! I’m a little surprised, actually. Yes, it drags on for long stretches at a time while Equiano regales us with boring naval stories and tells us everything about his spiritual conversion, but what people are missing, I think, is that he’s including these stories for a reason. He was writing for a white, male, upper-class audience in the 18th century, and those readers probably wouldn’t have been too interested in reading 200 pages on why slavery is wrong and they’re total assholes for supporting it. So Equiano throws in all the seafaring crap to keep his audience interested, and also prove what a loyal British subject he is. The religion aspect is the same thing: no one wants to listen to a heathen, so Equiano makes it clear that he’s a devout Christian, and then uses scripture and Christian doctrine to support his arguments against slavery. All the boring parts are, in fact, a calculated effort to get more people to read his book and listen to what he has to say. (that doesn’t make it much more interesting to read in the 21st century, of course, but you can’t win them all)
And now, we discuss the ESCANDALO surrounding this book:
Okay, so in the book Equiano mentions that when he lived in the American colonies he was baptized as Gustavus Vassa. There is a record of this baptism, but this is what it says: “Gustavus Vassa – a Black born in Carolina 12 years old.” Then, one of the ships Equiano worked on has a record of a crew member named “Gust. Weston” or “Gust. Feston” of “S. Carolina.”
After scholars found this, there was an immediate academic shitstorm because omg Equiano might not actually have been born in Africa at all! This (very flimsy, in my opinion) piece of evidence has been enough for some people to disregard the book entirely, because if Equiano is a liar then why should we listen to anything he has to say
At the risk of editorializing, these people are idiots. My class read a very good, very angry article by Cathy Davidson where she rips this argument apart, and basically boils it down to three main points: 1) Equiano’s master might have had a very good reason for saying that he was born in the colonies rather than Africa, so they wrote that on the baptism record; similarly, it may have been easier for Equiano to say that he was born in South Carolina. Thousands of immigrants have done similar things, and it doesn’t make them liars. 2) If Equiano was born in America and never made the Middle Passage, that doesn’t mean his account of it isn’t true because he could have heard about it from another slave. 3) If Equiano was in fact born in America, that doesn’t diminish the importance of his narrative at all. In fact, it gives the book even greater significance because it means that the first American novelist was black. That fact alone means that this book should not be disregarded because it might not be entirely factual – whether or not Equiano was entirely truthful in his book is not the point at all.
Verdict: three out of five stars