Recently I was reminded of a conversation I had in a critical theory class, where my classmate raised a concern with the depiction of African-Americans in the historical narrative, particularly that, when discussing slavery, the image is almost always one of the slave in chains. To quote from her post, “Even though we thought we were doing justice by learning from the depictions of slavery, we often are not really trying to see people as human, but less than; we often use images from the past and learn about others and each other for the wrong reasons; we teach in schools about black people in slavery without putting literature alongside it that informs what makes black people’s community beautiful, unique, and whole. We have to be careful and sensitive when looking at the past to not put the chains right back on” (Silvey). Having this discussion reemerge as I was reading Equiano stuck with me throughout the text and caused me to consider for what reasons the historical narratives are crafted in the way they are, who they’re written for, and who benefits from these constructions.
Thinking back to my own time in K-12, the only antebellum African-American voice we discussed was Frederick Douglass and the only other voice thereafter was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Even the telling of the Civil Rights Movement was essentially reduced to the Klan, lynching, and King’s speech, boycott, and marches, which is an updated version of the slave in bondage. Giving the benefit of the doubt, I would grant that, with limited time, they’re hoping to impress upon us the horrors of slavery and white supremacy, but, like my colleague stated, presenting the narrative in this manner, as always the victim, without agency, and often (as is common in Hollywood productions) in need of or working with a white “savior” produces an Other who is historical and without connection to the present. The Other exists, but only as an object.
However, giving the dominant ideological narrative the benefit of the doubt is not something I’m keen to do, particularly when the narrative contains many acts of silencing. That the vast and extensive number of slave revolts, even after Herbert Aptheker documented them, are still largely unmentioned, speaks to the notion that the African-American as victim is not a narrative constructed to benefit them, but rather the dominant power. We are exposed to stories of slaves being thrown overboard, beaten or otherwise tortured to death, but rarely is suicide mentioned, or even presented as a means of resistance, even though as seen through Equiano’s text it is a common thought and response to the cruelties faced. Though resulting in death, it at least grants agency.
Where I end up at is the idea that the narrative is constructed, much in the same way Anti-Tom, or pro-slavery literature was written, to create the idea of the passive African who had injustice done to her, but for which white people have recognized the horror of their ways and have since amended their actions. Thus the history of slavery and civil rights was never about African-Americans, but rather about whites and the “progress” of American Society.
Equiano’s text, aside from granting agency, reveals a myriad of problems for the dominant narrative’s purpose. One of the things that struck me most throughout the text was the way in which the slaves held power over their masters through the labor they we doing. Time and again there are examples of Equiano’s masters being unwilling to part with him, acquiescing to him, and defending him because of how useful his skills were to him. Simply put, his work ethic and knowledge gave him power, though still highly unequal, that allowed him to resist. Along these same lines, and against the popular image of the slave as either field hand or house worker, Equiano speaks to the assertion that “nine tenths of the mechanics throughout the West Indies are negro slaves; and I well know the coopers among them earn two dollars a day; the carpenters the same, and oftentimes more; as also masons, smiths, and fisherman, &c” (77). Slaves, far from brute labor, were trained and practiced as skilled craftsman who were necessary for the functioning of an agricultural society. The presence of skilled craftsmen in slave society is problematic for the post-slavery narratives of uplift, of the African-American needing to learn skills, trades, etc. Any lack is the product of a denial of education, not failed capabilities. Proof of those already existed in the form of the craftsman, but to admit them capable would be to admit weakness of the white supremacist narrative. What was needed was not uplifting, slaves were perfectly capable of adapting to Western Culture and knowledge, they and their progeny were denied the opportunities.
The second part of Equiano’s narrative that struck me was the relation between white sailors and Equiano, which reminded me of the Fusion Party references in Chestnutt and to other accounts of whites and blacks coming together in the South against the planter class. While race and social relations likely take a back seat in times of war and mortal danger, the numerous instances Equiano recounts of his fellow shipmates at least attempting to do right by him speaks to the presence of a class of whites, what usually seems to be an economically oppressed and politically powerless group, that recognized a bond with slaves or at the very least acknowledged they were only marginally better off as freemen and thus had more commonality with their fellow laborer whether they be free or slave.
Given the agency expressed, the potential positive relations between races, the demonstration of skills, and ability of the slave to resist present in Equiano and likely other slave narratives, my classmate’s suggestion that the solution to dominant historical narrative is to let the African speak is not simply a correction to the record, but involves a reinvisioning of the historical narrative as a whole. The traditional narrative does not align with African-American voices because it was never meant to give them voice, but was instead an insidious extension of white-supremacy meant to absolve America, as a construction of whiteness, of its sins.