The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

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.

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The Marrow of Tradition Response

Keeping in mind the events of the past year, particularly the events of Ferguson, whereby I had contact with both  the reaction of suburban whites while also teaching classes predominately made of students from North St. Louis, Chesnutt’s Marrow of Tradition is, in a certain sense, a depressing novel. The continued prevalence of the very rhetoric, albeit refined over the past century, found in the text speaks to the very real present of African-American History. In this sense, the book is depressing that over a century has made little difference to the ideological constructions of race in America.

Hearing white suburbanites speak threats of death, such as to “just shoot them all” towards peaceful black protestors, whether they’re gathered in the streets of Ferguson, practicing civil disobedience, or daring to be present outside a baseball game and, in what was visible to a critical eye during the newscasts of the events and more recently confirmed by the Department of Justice Report on the matter, seeing the instigation of state violence against peaceful protestors, the discussions of black resistance to oppression, particularly those in the waning chapters of the text, seem prescient to the struggles today, where even peaceful protest is met with violence. Chesnutt, through these discussions anticipates, articulates, and debates what would later, in the general narrative of civil rights, become resistance strategies associated with leaders such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

One such debate happens in chapter XXXII: The Storm Breaks, when Dr. Miller encounters Mr. Watson and Josh as he attempts to return to town. The scene, starting on page 168, places Josh as a leader looking for, not so much leadership as he claims, but rather validity from those seen as leaders of the African-American community. Josh asks for this blessing, recognizing that his resistance is in all likelihood a last stand, resulting in martyrdom. Josh’s asking for leadership, knowing of the futility and Miller’s latter comments, seems to place the discussion in the realm of whether or not this martyrdom will be an effective strategy. The question forces Dr. Miller, who had throughout attempted to avoid involvement in racial issues, to confront the idea of resistance, leading to his reflection that:

He was no coward, morally or physically. Every manly instinct urged him to go forward and take up the cause of these leaderless people, and, if need be, to defend their lives and their rights with his own,–but to what end? (169)

His following monologue sees him play out what that end would be: death, historical nullification, and justification for the white man to continue his reign of terror over African-Americans. The passage highlights Dr. Miller’s insightful resignation to the fact that resistance to the oppression of whites, like the Borg, is futile, suggesting, “our time will come…but it is not yet in sight. Give it up…and wait. Good may come of this, after all” (169). That the end of segregation and protection of franchise would still be over half a century away, that the rhetoric of blacks as dangerous and deserving of violence continues, and that even today the media and prevailing rhetoric seeks to justify violence against even peaceful protest, the question of resistance seems to have been ineffectively answered only by practicality and not by any moral or ethical consideration. Progress seems to be available only in moments of crises (when events allow for violence practiced to grant the victims the status of martyrs), where some gains are made, followed by a refinement of the oppressive rhetoric, and a period of stagnation and regress. One might hope then, that the events of the past year will constitute such a moment of crisis; however, given the ease at which, like a Shakespearean Play, The Marrow of Tradition could be recast and adapted to modern times, it is hard to shake the feeling that Dr. Miller’s resignation will prevail.


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X-Com: Enemy Unknown – #1 – Trump Anderson 20Whatever

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