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Regards croisés sur les Afro-Américains

Claude Julien

Links across the waters

The Pitfalls of Memory: Cross-Cultural Discourse and Autobiographical Form in Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative

Klaus Benesch

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1[This article has appeared in: Udo Hebel, Ed., 2003. Sites of Memory in American Literatures and Cultures. Heidelberg: Winter Verlag, pp. 31-42.]

I now not only felt myself quite easy with these new countrymen, but relished their society and manners. I no longer looked upon them as spirits, but as men superior to us; and therefore I had the stronger desire to resemble them; to imbibe their spirit, and imitate their manners; I therefore embraced every occasion of improvement; and every new thing that I observed I treasured up in my memory.
Olaudah Equiano, Interesting Narrative...


2The Interesting Narrative of The Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, The African, originally published in 1789, is often seen as a forerunner and model of the well-known tradition of nineteenth-century fugitive slave narratives. Thus, The Norton Anthology of African American Literature reprinted selections of Equiano's text next to the three established classics of this genre, the autobiographical narratives of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and William Wells Brown, and the eminent critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his introduction to an earlier, equally widespread anthology of African-American slave narratives, points out that the Interesting Narrative figures as a kind of "palimpsest" for Douglass's famous autobiography (Gates, 1988, XIII-XIV). Their many obvious similarities notwithstanding, we may yet find it difficult to read Equiano's report of his childhood in Benin (which is now part of Nigeria), of his ensuing enslavement by first a neighboring African tribe and later by British planters in the West Indies, of his service in the British Navy during the Seven Years War with France, of his conversion to Christianity, and his extended voyages around the world against the background of nineteenth-century American "chattel" slavery. Not only did the American concept of what came to be known as the "peculiar institution" differ considerably from earlier eighteenth-century European views of slavery, but, what is more important, the search for an Afro-British identity underlying Equiano's influential text is in no way applicable to the American fugitive slave narrative.

3Unlike the narratives of Douglass, Jacobs, and numerous other American slave narrators, Equiano's autobiography focuses on incidents and events that transcend the boundaries of just one single cultural context, thereby foregrounding a discourse of cross-cultural interrogation and acculturation rather than the physical ordeal of escaping an oppressive system that was generally seen as indigenous only to the American South. While African-American slave narratives reflect the internal contradictions and ideological schizophrenia of a fledgling new nation, their eighteenth-century predecessor is fully positioned within the European colonial framework. If the former are powerful deconstructors, according to Henry Louis Gates, of what nineteenth-century Americans "so ardently wished to be," the latter discloses a "transcultural" (in Mary Louise Pratt's terms) or "hybrid" self, as the postcolonialist critic Homi Bhabha would have it, the story of a traveler between worlds that were culturally as divergent as Africa, England, and the American colonies (Gates, 1988, 130; Pratt 1992; Bhabha 1986).

4Since any critical assessment of eighteenth-century slave narratives must take into consideration the political and economical background of the slave trade and its cultural ramifications, I will begin my discussion by outlining first the historical context and second the contemporary ideological framework to which Equiano's text appears to be heavily indebted. Being enmeshed in an "imaginary" discourse on the alleged Otherness of the African, Equiano eventually becomes himself a prisoner of this projected image, a colonialist in disguise or, as Géraldine Murphy suggested, a "dissident" colonialist (Murphy, 1994, 553). To promote his self-authorization as a British subject, Equiano's autobiography not only caters to the formal and structural expectations of its eighteenth-century audience but is itself firmly embedded in the discourses and ideology of the enlightenment. What makes this "Interesting Narrative" so interesting even for twentieth century readers is, after all, not so much its status as one of the first written documents by a former African slave, but a narrative voice that is constantly shuttling between some of the principle ideological assumptions of the colonialist environment, on the one hand, and the literary representation of the deplorable effects of the slave trade on the other.

  • 1 Fichtelberg especially quotes Houston A. Baker's discussion of Equiano's text in Blues, Ideology, (...)

5In his powerful analysis of how Equiano's autobiographical text was influenced by contemporary economic theory, Joseph Fichtelberg takes issue with those critics who tend to write off this "colonialist" undercurrent of the Narrative, thereby presenting a lopsided picture of Equiano as rebel and avatar of African-American freedom.1 Interestingly, in his conclusion Fichtelberg seems to give in to the same kind of willful reappropriation he sees at work in the discussion of other readers. "The subversiveness of Equiano's position," he maintains, "lay not in what it advocated but in how it was achieved; for an ex-slave had reordered the white world according to his own peculiar vision. If the order remained hegemonically bourgeois, its creative inscription in the Narrative was no less significant and powerful, nor does Equiano's accommodation weaken the tradition it inaugurated" (Fichtelberg, 1993, 476). Given the vested political interest that informs such a reassuring judgment, Equiano's eighteenth-century slave narrative certainly remains a puzzling and dividing instance of African-American literary history. To alleviate the lasting ideological tension associated with both the original text and some of its late twentieth-century criticism, it might be rewarding, therefore, to shift the emphasis away from the ambiguous content of the Narrative altogether. Instead of foregrounding its controversial political agenda, Equiano's astounding memoir should be evaluated, as I will argue in the following, in view of the inherent paradoxes and structural double-binds common to all minority autobiography.


6To speak of Equiano's first person narrator as a "traveler" is, of course, by no means an adequate description of the gruesome nature of his captivity and the hardships he experienced during the so-called "middle passage" to the New World. Being snatched from his family by fellow Africans and, successively, sold to European slave traders who shipped him as human cargo to a place he had never even heard of, does not really qualify for the kind of symbolic traveler that European travel writing, especially since the Renaissance, repeatedly promulgated. In this scheme, the mostly white, male, European traveler figures as a detached observer, a subject rather than an object, who consciously reported on the foreign culture in order to produce an imaginary "non-western" world available for colonization and empire building. In view of this tradition, as Murphy argues, Equiano is more of a travelee than a traveler, not a subject but an object, not the observer but the spectacle himself. That this Afro-British autobiographer nevertheless takes on the pose of a traveler and not of a travelee, even in those parts of the narrative where he tells us about his African origins and the contribution of Africans to the slave trade, betrays not only his desire to speak more from a British than an African perspective but also allows us to glimpse some of the idiosyncrasies of contemporary discourses on slavery in general.

  • 2 On the history and ideological foundations of slavery both in Europe and the Americas, see, among (...)
  • 3 As Vincent Carretta aptly put it, it is one of the later, cruel ironies of the American "democrati (...)

7In contrast with later phases of colonial expansionism, Africa was still a blank space on the geo-political map of the eighteenth century. Mainly because of the looming threat of disease, Europeans who engaged in the slave trade were restricted to trading posts on the coastal line and where therefore completely dependent on the complicity of African tribes which they enticed to procure the desired human commodity from among their own people. Since slavery was not unknown among the Africans themselves, there was at first no need to vindicate the endeavor by negative racial ascriptions to the indigenous population. As a matter of fact, the eighteenth-century slave trade was based on predominantly financial rather than racial considerations. Enslavement of Europeans by North African Moslems, for instance, was a well-known fact and Equiano himself comments in his Narrative on the deplorable fate of white galley slaves in Italy and the de facto enslavement of Greek laborers by the Turks. At the time Equiano set out to write his autobiography, the African slave trade had not yet led to the idea that blacks were genetically more suited to slavery than whites, an idea especially prevalent in nineteenth-century America, and that therefore the darker race could never aspire to be released from its subordinate, dependent position in Western society.2 In late eighteenth-century England, social status, as Equiano's career makes apparent, could still supercede race as a defining category.3

  • 4 Condorcet's Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain (1790) and Turgot's Di (...)

8In addition to this purely economic grounding of the slave trade, many of the eighteenth-century slave narrators (both black and white) conceived of their bondage in terms of a spiritual trial: the narrator's eventual deliverance was seen as a deliverance from sin, a form of rebirth made possible by the agency of true faith. The literary model for this religious assessment of slavery, the Protestant spiritual autobiography, is particularly important in this context because it allowed simultaneously for a more positive reading of the experience of enslavement and a progressive depiction of the history of the individual as well as the moral and spiritual development of "civilized" societies at large. If the blurring of physical and spiritual slavery served to alleviate the psychological pressure of bondage, the formal pattern of sin, repentance, spiritual awakening and, ultimately, new birth also provided a paradigm that reflected ideally the Christian conviction of potential audiences and the progressivist view of history proffered by such protean Enlightenment figures as Anne Robert, Jacques Turgot and the Marquis de Condorcet.4

9What is more, since the progressivist, spiritual paradigm was shared by both the narrator and his/her readers, it was also a powerful argument for their common humanity. From this perspective, the experience of being taken a slave occasionally even becomes a kind of "fortunate fall", a blessed moment in the painful history of the black self towards religious education and ultimate redemption. Here is how another eighteenth-century black writer, Phillis Wheatley, depicts the middle passage in her short poem "On Being Brought from Africa to America" (1773):

'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th'angelic train. (Wheatley, 1966, 7)

10Wheatley's portrayal of the middle passage as a journey from ignorance to refinement, from the darkness of sin to an awareness of God, corresponds with Equiano's story of his acculturation to British society and his conversion to the Methodist branch of English Protestantism. While it thus neatly follows the pattern of the spiritual autobiography, the Interesting Narrative can also be read, however, as a paradigmatic story of success, a Franklinesque treatise on self-reliance and modern entrepreneurship. True, Equiano's narrative is steeped in religious metaphor and his citational frame of reference alternates between the Bible, Milton, Bunyan and various contemporary religious tracts. But even where he concentrates completely on his spiritual awakening, his rhetoric remains glaringly utilitarian and market-oriented. "Now the Ethiopian was willing to be saved by Jesus Christ", he tells us towards the end of his text, but this only implied that he was now determined to swap his seafaring life for a more stable, economic career in London, to work out "my own salvation, and, in so doing, procure a title to heaven" (Equiano, 1995, 178-190).

11Equiano's emphasis on self-reliance, frugality, and economic wit has prompted various critics to compare his narrative to Robinson Crusoe, whose stranded protagonist ends as proprietor of a small, but fully functioning colony (cf. Overton 1992). And indeed, there are some striking similarities between Defoe's fictional and Equiano's "dissident" colonialist. Contrary to the authors of nineteenth-century fugitive slave narratives, Equiano does not achieve freedom by way of escape but through hard work and skillful trading. Having learned soon that the slave trade was basically profit-oriented, the enslaved sailor swiftly accustoms himself to the capitalist modes of exchange and, with the consent of his master for whom he worked on a merchant ship in the Caribbean, sets up a small-scale, itinerant trading business of his own. He is pleased with his captain's choice of a larger boat, because "from his having a larger vessel, 1 had more room, and, could carry a larger quantity of goods with me" (Equiano, 1995, 131). And since his efforts return good profits, he immediately plans on extending his business during his next voyage when he "laid in as much cargo as [he] could, trusting God's providence to prosper [his] undertaking" (Equiano, 1995, 131). By thus accumulating the capital required to purchase himself from his master, Equiano implicitly accepts the economic grounding of the slave trade. Rather than instigating rebellion among his fellow slaves (which he could have done at various times), his mind was "replete with inventions and thoughts of being freed... by honest and honourable means" (Equiano, 1995, 119, my emphasis). And like Defoe's emblematic hero he not only survives the trials of actual enslavement but eventually becomes himself entangled in the slave trade, acting as overseer on a Georgia plantation and, later, buying slaves for a missionary expedition to Jamaica.

12If Defoe's Robinson Crusoe can be said to foreshadow the world view and ideology of the rising bourgeoisie, Equiano's project of becoming a British subject by way of free enterprise mirrored precisely the critical moment in history when England was about to assume world economic hegemony and the emergent liberalism extended to all segments of English society. Bourgeois attitudes, as Fichtelberg has shown, even pervaded British abolitionism and Equiano's narrative, which was written in part to influence the parliamentary discussions on the abolition of the slave trade, represented a powerful statement in favor of the newly established primacy of capitalist production (Fichtelberg, 1993, 466-67).

13That Equiano argues from within the dominant liberalist framework becomes especially clear in his conclusion to the Narrative where he directly addresses the British senators as "the dispersers of light, liberty and science, to the uttermost parts of the earth" (Equiano, 1995, 233) and calls upon their willingness to renovate the damages done to the British Empire by the effects of the ignoble slave trade. Contrary to the earlier mode of spiritual autobiography, his argument here does not rest on any moral or religious grounds but is wholly geared to the magnificent prospects of economic progress. "I doubt not," he advises the British legislature,

if a system of commerce was established in Africa, the demand for manufactures would most rapidly augment, as the native inhabitants would insensibly adopt the British fashions, manners, customs, etc. In proportion to the civilization, so will be the consumption of British manufactures. The wear and tear of a continent, nearly twice as large as Europe, and rich in vegetable and mineral productions, is much easier conceived than calculated.... It is trading upon safe grounds. A commercial intercourse with Africa opens an inexhaustible source of wealth to the manufacturing interests of Great Britain, and to all which the slave-trade is an objection.... This I conceive to be a theory founded upon facts, and therefore an infallible one. (Equiano, 1995, 233-234)

14I have chosen this particular quotation not because it illustrates the tangled skein of imperial interests, abolitionism and economic self-assertion of the colonial subject (which, of course, it does) but because it forcefully foregrounds the idea of an "insensible" adoption of the fashions and manners of the dominant culture, an idea that I believe to be of particular interest in regard to Equiano's autobiographical account of his own acculturation. That the Interesting Narrative supports a liberalist-economic scheme similar to the one portrayed in Robinson Crusoe can hardly be denied. But what if we compare Equiano's ambiguous position not to the colonizer but to the "colonized" of that novel, namely a cannibal called Friday, who, like the hero of the Narrative, appears to be a kind of living oxymoron, a "willing" slave serving his master because he represents a culture allegedly superior to his own?

15Although it would be easy to provide numerous instances where the hero of Equiano's text actually figures as a "willing" slave, this does not automatically mean that his account of slavery, refraining as it does from an overall critique of its economic foundations, is secretly condoning, as some critics believe, the machinations of the slave system. What appears to be more interesting in this context is the question of how the dichotomous cultural traditions of his African and English background, a dichotomy remarkably highlighted in both the full title of the Narrative and the frontispiece, featuring a strikingly ambiguous portrait of its author. Thus, the former explicitly provides the reader not only with the author's original African name, Olaudah Equiano (which signified that a person had a loud voice and was well spoken), but also with his second European name, Gustavus Vassa, a name that was forced on him by his first captain and master, who wanted to conceal Equiano's status as a slave (the practice of slave-holding, though widespread among British officers, was regarded as improper by the Admiralty). In the frontispiece, this doubleness is even more emphasized by the visual blurring of the author's impeccable European attire and his strikingly African features. Obviously, the Afro-British autobiographer was keenly aware of his ambivalent discursive position. Struggling hard to negotiate the divergent impulses that finally led him to transform his life into text, Equiano created a personal memoir that brings to the fore not only the pitfalls of autobiographical memory but the ideological ambiguities of colonial discourse at large.


  • 5 On the history of autobiographical form and western identity politics, see Lejeune (1975) and Olne (...)

16Many of the glaring contradictions of the tale are actually generic and can be traced to the structural demands of representing the oppressed self as an autonomous subject and author of a self-contained autobiographical text. Structurally, autobiographical writing appears to be at once "a discovery, a creation, and an imitation of the self" (Olney, 1980, 19). By creating an original and consistent history of the author's life, autobiography also creates the notion of a self predicated on the intimate connection between the present writing self and the past written self. As John Locke pointed out, a person's identity can only be measured in regard to the past or, put another way, no form of identity is conceivable without history. "Consciousness always accompanies thinking," Locke argues in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, "and it is that that makes everyone to be what he calls self, and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things; in this alone consists personal identity, i. e., the sameness of a rational being: and as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person" (Locke, 315). To represent the history of the self as a continuum of events that always only foreground the "sameness of a rational being" has been a major incentive of modern autobiographers ever since the Confessions of Saint Augustine. Based on the assumption that by transforming a life into a text that life somehow assumes wholeness or identity, autobiography ideally embodies what the postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha has called "a tradition of representation that conceives of identity as the satisfaction of a totalizing, plenitudinous object of vision" (Bhabha, 1992, 5).5

  • 6 In 1969 Michel Foucault ended a now famous lecture before la Société française de Philosophie by a (...)

17Embracing a literary form that privileges individual experience and the originality or "otherness" of the autobiographical persona vis-à-vis the larger society, Equiano is fully at home when reporting on his adult life as a former slave and alienated British citizen. However, since all slave narratives are supposed to assume referential power not only in regard to the experience of the narrator but, by extension, of a whole group of people, the autobiographical voice is conspicuously shifting when confronted with the task of representing native African culture and/or non-western characters in general. Historically, the problem of claiming an authorial voice of one's own, the right to speak as an individual rather than merely as a member of an oppressed group, had always been a contested issue for African-Americans. If for many slave narrators the right to author a text could be gained only by way of substitutional authorization, that is, white patronage, they succeeded to an astonishing degree in wielding authorial control through complex, double-voiced narrative strategies. While their written documents were often taken as indicative of a common fate, as treacherous signs of a forced collectivism, the one element that could make a difference was precisely the answer to the unasked question "Who is speaking?"6 "Autobiography as a genre," as Roger Rosenblatt once remarked, "should be the history of individual craziness, but in black autobiography the outer reality in which heroes move is so massive and absolute in its craziness that any one person's individual idiosyncrasies seem almost dull in their normality" (Rosenblatt, 1980, 174). If Rosenblatt is correct here, it is hardly surprising that the fledgling author of an eighteenth-century slave narrative, a narrative originally designed to influence a controversial parliamentary petition against the slave trade, should entangle himself in the structural "double-binds" of this highly ambiguous genre.

18A signal event of this kind of discursive ambiguity occurs early on in the Narrative when Equiano, who at that time was nominally still a slave and was serving as a captain's steward on board a British battleship, encountered another black boy of roughly his own size and age. His recollection of the incident bears to be quoted at length:

This boy having observed me from his master's house, was transported at the sight of one of his own countrymen, and ran to meet me with the utmost haste. I not knowing what he was about, turned a little out of his way at first, but to no purpose; he soon came close to me, and caught hold of me in his arms as if I had been his brother, though we had never seen each other before.... This benevolent boy and I were very happy in frequently seeing each other, till... our ship had orders to fit out again for another expedition. (Equiano, 1995: 85, emphasis mine)

19If Equiano has by then, as he maintains, almost become an Englishman, in regard to this fellow slave he does not yet appear to have cut off all of his former cultural ties. Although he initially describes his reaction to the African in typically European terms (that is, caught between anxiety and benevolence), he is still intrigued by his friendship and wholehearted, brotherly love. Even after he has bought his freedom and has again embarked on a voyage to Jamaica, Equiano's attitude towards non-western cultures remains indeterminate. On the one hand, he poses as the archetypical colonialist by adopting a ruse of which he "had read in the Life of Columbus" (Equiano, 1995, 208) to appease the native Indian population, while, on the other, he is "sorry to say that there was not one white person in our dwelling, nor any where else, that I saw in different places I was at on the shore, that was better or more pious than those unenlightened Indians" (Equiano, 1995, 206). Clearly, Equiano's cultural position is by no means homogeneous. While he seems to underwrite fully the moral and economic standards of the colonizer, he attributes those standards almost exclusively to representatives of the colonized. To him, the Indians acted more like Christians than any whites he had met and "they seemed to be singular, in point of honesty, above any other nation I was ever amongst" (Equiano, 1995, 207).

20This latter ascription of the natives as honest and trustworthy is especially revealing because it reinforces the euphemistic depiction of African culture in the opening chapter of the Narrative. To portray his own people as embodying all of the protestant values he believes to be glaringly misrepresented by the British themselves, Equiano's account of West-African society is highly stylized and, as various historians have noted, to a great extent fictional (Ogude, 1982; Afigbo, 1981). For example, he suggests that its principle modes of exchange was pre-capitalist, depending neither on commerce nor on money as a general means of payment. Since eighteenth-century Benin was actually marked by both a thriving commerce as well as an extensive market and widely circulating currency, one is hard pressed to assume that Equiano consciously manipulated his childhood experiences to adjust them to the well-established stereotype of African "otherness."


22The cultural gap between Europe and Africa had long been measured in terms of the latter's economic and commercial retardation. As economist Adam Smith wrote in 1763, "whenever commerce is introduced into any country, probity and punctuality always accompany it. These virtues in a rude and barbarous country are always unknown" (Meek, 1976, 253-54). Why, then, did Equiano suppress the vigorous commercialism of his original culture, a move that becomes even more puzzling when we consider that in his conclusion to the Narrative he envisions Anglo-African trade as essential for the development of England and the African continent? To answer this crucial question one cannot but conclude that he had himself "insensibly" adopted one of the major ideological premises of colonialism, namely, that Africa is a barbaric, undeveloped continent passively awaiting colonization to be aroused from its prehistoric slumber. In Equiano's account, West-African culture becomes just such an imaginary natural space; in contrast to Smith's colonialist dismissal of undeveloped societies, however, his Africans come across as true noble savages, a pious, friendly people who are innocent of most of the vices pertinent to so-called civilized countries. Significantly, Equiano also indulges in a series of misrepresentations of native character and mentality. Contrary to historical truth, he prides himself on the rumor that "West-India planters prefer the slaves of Benin or Eboe to those of any other part of Guinea, for their hardiness, intelligence, integrity, and zeal" (Equiano, 1995, 38); in fact, a contemporary history of the British colonies in West India described the Eboes as "the lowest and most wretched of all the nations of Africa... and more truly savage than any nation of the Gold Coast" (1793/2, pp. 70-71). Since the success of free trade relies largely on the concept of individual property as well as mutual accountability, Equiano apparently took pains to refute contemporary travel reports on the collective thievishness of Africans and their alleged disregard for personal property in general.

  • 7 In his 1961 Les damnés de la terre, Fanon observed an insuperable divide between the colonizer and (...)

23That he does so by having recourse to a more benign yet equally problematic distortion of African culture, namely Montaigne's idea of the noble savage, only goes to show that his narrative cannot be read simply as a subversive counter statement to colonialist rhetoric. Rather, Equiano's is a more comprehensive discourse, a hybrid, border-crossing text that continuously valorizes the colonized from within an ideology of the colonizer. If recent postcolonial theory has moved away from Fanon's famous phrasing of a Manichean struggle, a clash of antagonistic ideologies and interests between the conquering and the colonized nation, and is now emphasizing the intrinsic ambivalence and hybridity of all colonial discourse, this eighteenth-century slave narrative and its Afro-British protagonist may well be taken as an early representation of the complex, transcultural self of the colonial subject.7 What is more, it may also be taken as a striking example of how an Anglo-African autobiographer, in the phrasing of William L. Andrews, while "presumably engaged in reconstructing his life... is also at work structuring a set of conditions in which the reader will find it appropriate to re-examine his concept of identity and personal value" (Andrews, 1984,36).


Works Cited

Afigbo, Adiele, 1981. Ropes of Sand: Studies in Igbo History and Culture. Ibadan: Oxford University Press.

Andrews, William L, 1984. “The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography: Theory and Explanation.” In Weixlmann, John and Fontenot, Chester F., Ed. Studies in Black Literature, Vol. I: Black American Prose Theory. Greenwood, Fl.: Penkevill C° (4-42).

Bhabha, Homi K., 1986. “Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a Tree Outside Dheli, May 1817.” In Gates, Henry Louis, Ed. “Race, Writing, and Difference. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press (pp. 163-184).

-----, 1992. "Interrogating Identity." Identity Documents n° 6 (pp. 5-11).

Carretta, Vincent, Ed., 1996. “Introduction.” Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the 18th Century. Lexington, Ky.: The Uuniversity Press of Kentucky.

Davis, David Brion, 1975. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press.

Equiano, Olaudah, 1995 The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings. Vincent Carretta, Ed. New York: Penguin.

Fanon, Frantz, 1963. Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Farrington, Constance. New York: Grove Press.

Fichtelberg, Joseph, 1993. “Word between Worlds: The Economy of Equiano's Narrative.” In American Literary History 5.3 (Fall 1993), pp. 459-480.

Foucault, Michel, 1979. “What Is an Author?” Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism. In Harari, Josué V. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 141-60).

Gates, Henry Louis, Ed., 1978. “Introduction.” The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: Penguin.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr, 1988. “The Trope of a New Negro and the Reconstruction of the Image of the Black.” Representations 24 (Fall 1988), 129-155.

-----, Ed, 1987. “Introduction.” The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: Penguin.

Jacobs, Harriet 1988. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girls. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lejeune, Philippe, 1975. Le Pacte autobiographique. Paris: Seuil.

Locke, John, 1939. "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding." The English Philosophers From Bacon to Mill. Ed. Edwin A. Burtt. New York: Modern Library, 238-402).

Meek, Ronald, 1976. Social Science and the Ignoble Savage. Cambridge, Ma.: Cambridge University Press.

Murphy, Geraldine, 1994. “Olaudah Equiano, Accidental Tourist.” In Eighteenth-Century Studies, 27.4, 551-568).

Ogude, S. E., 1982. “Facts into Fiction: Equiano's Narrative Reconsidered.” In Research in African Literatures, 13.1 (pp. 31-43).

Olney, James, 1980. “Autobiography and the Cultural Moment.” Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Ed. James Olney. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (pp. 3-27).

Overton, Bill, 1992. “Countering Crusoe: Two Colonial Narratives.” In Critical Survey, 4.3 (pp. 302-310).

Pratt, Mary Louise. 1992 Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London/New York: Routledge.

Rosenblatt, Roger, 1980. “Black Autobiography: Life as the Death Weapon.” In Olney, James, Ed. Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press (pp. 169-180).

The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies. 2 vols. London, 1793.

Walvin, James, 1992. Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery. London: Fontana Press.

Wheatley, Phillis, 1966. The Poems of Phillis Wheatley. Mason, Julian D., Jr., Ed. Chapel Hill, N. C.: The University of North Carolina Press.


1 Fichtelberg especially quotes Houston A. Baker's discussion of Equiano's text in Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature (1993, 459-60).

2 On the history and ideological foundations of slavery both in Europe and the Americas, see, among others, Davis (1975) and Walvin (1992).

3 As Vincent Carretta aptly put it, it is one of the later, cruel ironies of the American "democratic" revolution that "it also democratized slavery, making all people of African descent equally eligible for enslavement" (Carretta, 1996, 11).

4 Condorcet's Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain (1790) and Turgot's Discours sur les progrès successifs de l'esprit humain (1750) are only the most famous examples of the dominance of progressivist theories of history during the latter half of the eighteenth century.

5 On the history of autobiographical form and western identity politics, see Lejeune (1975) and Olney (1980).

6 In 1969 Michel Foucault ended a now famous lecture before la Société française de Philosophie by asking: "What difference does it make who is speaking?" In his presentation, entitled "What Is an Author?," Foucault exposed the discursive status of authorship and made clear that there is no ontological ground outside the text itself from which we can interrogate the authenticity or originality of an author. While his displacement of authorship soon became a staple of poststructuralist literary theory, it also posed a serious problem for marginalized groups like women and ethnic minorities. Having been excluded from official, authorized discourse for centuries, the one thing that could make a difference for them was precisely the answer to the question: "Who is speaking?" (Foucault, 1979, 160).

7 In his 1961 Les damnés de la terre, Fanon observed an insuperable divide between the colonizer and the colonized, each inhabiting separate political, economic, and cultural zones that "are opposed, but not in the service of a higher unity. Obedient to the rules of pure Aristotelian logic, they both follow the principle of reciprocal exclusivity. No conciliation is possible.... The colonial world is a Manichean world" (Fanon, 1963, 38-41).


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