Black History Month: “The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano”

In recognition of Black History Month, the Books Blog will highlight important books, plays, poems and contributors to the African-American literary tradition. Of course, a month isn’t long enough, and there is no reason why this will end with this month. But it is a good excuse to highlight important works that help define not only the African-American experience, but what it means to be an American.

Is there a book, play or essay you think is a vital part of the African-American literary tradition, especially something that has touched you personally? E-mail your idea to me at

The first book the Books Blog will highlight is also one of the earliest:

equiano150pxw.jpg“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789),” (Bedford edition). I was introduced to this book in graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh in a class on slave narratives with professor Ronald Judy.
The book is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, first-person slave narratives written by a former slave. The book recounts a life that began in freedom in 1745 in what is now Nigeria and then his being taken captive and sold into slavery as an 11-year-old boy (first in Africa and then through the Middle Passage to Barbados and, eventually, Virginia), being purchased by an Englishman and traveling to Britain, and earning money to buy his freedom.
“The Narrative” was a best-seller in England and later America. As an anti-slavery text, it gave graphic accounts that helped to shore up abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic. After writing the book, Equiano traveled extensively to promote it and its ideas. He married an English woman. He died in 1797.
The book is of vital importance for an understanding of the complexities and cruelties of the slave trade.
The introduction to the Equiano section in the “Norton Anthology of African American Literature” says:

Equiano’s Life bequeaths to modern African American literature a prescient and provacative example of what W.E.B. Du Bois would call “double-consciousness” — the African American’s fateful sense of “twoness” born of a bicultural identification with both an African heritage and a European education.

Click “more” for a passage from Equiano’s “Narrative” and for links.

Here is a section from his “Narrative” in which he describes the Middle Passage:

At last, when the ship we were in had got in all her cargo, they made ready with many fearful noises, and we were all put under deck, so that we could not see how they managed the vessel. But this disappointment was the least of my sorrow. The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship’s cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many diedÑ-thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now became insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of borror almost inconceivable. Happily perhaps, for myself, I was soon reduced so low here that it was thought necessary to keep me almost always on deck; and from my extreme youth I was not put in fetters. In this situation I expected every hour to share the fate of my companions, some of whom were almost daily brought upon deck at the point of death, which I began to hope would soon put an end to my miseries. Often did I think many of the inhabitants of the deep much more happy than myself. I envied them the freedom they enjoyed, and as often wished I could change my condition for theirs. Every circumstance I met with, served only to render my state more painful, and heightened my apprehensions, and my opinion of the cruelty of the whites.

Here are some links:

Is there a book, play or essay you think is a vital part of the African-American literary tradition, especially something that has touched you personally? E-mail your idea to me at


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