The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano is a powerful memoir documenting the life of a slave in the mid-eighteenth century. Olaudah Equiano tells the story of his abuses–from his kidnapping and separation from his sister, through the loss of his close friend and abuses of each master. His story is painful to read, even with his almost jovial writing style. The abuses he faces are harrowing, and yet delivered dispassionately as if his experiences were not traumatic and disturbing in the slightest. The way he found the bright side of each situation he was in–feeling close with and unwilling to leave the captain who literally beat him to strip him of his African name and identity, to the point of feeling betrayed when sold; being grateful for the occasional “kindness” from his masters and abusers, who were participating in a system to oppress Olaudah to begin with–challenged my emotions constantly. It leaves me to wonder whether he actually believes that small acts of kindness were all that he was entitled to from his white oppressors as an African man.
Recognizing the context of the time period this work was created within, I can only guess at Olaudah’s intentions without further research into the matter. But it’s not difficult to ascertain that this book was written with the purpose of humanizing black people to an audience of white people. Olaudah’s story had to be told within a framework of white saviorship in order to remain palatable to white readers. Kindness and recognition of slaves as somewhere on the spectrum of “human” was all that was required to not be the villain of Olaudah’s story, a small step given that the enslavement and disenfranchisement of his people and all who still share any semblance of his skin color is entirely due to the direct action and complicity of white people then and today. His story could not be too real, because then it would have been rejected before it could impact the masses. He was unable to be too angry, or else he would be written off as another hyperaggressive (“savage”) black man. And in this way, Olaudah was partially invisible.
But as we learned from our reading on intersectionality, black men were not the only ones made invisible. The traumas experienced by Olaudah were most frequently shared, as it is the stories of black men that were recognized by white people throughout history in comparison to black women. We fail to hear the personal accounts of black women, who were not only objectified as laborers, but also as tools for sexual gratification. And recognition of that reality is what makes accounts like this even harder to read and to attempt to bring to life within our imagination. Those stories are likely too dark for people now (particularly white people) to fully comprehend.