This is a course blog for the members of EH236 at the University of South Alabama, Spring 2006.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Equiano, A Battle for Self-Identity

The slave narrative of Olaudah Equiano proves to be a ground-breaking tale of the adventures of an extraordinary slave who earns his freedom and ,in the very parlors and bedrooms of English high society, challenges the institution of slavery. By appealing to Christian and economical reasons for outlawing this “inhuman” practice of slavery, Equiano’s work influences any rational British mind. Yet, as a man, human, and individual, Equiano seems to struggle with his own self-concepts of individualism, identity, and empowerment. Some of the most significant examples of this conflict are found in his discussions of the various names he receives throughout his life.

According to his narrative, Equiano is given four different names throughout his life. The first is Olaudah Equiano which according to Equiano “signifies vicissitude, or fortunate; also, one favored, and having a loud voice and well spoken.” Certainly, this name exudes great power and meaning. Certainly, it is evident why he chooses to use this name in the title of his narrative. The notion of fortune, favored, and having a loud voice are all qualities necessary to take on the great task of influencing British opinion on the practices of slavery. It is as though his
name is a symbol of his abolitionist role.

Yet, becoming a slave changes his name, sense of power, and personal meaning. By the time he reaches Virginia, he is called Jacob and, then, Michael. Thus, he no longer has any control over his identity. Describing this point in his life when he is completely subservient, in a strange land, and unable to communicate with anyone; he says, “I had been some time in this miserable, forlorn, and much dejected state….which made my life a burden.” Clearly, Equiano’s loss of identity greatly impacts his sense of power. He is pitiful and, through ignorance, unable to make a defense. Yet, through great fortune, or, according to Equiano, “the kind unknown hand of the Creator”, he is bought by a gentler master, which improves his lot greatly.

Interestingly, though, this coincides with another name change. His master Michael Henry Pascal changes his name to Gustavas Vassa. At this time, it was a common name and referred to a Swedish nobleman who led a successful revolt against Danish rule. One can only guess why Pascal chooses this name. Yet, it could be that Equiano had a slight defiant spirit. This would certainly coincide with his reaction once he comes to understand some English and realizes Pascal is changing his name. At this instance, Equiano relates, “I at that time began to understand him a little, and refused to be called so…I refused to answer to my new name.” Thus he defies his master. In fact to the degree that he says, “ it gained me many a cuff; so at length I submitted, and by which I have been known ever since.” Thus, he struggles to maintain control over his identity and empowerment, yet, is unsuccessful. His outwardly defiant spirit is broken.

The fact that he continues to use this name even when freed could very well question his sense of identity as an ex-slave. Certainly, even as a free man, he seeks to work for his former slave master and attaches to religion to help define himself. This search for self-identity and balance, though, continues to plague him. This could very well explain why he uses relatively indirect rhetoric such as religion and economics to express anti-slavery sentiments instead of directly and ardently chastising British society. Nonetheless, he is effectual. He may never completely define himself as either an Englishman or African, but he does seem to reconcile his identities, which makes him more powerful than he ever could have been as just Olaudah Equiano.


Blogger Deborah said...

Jeremiah, you are so well spoken. It definitely reveals itself in your writing. I enjoyed your blog, you approached this narrative from an angle I would have never considered. The different names expressing various times of his life is brilliant. There is nothing I could add to your blog. It is exceptional. Keep up the good work. I can learn a few things from you.

9:25 AM  

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