Literature Review

I have not been able to p0st for a while, but below I have included my literature review.  It was difficult to figure out my main thesis regarding the literature, but the following is what I concluded with:

“Reflections on the writings of Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass”

Carol Killian
Literature Review
Written, October 18, 2010

Throughout the late 1700s and into the 1800s, abolitionists began to speak out against slavery in the United States.  Among them were two notable authors who were African Americans and who had been enslaved themselves.  Historians have written about slavery and the abolitionist movement, basing their information on the works of Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano.  Both Equiano and Douglass’ works were published during two different centuries which altered their approaches to the abolition movement.  Likewise, writers who came afterwards have discussed these two key leaders in the context of the educational status of blacks, Equiano and Douglass’ approaches to speaking out against slavery and their impact on the changing times throughout the abolition movement.

In Equiano’s Travels written by Olaudah Equiano, the editor, Paul Edwards explains in the introduction that Equiano’s literature made African literature accessible.[1] Following in Equiano’s footsteps, Douglass declared himself as “America’s black Jeremiah” and wrote the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which was published in 1845.[2] Both of these African American writers have given historians firsthand access to what slavery was like.  Long after the emancipation of slaves, writers of today continue to use these men’s lives in order to demonstrate the changing approaches to slavery over time.  In an article by Nicole Smith, it is evident that Equiano and Douglass are similar yet different.[3] The greatest difference is their views on “the keys to freedom.”[4] For Douglass, it is education and literacy that earn a slave their freedom but for Equiano, although he believes education is vital, it is also dangerous for slaves to be educated in a “society that wishes to keep slaves ignorant.”[5] Similar to one another, Douglass and Equiano both earn support from many people who want to help them become educated and then use “the power of words and literacy” to speak out against the absurdities of slavery.[6] Today, literature that has been written about Equiano is most notable for arguing in support of his work even though it may not be a complete firsthand account.  Frederick Douglass’ main works have been analyzed by numerous historians and each look at the numerous ways he pushed for the abolishment of slavery in the United States.

In the 1700s, slavery was gaining a foothold in the British colonies and throughout Europe.  For Equiano, his work brought about questions such as, “why was it that…almost every European country supported the capture, purchase and enslavement of Africans without compassion?”[7] While he played a major role in the abolitionist movement in the American colonies, he also focused on the British Abolitionist Movement.  In his fight, Equiano made appeals to the Queen of England in 1788, and traveled mainly around England promoting his story.  Equiano’s Travels is written in a play by play format, and in this way, Equiano pleads for the lives of those that are like himself and have been placed in unwanted situations of life.

Writers such as, Marcus Rediker, have used eye witness accounts of past slaves in order to stress the traumas of slavery.  In his book, The Slave Ship (2007), Rediker uses Equiano’s narrative in order to emphasize how slaves were shipped to and from Africa.  Rediker uses Equiano’s story to emphasize that Equiano “spoke for millions.”[8] According to Rediker, Equiano’s story reveals much about the slave trade in general especially because he was “the first person to write extensively about the slave trade from the perspective of the enslaved.”[9] From The Slave Ship, it is evident that Rediker tries to emphasize the fact that Equiano was changed by his experience of being shipped from Africa.  As a result, he learned that “Multitude is strength.”[10] Rediker’s excerpt on Equiano’s narrative demonstrates the fact that Equiano spoke out against the slave trade by presenting his own testimony.

Another author who has written regarding Equiano is Emily Donaldson Field.  In, “Expecting Himself,” she explains that in “1999, Vincent Carretta changed the trajectory of Equiano scholarship with his evidence that Equiano may have been born not in West Africa but in the Carolinas.”[11] Field goes on in her essay to state that if this is the case, Equiano may have used pictures from other African Americans’ memories to depict “Igbo country.”[12] Therefore, the accuracy of The Interesting Narrative may be in question.  The fact that Equiano may not have experienced all that he said he had is of little importance regarding how his work opened the door for future abolitionist writers.  Field’s article is significant in revealing to the reader that Equiano uses an “Anglo identity” in his writings.[13] He stresses the importance of changing from an “African pagan” to a “British Christian.”[14] From Fields it is clear that unlike Douglass, Equiano’s writings can be questioned regarding their accuracy of the firsthand experiences he claims, but regardless, Equiano still influenced the rights of African Americans.

There are many writings about Douglass.  In Peter C. Myers’ book, Frederick Douglass, Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism, he reflects on the past decade during which Douglass has been given numerous labels as an abolitionist leader.  Myers discusses the fact that some critics have found Douglass as “urging blacks to become ‘like whites.’”[15] While there are faults that can be found in Douglass’ work, Myers goes states that “Douglass was right” in his pursuit of fighting for natural rights.[16] Myers takes Douglass’ works and his life and looks deeply at Douglass’ exposure of slavery’s ‘true philosophy.’[17] Throughout the 1800s, other African American writers such as David Walker[18] and William Lloyd Garrison[19] rose to action.  Myers makes many points that argue the fact that Frederick Douglass came at the perfect time in history.  “By Douglass’ day, the wholehearted affirmation of slavery’s absolute superiority” had become grounded in southern thought.[20] Unlike Equiano, Douglass had to fight against something that had been established for centuries.

In The Black Hearts of Men (2002), John Stauffer discusses the “Radical Political Abolitionists.”[21] The Radical Political Abolitionists were Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglass, James McCune Smith and John Brown, and they “overcame existing social barriers.”[22] The Black Hearts of Men clearly explains that for Frederick Douglass, the fight to end slavery was a pressing matter in the world around him.  Douglass worked along with other leading abolitionists such as Abraham Lincoln in order to gain recognition.[23] In Wu jin-Ping’s, Frederick Douglass and the Black Liberation Movement (2000), he describes the struggles and hardships that liberating the slaves took Douglass through.  Unlike Equiano, Douglass was fighting for the industry of slavery to be ended in the United States.  The slave trade had already ended in England when Douglass began to campaign.

Literature regarding Equiano and Douglass can be looked at topically.  Writings about Equiano focus largely on his monumental story which was the first major work published by a black man.  It is clear in the writings about him that Equiano used his dramatic life experiences to demonstrate the hardships of slavery.  According to Peter Myers, Frederick Douglass finished up what Equiano helped begin.  Writings on Frederick Douglass make reference to other abolitionists of his time while writings on Equiano have no other abolitionists to relate it with.  Both of these men changed the fight for equality for every individual.

Bibliography:

Blassingame, John.  Frederick Douglass. National Park Service, 1976.

Douglass, Frederick.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Writtenby Himself. Edited by David W. Blight.  St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

Equiano, Olaudah.  Equiano’s Travels, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African. Edited by Paul Edwards.  Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1967.

Field, Emily, “‘Excepting Himself’: Olaudah Equiano, Native Americans, and the Civilizing Mission,” MELUS 34, no. 4 (Winter 2009): 15-38. http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.umw.edu (accessed September 19, 2010).

Jin-Ping, Wu.  Frederick Douglass and the Black Liberation Movement. New York:  Garland Publishing, 2000.

Myers, Peter C.  Frederick Douglass, Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism. Lawrence, Kansas:  University Press of Kansas, 2008.

Rediker, Marcus.  The Slave Ship. London, England:  Penguin Group, 2007.

Ruchames, Louis.  The Abolitionists, A Collection of Their Writings. New York:  G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1963.

Smith, Nicole.  “Comparison of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Up From Slavery, and The Interesting Narrative by Olaudah Equiano.”  Article Myriad [cited September 9, 2010].  <http://www.articlemyriad.com/slave_narratives_literacy.htm>.

Stauffer, John.  The Black Hearts of Men. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University


[1] Olaudah Equiano, Equiano’s Travels, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African, ed. Paul Edwards (Long Grove, Illinois:  Waveland Press, 1967), viii.

[2] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, ed. David W. Blight (St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 11.

[3] Nicole Smith, “Comparison of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Up From Slavery, and The Interesting Narrative by Olaudah Equiano,” Article Myriad, http://www.articlemyriad.com/slave_narratives_literacy.htm (accessed September 9, 2010).

[4] Nicole Smith, “Comparison of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Up From Slavery, and The Interesting Narrative by Olaudah Equiano,” Article Myriad, http://www.articlemyriad.com/slave_narratives_literacy.htm (accessed September 9, 2010).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Olaudah Equiano, Equiano’s Travels, ed. Paul Edwards, ix.

[8] Marcus Rediker,  The Slave Ship, (London, England:  Penguin Group, 2007) 109.

[9] Ibid, 109.

[10] Ibid, 131.

[11] Emily Field, “‘Excepting Himself’: Olaudah Equiano, Native Americans, and the Civilizing Mission,” MELUS 34, no. 4, 15-38, http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.umw.edu (accessed September 19, 2010).

[12] Ibid, 16

[13] Ibid, 17

[14] Ibid, 17

[15] Peter C. Myers, Frederick Douglass, Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism, (Lawrence, Kansas:  University Press of Kansas, 2008), 11.

[16] Ibid, 21.

[17] Ibid, 22.

[18] David Walker published Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World in 1829.

[19] Garrison launched the Liberator, in 1831.

[20] Peter C. Myers, Frederick Douglass, 23.

[21] John Stauffer, The Black Hearts of Men, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002), 2.

[22] John Stauffer, The Black Hearts of Men, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002), 2.

[23] Wu Jin-Ping, Frederick Douglass and the Black Liberation Movement, (New York:  Garland Publishing, 2000), 3.

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