Thursday, February 10, 2011

Equiano & Wheatley

--Since we didn't get to Equiano as "autoethnography" last class, you could discuss his depiction of African culture from the previous day's reading. How does his representation of Africa fit with the definition of autoethnography? In what ways does it offer an implicit or explicit critique of Euro-American culture?

--How does Equiano's discussion of slavery and his own desire for freedom reflect Enlightenment values or concern?

--Both Equiano and Wheatley express Christian beliefs in their texts. How does Christianity help to critique slavery here?


  1. In class we talked about some of the values of values during the Enlightenment. One of them was "The primacy of reason." I think this was directly links to Equiano's beliefs and thought process. On page 695, he states that he does not understand why some people believe that a slave could earn his master the first cost. He describes the wages that some men make as opposed to slaves and raises the question. He says that it would be basically impossible for that to happen, not because a slave is unable but because some slave masters make it that way. First, they buy slaves at high prices, then unified, half clothe and beat their slaves, which makes them unable to fully work. Therefore, a slave would never have a chance to buy his freedom. It would forever be a viscous circle. Equiano asks why this has been allowed to happen. He is using the primacy of reason.

    Another value is the faith in education. Throughout the entire journey, Equiano wanted to learn to read and write. He loved that his master taught him privately and he was able to even learn basic math. To him, other than freedom, there was nothing more important than for him to be about to articulate his ideas to the Europeans.

  2. Equiano's appeal to reason throughout the writing is the most obvious application of Enlightenment values. He is baptized out of, partly, his desire to be saved as told to him by Christians, but also so that he is respected as an equal and will hopefully be freed. The way he goes about attempting to attain his freedom is very logical and should be well received by his master, but is not. He attempts to use their laws as his appeal, which is a very logical approach.

    There is also a noticeable difference from say Puritan notions of good fortune. While most Puritans would attribute their providence to God, he steers clear of that and instead attributes his fortunes to tangible entities. He does however mention God in matters that he can have no hand in, such as his freedom.

    His other approaches were striving to gain knowledge. Every skill that he picked up or had previously would later help his predicament. He wanted to know how to read, write, speak fluently, and do arithmetic, and he succeeded. This thirst for knowledge can also be seen as an Enlightenment value.

  3. I believe that Equiano’s discussion of slavery and his own desire for freedom reflects the Enlightenment values for many reasons. First, the fact that Equiano decides that he wants to better his life through his own hard work and freewill shows that he is breaking from the traditions and constituted authority at the time. Also, that he believes in the value of individual freedom. He says he “therefore determined to seize the first opportunity of making [his] escape” (678). This shows that rather than accepting his current situation as God’s will, like previous Puritan beliefs, he is making decisions for himself and breaking from traditions.
    Equiano also had an immense faith in education. He says, “I had long wished to be able to read and write; and for this purpose took every occasion of improvement, and every new thing that I observed I treasured up in my memory” (689). Clearly, Equiano believed that education lead to self-improvement and a better place in society. His desire to improve himself also demonstrates his belief in progress. These are just a few examples of the Enlightenment values reflected in Equiano’s narrative.

  4. I thought Franklin's likening of life errors to the errata he so often stumbled across as a printer is a very down to earth approach to life and not atypical. Since Franklin was a printer, he was merely applying a concept (errata) found in his occupation to his problems outside of work. A lawyer might say they had trials in their lives they wish they could appeal. The same type of metaphor is being used by Franklin.

    This type of thinking is a bit nostalgic as well, possibly invoking thoughts of reliving youth in order to erase the wrongs committed the first time around. Keep in mind that this was initially written for Ben Franklin's son, which influenced how he would address his less than perfect moments in life, perhaps even suggesting through errata that his son has the opportunity in his own life to avoid his father's faults.

  5. Mike Flachs

    Christianity is central to both of these texts. Equiano often uses his Christianity as a basis for his judgments of the world around him. Throughout the text he puts great effort into asserting his authority as a true Christian. By applying scripture to his own experience Equiano forms the basis for the social criticism that his narrative presents. In this way Equiano insists his authority is derived in practice from the Bible. Thus, Equiano’s entire narrative serves as a Christianity inspired critique of slavery.

    Wheatley’s text, like Equiano’s, also delivers a critique of slavery based upon the basic notions of Christianity. She begins by rejoicing in her introduction to Christianity and even goes so far as to say “twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land”. However, she takes a sharp turn in the last lines when she says, “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, 
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.” At this point Wheatley’s text takes a more critical stance. These words serve as an appeal to the hypocrisy that exists within Christianity at the time; namely, the practice of enslavement although the basic principles and tenets of Christianity would condemn the practice.

  6. I’ll be honest: I don’t quite know what to think of Wheatley’s poem. Without having first read her introductory biography, I read it as a very straightforward message of sincere religious-inspired praise. Not knowing anything about Wheatley, I thought that it might have even been written by a white woman who believed that African slaves should have felt gratitude toward their slavers for saving them from their “pagan“ lives. After having read her biography, however, I see that my first interpretation was completely wrong. I couldn’t help but compare her words in “On Being Brought from Africa to America” to the snippet of her poem to the Earl of Dartmouth included in her biography. In “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” Wheatley said that it was “mercy” that carried her from “pagan” Africa to her new Christian home, but this journey was not described so favorably in her message to the Earl. To him she wrote, “I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate/Was snatched from Afric’s fancied happy seat.” Clearly, Wheatley was not a woman who viewed slavery as her savior. I’m still confused, however, as to why she chose to write “On Being Brought from Africa to America” the way that she did. It seems like anyone who would have wanted to read her words as an affirmation of slavery could have (unless I’m just incredibly dense!). I assume that, as a Christian, Wheatley must have believed that her exposure to Christianity was a positive thing and been glad for it, but at the same time she was firmly anti-slavery. While I can see her last few lines as a clear critique of the treatment of Africans in Europe and America (“Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain/May be refined, and join the angelic train.”), I think I'm missing the overall purpose of this poem.

  7. In Wheatley's poem "On Being Brought from Africa to America", she clearly acknowledge God for bringing her over to the Americas from her "Pagan land". From the knowledge that I have on Wheatley, it seems that she understood (or tried to) the slave system and saw it as an act of God to bless her Pagan people. Being a Christian typically allow people to be more humble than ever. Also, Christianity seemed to shape her life, as she grew in almost all aspects intellectually. The part about Cain and Abel, honestly I don't understand and I read the Bible regularly, I hope to get clarity in class. Because several people were marked by God, this doesn't necessarily mean marked skin???? Marked for a life of pain would have been more understandable. Lastly her poem ended saying "May be refined, and join the angelic train" (753). Well it seems that she had the same outlook on blacks (Africans) as the whites (Europeans) did. In my African Lit course, we read how Europeans thought that Africans were "doomed" and "sons and daughters of Satan" and Africans came to America to he "healed" from their "doom-ness" (if you will). Thus, Africans should join the "angelic train" and become cleansed or refined.
    It seemed that Equiano had a different take on Africa. He mentioned that the African customs that he remembered were strikingly similar to the teachings of the Bible (691), which are everything but Pagan. This next piece of information was outside reading, however, before Equiano converted to Christianity, he went through several religions, never fully converting. He also felt closer to the Turkish tradition prior to becoming baptized into the Christian religion. Also, when Equiano was confronted with the fact that he would not make it to Heaven without being baptized, it almost seemed like he was only getting baptized to go to heaven and had no full desire to become a Christian. He even said in Chapter 5 of "Narrative of the Life" that the thought made him uneasy (689). But I assume having the strong desire to (1) conform to the European lifestyle and (2) make it to Heaven drove him to become baptized.

  8. Equiano's narrative revolves around themes like freedom, education, and progress; and these directly align with the fundamentals of Enlightenment such as faith in education, belief in progress, and most importantly, value of individual freedom. In Equiano's text, it is clear that freedom is the most important thing to him. He says, "I thought now of nothing but being freed, and working for myself, and thereby getting money to enable me to get a good education" (691). In this excerpt, Equiano describes the perfect plan to gain freedom since his master says the only way he can be free is to buy his liberty. Equiano focuses on gaining his freedom and instantly turns to trading in order to earn money. "...I had been sailing for some time with this captain, at length I endeavored to try my luck, and commence merchant" (698). When he finally buys his freedom, he "flew to the Register Office" (708). Equiano also expresses his interest in an education: "I had long wished to be able to read and write; and for this purpose I took every opportunity to gain instruction”(689).

  9. Many of the things that were important to Olaudah Equiano directly correlated with the values of the Enlightenment. The Age of Enlightenment was a time where much importance was placed upon ones quest for knowledge and intellectual growth; particularly dealing with science, literature, and culture. It was a way of new thinking. Equiano was an abolitionist. He did not except that it was his destiny; or any Africans, to be a slave. So in England he became a significant part of the antislavery movement by publishing his narrative. In his narrative he talks about his belief in sentiment; an Enlightenment ideal, that “linked all human beings and thus argued for the universality of human rights.” As Equiano travelled he made it a point to learn the tongues of the many people he encountered. He spoke not only of their customs and traditions but of the traditions performed in Africa. Equiano was lucky enough to have a master that supported his pursuit of knowledge and helped him learn. Equiano spoke so well that he was told “he talked to much English,” therefore he would be punished if he didn’t keep quiet. Learning to read and write well enough to put together his own narrative is a achievement that fits well into the Enlightenment values. His love for mathematics, literature, and other cultures, along with his quest for freedom are all values that have much in common with Enlightenment ideals.


  10. Throughout this reading, Equiano expresses his deep want for freedom, although he believes in bettering educating oneself, rather than attempting to escape. For the most part, his masters really appreciated his hard work, and expressed a great liking for him. He talks about wanting to learn to read, write, and be like the Englishmen. “ …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” (689). Equiano believes in God, but also in predestination. He states several times that if God chose for him to be free, then he will be.

    Emily Miller

  11. Equiano's desire for education and freedom is a consistent theme through out this text. Not only does Equiano flat out state that he wishes to learn to read and write, but he goes out of his way to find people that are willing to teach him.
    "I had long wished to be able to read and write; and for this purpose I took every opportunity to gain instruction."

    This fits directly with the Enlightenment movement which was centered upon the pursuit of knowledge and reason.

    Equiano's experiences reminded me of the argument Mary Wollenstonecraft made in "The Vindication of the Rights of Woman" in which she argued that women could not have reason because they lacked education and the essential tools to be reasonable. I feel that Equiano and other slaves fall in this same category. All he wants is become a proper Englishmen and learn how to read and write but finding someone to teach him was a struggle.

    Another theme I noticed in the reading was religion. During this time period Christianity was the major religion. Equiano, who is orginally from Africa, immediately noticed the importance of religion in his environment. Christianity stresses the importance of good morals and he made of aware of this by his master who says God will not love him if he lies. Equiano eventually decided he wants to become a part of this religion and asks to be baptized. Afterward he uses his new reading skills to read the Bible.

    As the reading progresses Equiano adapts more and more to his new culture and slowly morphs into the stereotypical Englishman.

    Jaclyn DiPasquale

  12. Equiano's desire to describe his place of birth is an excellent example of autoethnography. He goes into painstaking detail when describing his place of birth, the customs of his people, and the social systems that they are a part of. All of the things that he describes-- his people's art, music, social hierarchy, diverse languages, etc.-- are examples of culture and civilization. With these examples he directly confronts the issue of Africans being the "uncivilized savages" that the Europeans insist they are. He states that along his journey most of the, "nations and people I had hitherto passed through resembled our own in their manners, customs, and language"(681).
    However, as we briefly discussed in class, Equiano may not have actually been from Africa. Does this change the value of this work? It may make the representation of Africa less factual, but I think that there is another important aspect that must be taken into consideration as well.

    Equiano's autobiography serves as a way to reassert his own humanity. Writing this account allows Equiano to take back his own agency, and to emphasize the value of his thoughts and experiences as an individual. By being able to say, "I was born here," or, "I used to live here among equals as part of a culturally rich society," not only serves to refute European claims about Africa, but it also refutes the claim that slaves are not deserving of their own humanity.

  13. Olaudah Equiano shows an interesting range of Enlightenment Ideals from the beginning of chapter 4. He speaks of how he no longer looked upon White men as "spirits," but as "men superior to us," and decided he wanted to be more like the people around him. This in itself (wanting and believing that one can achieve self-improvement) is an Enlightenment Ideal. Furthermore, he expresses how he "had long wished to be able to read and write; and for this purpose I took every opportunity to gain instruction." This faith in education is also an Enlightenment Ideal.
    However, in the very paragraph afterwords (still page 689), he begins talking about being influenced towards Christianity. Here, as soon as he is told he "could not go to Heaven unless [he] was baptized," he became greatly concerned and wanted to be baptized. His early on opinion that the English were superior to anything he had known blinded him from rationality or reason (note that this is not to say that religion is irrational, but instead that his blind adherence to anything the English told him is).
    While he does show an adherence and acceptance of a number of Enlightenment Ideals, I do not believe he initially has the most important, which is a belief in autonomy, or thinking for oneself.

  14. Equiano's hard work and want for a better education are key components that support his Enlightenment beliefs.Throughout the whole reading he is in constant pursuit of better education and working hard to better his life an obtain his own freedom.
    He felt that by harnessing these enlightenment values of education and hardwork to better himself he would not be subject to slavery anymore. When obstacles appear he uses reasoning to keep himself on his steady path towards freedom, and this is also a very enlightenment ideal.