Sunday, July 26, 2009

Post Colonialism points in Narrative of the Life by Olaudah Equiano

Narrative of the Life by Olaudah Equiano is a story of his captivity as a slave in both Africa and then later on ships by Europeans. A post colonialism critic would have points about racism, language and power struggles presented throughout his story. Most writings that would be criticized in this way present blacks as ugly and savages that are cannibals while presenting whites as the desired race. In Equiano’s story he purposefully goes against this practice to reverse the racism. “I asked if I were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair” (Norton Anthology American Literature Volume A 683). Since it was rare that non-white people had the skills to read, this was geared towards whites in order to create a shame in the reader and return the image that you are not the ideal.

In addition, as Achebe points out in his essay An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it is also common to make black women out as savages as “she fulfills a structural requirement of the story: a savage counterpart to the refined, European woman who will step forth to the end of the story” (ACHEBE 4). Similarly, Equiano also goes against the grain in this regard. He writes of white women “Their women were not so modest as ours, for they ate, and drank and slept with their men” (NA 682). Again he is demonstrating to the reader that there is the possibility that being white is not the best thing. This also goes along with Homi Bhabha’s theory on Post colonialism in his essay Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse. “A desire that, through the repetition of partial presence, which is the basis of mimicry, articulates those disturbances of cultural, racial, and historical difference that menace the narcissistic demand of colonial authority. It is a desire that reverses ‘in part’ the colonial appropriation by now producing a partial vision of the colonizer’s presence” (LT 383). “This process by which the look of surveillance returns as the displacing gaze of the disciplined, where the observer becomes the observed and ‘partial’ representation rearticulates the whole notion of identity and alienates it from essence” (LT383-384).

Other points a post colonialism critic would make would be to discuss how Equiano is renamed with white European names multiple times to their liking as if his African name is not good enough. “In this place I was called Jacob; but on board the African Snow, I was called Michael.” Postcolonial critics would point out how the whites retained their power in the story which such as promising him his freedom repeatedly in almost what would have been considered an impossible way. In his story, his owner admits at the end he only promised him that because he thought it was unattainable. Equiano is demonstrating how he is aware this is how slaves were kept under control. He also debunks what the Europeans say about how slaves don’t make enough money to cover what they cost to purchase. Another way they retain power in the story is the slaves are told if they work harder they will be treated better.

Religion is also imposed on him and he becomes known as the “black Christian” as there is a limit to what they will allow, he can’t simply be a Christian. He was also forced to speak English. “I could now speak English tolerably well, and I perfectly understood everything that was said. I not only felt myself quite easy with these new countrymen, but relished their society and manners. I no longer looked upon them as spirits, but as men superior to us; and therefore I had the stronger desire to resemble them, to imbibe their spirit, and imitate their manners”. This is how the Europeans maintain control. According to Homi Bhabha, “partial reform will produce an empty form of ‘the imitation of English manners which will induce them (the colonial subjects) to remain under our protection’” (LT 382).

According to Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism “However else it might have been historically understandable, peremptorily withdrawing ‘the West’ from its own experiences in the ‘peripheral world’ certainly was and is not an attractive or edifying activity for an intellectual today. It shuts out the possibility of knowledge and of discovery of what it means to be outside the whale” (LT 376). Equiano’s text does not continue his life after his freedom is acquired. It would be hard to imagine that he would be able to go back to any form of life he had before. “Many of the most interesting post-colonial writers bear their past within them as scars of humiliating wounds, as instigation for different practices, as potentially revised visions of the past tending towards a new future, as urgently reinterpretable or redeployable experiences, in which the formerly silent native speaks and acts on territory taken back from the empire” (LT 379). Equiano writes of his experiences and of his scars and also of other slaves and their treatment at the same time going against stereotypes that have been created by European writers and views up until his time.


  1. Interesting problems are raised here--I can't help feeling (and I'm not alone in this) that the 'uglification' of the whites in the opening of your essay still ends up recreating the problems that we saw in conrad. That is, the problem of essentializing a people, and defining each group by the other. And then there's the problem of categorization itself--whether women are 'saints' or 'devils' we saw that there are still problems with the categorization, and I wonder if Equiano might be falling into that trap here. Also, it'd be interesting to think more about the book itself--there has long been a debate about whether the book is 'true' or not, one that reflects on a number of these issues.