Academic journal article African American Review

Moses and the Egyptian: Religious Authority in Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative

Academic journal article African American Review

Moses and the Egyptian: Religious Authority in Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative

Article excerpt

From the first image that greeted readers of his book,

Olaudah Equlano presented the self of his 1789 autobiographical narrative as a pious Christian, one whose religious conversion meant a kind of freedom as significant as his manumission from slavery. In the striking frontispiece portrait Equiano sits with biblical text in hand, insisting--in his visual as in his textual presentations of himself--that the Christianity he embraces is the defining feature of his life-story. He responds, as Susan Marren has suggested, to two paradoxical imperatives: one, to write himself into creation as a speaking subject and, two, to write an antislavery polemic (94). At the same time, the text speaks straightforwardly of a third authorial imperative as well. Within the religious tradition of Protestant Christianity, Equiano seeks to tell the story of his soul's spiritual journey, to testify to God's actions in his life. [1] Contemporary readers have sometimes seen the author's piety as something of a maneuver: The savvy African, knowing what his British and American audiences n eed in order to accept him as a credible narrator, uses religion as a mask for social critique. Others see him as wholly devoured (just as he feared he would literally be devoured when he saw the slave ship) by Western culture, losing his voice and himself to Christianity. [2] Attempts to recognize the formidable forces of acculturation--of which religion is a profoundly important component--that take place over the course of Equiano's Narrative have oversimplified and occasionally dismissed Equiano's Christianity.

If we take the facile view that he is simply using religion to manipulate readers, or if we see him as simply manipulated by religion, we ignore the earnest and consistent piety that sets the tone and establishes the purpose of the narrative. To be sure, the self that Equiano presents in the Narrative is, indeed, a complicated one, as almost all of the literature on this text suggests. Contemporary readers are disposed to appreciate the complications of his racial identity, but also to see his own racial awareness and social critique as most probably at odds with his religious piety. This is not an entirely new problem for Equlano's readers. Contemporary readers who dismiss the religiosity of this text follow the argumentative course and aesthetic sensibilities established by earlier respected readers, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, who, in a 1789 review, admired many of the qualities of Equiano's text, most particularly his gripping account of his enslavement and his journey toward freedom, but ultimately judg ed the text inferior, primarily because of the author's piety and his "tiresome" account of his religious conversion? [3] Sidestepping the religious meaning and purpose--central for the autobiographer himself, a source of discomfort for some critics--causes one to overlook some of the most intriguing conflicts in the text, however. As William Andrews, Susan Marren, Angelo Costanzo, Vincent Carretta, and Adam Potkay have argued, Equiano's Narrative ought to be understood in the context of several genres, including, notably, the tradition of eighteenth-century spiritual autobiography. Moreover, reading his religious perspective as an earnest expression of his self leads to an appreciation of the complexities of that religious self, to the way piety informs, empowers, and limits Equiano's social criticism.

Certainly, the Narrative presents contemporary readers with problems. Like many historical texts that directly address issues of race, Equiano's Narrative reveals its author's shifting, occasionally paradoxical racial self-identification and ideology. Despite, for instance, his progressive polemical intentions, his apparent desire to have the autobiography provide a vehicle for a moral argument against slavery (seen most obviously in repeated, straightforward appeals to the reader), the Narrative is not an unequivocal anti-slavery polemic. …

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