Olaudah Equiano: a Narrator of Persuasion
In The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Olaudah Equiano skillfully represents the equal capabilities of nobility and intelligence from the African people forced into slavery. While his writing is steeped with a high acumen and earnestness, there is also a lingering sense of withholding that comes forth to the modern reader. Between the time of Equiano’s tribulations and the time he penned his narrative, it was not the belief of the majority of Americans and Europeans that such slavery was wrong or evil–obvious by its long-standing practice.
While our society today is much more privy to the certain horrors that occurred during the era of slavery, the people of this time were not so enlightened or understanding. This narrative was ever so delicate in order to make the readers accept the imminent need for emancipation of slaves. While his subject matter is a necessary base to his argument of equality for slaves, the true means of persuasion come from his tone and understanding of how exactly to address the white readership at the time of publication.
His narrative is painstakingly tactful in the execution of such a tale during such a time.
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Equiano administers small doses of his hardships, tempered with his lightened, distanced recall, as well as his accounted fondness of the kind few he met throughout his journeys. By this systematic manner of narration, this piece works harder at being a persuasive work rather than a blunt historical account. The first thing to consider when reading this narrative is the calmness that constantly prevails in Equiano’s tone.
He keeps a rather composed demeanor in relation to the tumultuous events he describes. For example, when he explains the process of the buying market, he writes: “On a signal given (as the beat of a drum), the buyers rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of the parcel they like best. ” (1231). Instead of giving in completely with the emotional charge such a scene would produce, he removes himself to continue an unruffled tone. He sets the scene with this sentence before further developing the horrors in order to ease the reader into it.
The use of the word “parcel” within this analogy puts him at a distance from the situation which further enables a calmer tone. Calm–yet the comparison of the slaves to “parcels” is still gripping by its reduction of people to mere idea of a package or item nonetheless. By extracting himself and explaining from a removed point of view, he can relate the events in an easier manner for the edification of the reader. As he continues with the explanation of the buyers market, he renders an almost clinical tone in order to suppress an all too emotional or frenzied retelling.
He later states, “In this manner, without scruple, are relations and friends separated, most of them never to see each other again. ” (1231). For such a terrifying thing, he remains short and to the point. Equiano does not over indulge in describing these events he experienced, but delivers them in a balance of composure for the palpability of the reader. While his tone enables the reader to take in his story without being overwhelmed with the harshness of his tale, he also continually addresses the reader personally, which imbues a deeper connection between author and reader.
Equiano spends a deal relaying background information as to his own personal roots and heritage in order to impart a further sense of himself to the reader. Immediately after doing so, he states, “I hope the reader will not think I have trespassed on his patience in introducing myself to him, with some account of the manners and customs of my country. ” (1222). He takes great care in endearing himself to the reader in order to enhance their reception of him, especially as he is in the delicate position of being a representation of the slave population as well.
In his efforts of persuasion, his image is of the utmost importance to his cause, therefore such declarations are helpful. Within such small statements he delivers and air of compassion and conscientiousness towards the reader. He later addresses the reader once again when he finally receives the document expressing his freedom: “As the form of my manumission has something peculiar in it, and expresses the absolute power and dominion one man claims over his fellow, I shall beg leave to present it before my readers at full length. ” (1238). Here he shows the reader how earnestly he wishes them to know all that he has to share.
This direct dialect towards the readers invites them to be a participant of his narrative by actively considering their thoughts and feelings. Equiano is very astute in making these requests to the reader because it fosters a feeling of connection to the material and a relation to the author. The more he succeeds in fortifying the bond between author and reader, the more he succeeds in ultimately persuading them to see how important it is that others like himself be free from such painful events. The most clever action Equiano employs in his narrative is his told exclusion.
As he lays out the horrors he suffered during his passage across seas– stench, sickness, starvation, abuse, deaths–the vision becomes very terrifying and depressing. Today, it is known that these instances are only superficial to the true extent of the horrors on these slave ships, but such matters were far too delicate to publish at the time, and many people would most likely have rejected such a story as a fallacy. Equiano writes, “In this manner we continued to undergo more hardships than I can now relate, hardships which are inseparable from this accursed trade. ” (1230).
While it seems like a simple statement, it works on the minds of the readers in a way that is fulfilling to Equiano’s objective. He leaves out the greater hardships, yes, but he lets the reader know that he did, and warns them that they were ultimately worse than they could handle. Much like in a movie when a scene cuts from something scandalizing, the implication is enough to stir the viewer. Equiano employs this same device in his narrative. After telling in detail the more superficial horrors, he delivers an image to the reader that is enough to offset them without turning them away, but they still do not fully understand at this point.
Insinuating there is far more instills an uncomfortable nagging within the reader as to what exactly Equiano is leaving out. Equiano also assuages the reader by including white individuals of heroic character that he encountered. The element of race is of course very strong within such a text. Here, an emancipated African is addressing a large white readership about his struggles against his white oppressors–nothing short of sensitive. By showing his lack of bias towards race, but appreciation for character, he develops an sense of neutrality that is inviting for the readers.
The reader’s first encounter with a very upright white character is Richard Baker. In Equiano’s description of him, he writes, “He was a native of America, had received an excellent education, and was the most amiable temper. ” (1233). These are all characteristics that many readers would perhaps use in their own descriptions most likely, making him a relatable figure. His dynamic changes when Equiano later describes their relationship: “Soon after I went on board, he showed me a great deal of partiality and attention, and in return I grew extremely fond of him.
We at length became inseparable; and, for the space of two years, he was of very great use to me, and was my constant companion. ” The relationship of these two men was not just of distant appreciation, but he says they were companions. He portrays to the reader an honest, mutually rewarding friendship between a white man and a black man. This was not exactly a conventional friendship of the time, and he goes to describe their interactions with one another, between education, and the trials they faced aboard the ship where they would cling to each other when in fear.
Richard Baker is not portrayed as one who elevated himself above Equiano, but treated him like an equal. His characterization is one to be admired by readers. When Richard dies, he continues his description of him while relating the sadness of his loss: “. . . I lost at once a kind interpreter, an agreeable companion, and a faithful friend; who, at the age of fifteen, discovered a mind superior to prejudice; and who was not ashamed to notice, to associate with, and to be the friend and instructor of . . . a slave! ” (1233).
In this statement, he shows the reader a tie between his nature and his morals; he was a noble person who did not accept belittling or segregating blacks into a category outside his own humanity. Richard Baker is a very important character to the objective of Equiano because he serves as a template for the readers to aspire to. Another important white character is Robert King, the one who allows Equiano to finally purchase his freedom. With Robert, it is not as much his character that is the focus, but his very vital action which draws admiration.
When Equiano finally brings Robert the forty pounds sterling for his freedom, he writes “My master then said he would not be worse than his promise; and, taking the money, told me to go to the Secretary at the Register Office, and get my manumission drawn up. These words of my master were like a voice from heaven to me. ” (1237). This is a very indispensable part of Equiano’s story because it is the very apex on which his struggling as one who is owned is overturned. Robert gains nobility in securing a way for Equiano to gain such freedom. Through Robert King’s actions, the reader can see how monumental giving a slave their freedom can be.
Equiano persevered through a great deal to accomplish this masterful narrative. What comes forth is a work of cunning that is highly thoughtful in its persuasiveness. As can be seen, he is very systematic in his way of pulling the readers into his narrative. He allows the reader to wade into his heartbreaking story by guiding them with a calm tone, then endears himself by establishing a personal dialect. The usual author to reader relationship is brought to a human to human level. Equiano’s shrewdness in knowing what should be shared and what to leave as implications for the reader to administer their own imagination to.
By this discernment he delivers a novel that works accordingly with the sensitivity of the time. He delivers relatable characters to the white readership that establish not only a further way to connect to the story, but also an example of conduct and treatment white people should extend to the black people and slaves. While the story is important to showing the readers how horrible the forced life and trading of slaves is, it is his technique and devices of narrating that deliver this from a story of tribulation to a motivator for change.