“The Black Christian”:
Life, Rhetoric, and the Transition from Slave to Imperialist
Life writing, in its manifold forms, is a significant constituent in the present-day landscape of literary studies. The field, which includes autobiography, biography, diaries, letters, travelogues, etc., is pivotal to debates about the creation and analysis of discourse as well as the political and social ramifications of literature. Ishmeal Baeh’s harrowing account of life as a child-solider in
Sierra Leone, A Long Way Gone, for example, was credited with provoking debate in as regards human rights and the ethics and politics of using children in war. The memoir was cited by Senator Dick Durbin as he announced passage of the Child Soldier Prevention Act (1997), officially banning the practice of employing child-soldiers in Washington and extending the government’s ability to deport those accused of utilizing children in combat situations. Accounts such as Baeh’s invoke the question, how does a life become a rhetoric? All attempts to narrate lives, whether our own or someone’s else’s, involve to a certain degree elements of self-fashioning and self-negating, all cooperate with, resist, or invent forms of composition and narrative. The vast array of historical and literary potential that life writing opens up creates both exciting possibilities and troubling dilemmas. America
Olaudah Equiano’s eighteenth-century transnational slave narrative, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, is easily positioned in debates over the purposes and problems of writing a life. Equiano’s narrative was published in 1789, at the height of the transatlantic slave trade. Appearing in nine English editions, translated into many languages, and read throughout the world, Equiano’s first-person tale of enslavement, cultural and religious transformation, and international voyage became the most powerful publication of the British antislavery movement. It utilized the conventions of traditional genres such as the spiritual autobiography, the sentimental novel, and the picaresque, while simultaneously ushering in a powerfully persuasive new literary form: the slave narrative. It is seemingly impossible to overstate the value of Equiano’s narrative as an abolitionist tool, and yet, questions about the book’s authenticity and realism have plagued it since its earliest days. Equiano knew that the rhetorical power of his narrative relied heavily upon its focus on his own life; of course this very requirement – to conflate life and rhetoric- has profound impacts on the processes by which one remembers and contextualizes a life. This is especially true in the case of traumatic memories, which not only resist narrativization, but also make one vulnerable to repeating the effects of trauma in discourse. Though Equiano’s tale is conventionally regarded as an abolitionist project, the narrative problematizes notions of personal autonomy and independence by revealing Equiano’s own imperialistic religious and economic practices.
Rachel Boccio, University of Rhode Island