Frederick Douglass And Olaudah Equiano Essay Topics

An analysis of two seminal works from African-American literature, both drawn from the authors’ autobiographies, reveals that the processes of learning to read and write is conceptualized as the means of personal and social liberation. While Frederick Douglass’s “Learning to Read and Write," a chapter from his ”Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave“ was written in 1845 and Malcolm X’s “Learning to Read," an excerpt from his ”The Autobiography of Malcolm X“, was written more than a century later in 1965, common themes can be identified. The analysis of these themes helps provide the reader with a sense of historical continuity that defines African American civil rights movements. The two texts demonstrate how important the basic reading and writing skills that so many people take for granted become the simple tools that can facilitate profound and lasting personal and social change. As both of these works reveal, there is an important connection between the concept of freedom and the process of writing, reading and becoming fully educated.

Both Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X devote an extensive amount of detail to describing the processes by which they learned to read and write, and, as important, the obstacles that they confronted in order to do so. Douglass explains that he had to acquire his reading and writing skills surreptitiously and, in one of the important quotes from “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" regarding literacy, it is said, He “had no regular teacher" (para. 1), and his owner and his mistress consider slavery and education to be incompatible. Douglass equates illiteracy with living in a “mental darkness" (para. 1), and from an early age, he devotes himself to learning first how to read and then how to write by appealing to the kindness and the egos of young white boys, whom he challenges to word duels. Just as with Malcolm X, Douglass thrills at the challenges of learning to read and write and sees this as part of the road to his salvation from the “mental darkness" that once enslaved him. Similarly, Malcolm X responds to his intense passion to learn to read by creating the conditions that made such learning possible despite challenging circumstances. While in prison, Malcolm X teaches himself to read by going through the dictionary page by page. In order to concretize what he has learned, he copies every single page, and years later, he can recall words and images that astonished him. He explained in one of the important quotes from ”The Autobiography of Malcolm X“, “I’d never realized so many words existed! I didn’t know which words I needed to learn" (para. 6). Both of Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass understood the power of language and as their progressed toward their goals of fluency, each was amazed at his ability and in awe at the opportunities afforded by such skills. Both Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X sense that words can be powerful agents of both a personal as well as a vast social change. In their autobiographies, both men offer homage to the texts that opened their minds and shaped their perspectives on social conditions and politics. Douglass is deeply moved by an exchange between a slave and his master in The Columbian Orator; Malcolm X is equally provoked by a number of books on a wide range of subjects. He starts with a history of Africans and African Americans, acknowledging the influence of seminal texts such as The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B DuBois and Woodson’s Negro History. Then, he branches out and begins to learn about oppression throughout the world; the historical and sociological texts that he reads give him a broad social consciousness that shaped his political thoughts and actions. By harnessing the power of the written word and literacy, both Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass are able to understand their lives within the context of the experiences of others and can thus go on to share with others this same gift.
  • 1

    What evidence does Equiano provide to support his claim that free blacks had more difficulties than slaves did?

    Several times in the Narrative, Equiano presents his belief that free blacks often suffered worse than slaves. In the West Indies, he met a free black named Joseph Clipson whose story formed the basis for his realization. Clipson was free, but was accosted by a Bermuda captain who claimed Clipson was a slave and that he had orders to take him to Jamaica. Clipson protested virulently but was given no hearing and was forced onto the captain's ship despite his physical evidence of freedom. Equiano wrote that "hitherto I had thought only slavery dreadful; but the state of a free negro appeared to me now equally so at least" (122). Their freedom was only nominal, and they lived in fear of re-enslavement or constant abuses to their person and liberty. There were no courts that would hear them, and no law enforcement that would protect their assets. When Equiano achieves the status of a free black, he encounters the same thing. When white men refused to pay him for the goods they purchased of him, there was no way to find redress. In Georgia, a Mr. Read wanted to punish Equiano for getting into a fight with his slave; Equiano was shocked that the man did not respect his status as an independent individual, and that he was to be "flogged round the town, without judge or jury" (139). Free blacks lived in a precarious middle ground between slavery and freedom.

  • 2

    How does Equiano depict his African brethren? What is the reason for this depiction?

    Equiano paints a very positive portrait of the Eboe people of whom he claims to be descended. He calls attention to their morals and their simple, unassuming manners. They only enslaved criminals or prisoners of war. They had strict gender roles that created social order. Their government was a council that decided things in a democratic fashion. The arts and music were important to them. Luxuries and decadence were eschewed. The most conspicuous trait of these Africans was their emphasis on cleanliness. This lifestyle produced healthy and hearty individuals, and "cheerfulness and affability are two of the leading characteristics of our nation" (38). They even believed in one Creator, although they countenanced the spirit world more than Europeans did. Equiano is also keen to compare them to the Jews, thus 'legitimizing' them in the eyes of his European readers. Indeed, these Europeans are whom Equiano is subtly contrasting his African brethren with; after comparing the heroic and moral Eboe with the bloodthirsty and power-hungry Europeans, it is no question which of the two is actually more civilized.

  • 3

    What role does Equiano's religion play in his life? How do his beliefs shift throughout his life?

    Religion is central to Equiano's life and construction of identity. He explains what his African brethren believed, but came to embrace the idea of the Christian God after hearing about that faith while still a youth. Until he was converted, he believed that good works were most important, and so he was diligent in keeping the Commandments, only really failing to avoiding blasphemy. This God watched over mankind, and Equiano believed the the good things that happened to him were God's praise, while the bad things were rebukes to be learned from. Equiano spoke often of being favored by Providence. He also called himself a predestinarian, explaining that he believed that his life's course was already ordained, and so it was his responsibility to accept this. After a deadly and dangerous voyage to the North Pole, Equiano feels convicted and searches for faith on a deeper level. He eventually embraces Methodism and the idea of the free gift of salvation as central to the Christian message. This faith shapes and molds his life from then on. He has difficulty working with men who are irreligious, and makes ardent efforts to convert men who were not Christian. His religion allows him to enter into the European culture and establish his credentials for his readers. In essence, he makes himself more familiar and less 'other' by his embrace of Christianity. Thus, his religion is deep and personal, but it is also a way for him to become part of the cultural mainstream and more effectively disseminate his abolitionist views.

  • 4

    What is the importance of names in the work?

    Equiano is actually given multiple names throughout the course of his life, which is a testament to the power of slaveowners, and the nature of the system to tear down any sense of personal identity that a slave might possess. Even their names were not their own. When the young Equiano arrives in Virginia, his name was Jacob, but "on board the African snow I was called Michael" (63). When Michael Henry Pascal purchases him, he was named Gustavus Vassa. Equiano remembered, "I at that time began to understand him a little, and refused to be called so, and told him as well as I could that I would be called Jacob; but he said I should not, and still called me Gustavus; and when I refused to answer to my new name, which at first I did, it gained me many a cuff; so at length I submitted, and by which I have been known ever since" (64). The slaveowner's ability to change a slave's name whenever he wanted reinforced the fact that the slave was property. The slave had no autonomy and no identity. It was not surprising that many slaves, once freed, changed their names back to old ones or choose new ones that were not part of their slave life. For Equiano, who kept his slaveowner name, it was perhaps more important to keep this badge of European-ness with its connotations of greatness, especially as he was a public citizen and was active in the abolitionist movement. Further, the recognizable name - Vasa had been a great Swedish leader known for inspiring freedom - would have helped him achieve his political purpose by appealing to his readers.

  • 5

    In what ways does Equiano both condemn and exalt the British people and their morals, values, and culture?

    Equiano is a Briton and an African, and has a particularly complicated relationship with his adopted country, which had been responsible for his enslavement. He condemns Britons by calling attention to their complicity in the slave trade. He details: the cruel slave traders on the Middle Passage; the laxity and perversion of Christianity; the terrible conditions for slaves in the West Indies; the destruction of virtue and morality; and, of course, the fact that one as intelligent and heroic as himself had languished in bondage. This was all meant to strike the consciences of his readers. However, he also praises British society, and adopted its religion, manners, morals, and customs. In the last chapter, he lauds the country for liberty, dignity, and nobility. He praises the British government, hoping they will agree to abolish the slave trade. If this were to happen, the Africans, rather than ignore their former oppressors, would be quick to "adopt the British fashions, manners, customs, &c" and would readily trade with the empire (233). Since he is effectively a Briton himself and expects his Narrative to be influential in securing abolition, it is no surprise that he expresses acclaim for the British government and people. However, it appears that he honestly admires his adopted country, and that his love for it reflects his complicated character.

  • 6

    How is Equiano able to conjure the horrors of slavery? Be specific with details.

    Equiano's Narrative is one of the best primary sources for what slavery was like for both slave and master. He does not shy away from cataloging the horrors of the "peculiar institution," starting with his own kidnapping, and his severance from his family. He details the terrible conditions of the Middle Passage, dwelling on the loathsome smells, mournful cries, and fetid climate of the ship's hull. He describes how many slaves tried to throw themselves into the ocean, but were prevented from doing so by the crew and then beaten mercilessly. In Virgina, Equiano meets an elderly slave woman who actually had to wear an iron muzzle on her face. In the West Indies, he saw how women were raped, and how pregnant women were treated callously. Slaves were beaten for nonexistent reasons, never knowing when their overseer might take offense to their behavior. They were forced to build their huts on unhealthy land, and contracted diseases. Their property was taken from them. They could be sold at a moment's notice and thus be deprived of friends and family. They were kept in ignorance, and only exposed to vice and depravity; thus, their own minds and consciences were adversely molded by the slave system. What defines his work as much as anything is the detail he uses in depicting slavery.

  • 7

    What are the most salient characteristics of Equiano's personality? Do a character analysis for him.

    After completing Equiano's autobiography, the reader has an understanding of the mind, character, and abilities of the former slave. His narrative voice is strong and articulate; his prose is lucid. Except for a few rhetorical flourishes, it is straightforward and allows the work to flow easily. He comes across as a highly intelligent and thoughtful man, albeit a rather emotional one. He is prone to explaining his state of mind just as often as the state of affairs, giving readers a very personal insight into how he was affected by his trials. He expresses righteous indignation on multiple occasions, which reveals his passion. It was this quality that made him an effective abolitionist later in life. He experiences religion in a very personal, intimate way, and seems to verge on the dramatic in regard to this aspect of his life. For example, when he is onboard a ship where the men blaspheme and carouse, he nearly commits suicide in his despair. He also shows a touch of hubris, tending to inflate the importance of his actions, and to fashion episodes in the book around his own heroic deeds and character. He also comes across as a man who must mediate between the binaries of his existence: slave/free, British/African, object/subject. By the end of the work, it appears that he has done just that - he is assured in an identity that is fully his own, and not beholden to any particular creed.

  • 8

    How is Equiano both inside and outside of the cultural mainstream?

    The most interesting aspect of Equiano's character is that he is both a mainstream citizen of Britain, and an outsider to it. Equiano was born in Africa (although recent scholarship suggests he was born in South Carolina, he is still of African descent), but considered himself a Londoner. After all, he spent most of his adult life in the British empire. He retained a sense of his African heritage, culture, history, and value system but wholeheartedly embraced those of the Britons as well. He even converted to Christianity, and joined the Methodist church. He was a slave for many years, but earned his manumission by committing to capitalist ideals of business. While free, he even took the position of overseer on a Jamaica plantation, a position that implicitly supports slavery. However, his race precluded his full immersion into European society, and denied him a true identity. Throughout his narrative, he asserts his multicultural voice and perspective, which embraces both of those sides. He takes pains to avoid insulting or too harshly criticizing his readers, but makes sure they are aware of the true horrors in which they are complicit. Overall, Equiano straddles his two worlds as best as he can in a century that was keen on reinforcing boundaries in the areas of religion, gender, and race.

  • 9

    How does Equiano establish his credentials for his readers? Why does he do this?

    Equiano, like Frederick Douglass nearly a century after him, took pains to establish his credentials as a truthful, Christian, and reputable man. The first way he does this is by including letters and documentation in the front of the Narrative, all of which attest to his veracity and morals. Further, a frontispiece was fashioned by a renowned artist, showing Equiano holding an open Bible. Lastly, he included in several editions of the book a list of its subscribers, a list that included some of the most well-known and influential men and women of the day. In subsequent editions of his work, he explicitly confronts some of the accusations the press had leveled against him, revealing how important it is that he be taken as honest. His reasons for doing this were two-fold. First, it often proved necessary for slaves or former slaves to gain the support and affirmation of prominent white society figures in order to get their works published and popularized. The included letters are important because they in essence legitimize the text for his contemporary British readers. However, he also stresses his honesty because if his readers accept him as virtuous, they will be more likely to hear his plea for abolition. Equiano's Christianity plays an important role here, for it would have recommended his morality to British society, and hence furthered his chances of success.

  • 10

    Why did the mission to Sierra Leon fail, and what was Equiano's role within that endeavor? What does he learn from it?

    The brainchild of a British philanthropist, the British government's endeavor to recolonize Sierra Leone ultimately failed and caused damage to Equiano's reputation. The mission seemed doomed from the beginning; Equiano was almost immediately struck by the ineptitude of the government agent he was working with. He remarked that this man ignored his wishes to prudently limit the number of passengers, and instead brought more onboard. The black people lived in miserable accommodations, and lacked basic necessities. Equiano suggests that this was due to waste or corruption, since the provisions had been paid for, but were not available. When they arrived at Sierra Leone, "at that season of the year it is impossible to cultivate the lands; their provisions therefore were exhausted before they could reap any benefit from agriculture," and many of them died (229). Equiano does not entirely blame the government for the failure, but does see a great deal of mismanagement and poor planning. Unfortunately for him, he was the victim of aspersions because of its failure. He even wrote a letter to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury explaining that he acted with "the most perfect fidelity and the greatest assiduity" in discharging his duties (23). He asked to be compensated for the money he personally invested in the plan, and was thankfully awarded a large sum. It is important that Equiano did not allow himself to be taken advantage of; his inclusion of this episode is a testament to his firm conviction in his own intelligence, capabilities, and manhood. He learned through this episode the limits of government intervention, which perhaps explains why he is bringing his case to the general public through a book.

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