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Sacred LifePublished in England in 1789 and in the United States in 1791, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano was the first slave narrative to be written without the aid of a ghostwriter or an editor. The clear, intelligent, and ardent voice of Equiano was among the first African voices to tell the story of the journey from Africa to America; his autobiography is considered the other of the slave narrative, the first literary form that black folks used to have their say.
Unlike most other slave narratives, Equiano begins his story in Africa—the idyllic land of his youth. He offers a detailed account of African cultural life and society prior to the European encroachment. Africa was a land "rich and fruitful" whose inhabitants were simple, noble, and in love with life: "We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets." His rose-tinged memories of a bright and humane existence in Africa are followed by descriptions of the agonies brought on by encounters with brutish and fearsome Europeans: war, the atrocity of the Middle Passage, and enslavement. By juxtaposing the peaceful, humane, and progressive land of his birth with the crude, animal-like behavior of the Europeans, Equiano flipped the script on the usual expectations of his primarily white audience, who typically assumed they were the civilized ones. As his story continued, Equiano stressed the importance of hard work (he purchased his own freedom with money he earned) and the crucial role of Christian faith in his life.
This first manifestation of the African American genius for autobiography—a genius that would later give us the lives of Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, and countless others in their own words—gave eloquent voice to the experience of the voiceless millions who made the journey from Africa to America. And like the memorable books produced by Frederick, Malcolm, and Maya, Equiano's book is both a fascinating tale and a story with a mission: to describe and protest the enslaved condition of his people. Pre-dating Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by some fifty years, Olaudah Equiano's Life did for abolitionists in Great Britain what Douglass's Narrative did for the movement in the United States: It exposed the horrors of slavery while simultaneously holding the mirror of blame to the European, and it lent a human face to enslaved Africans, around which a slave reform movement could develop. As much a surprise to the world as it was "interesting," its passion and quality of prose made it the most influential literary work by an African American in the eighteenth century.