Professor of English, University of Maryland
National Humanities Center Fellow
About the Seminar
Over the past thirty-five years, historians, literary critics, and the general public have come to recognize the author of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself as one of the most accomplished English-speaking writers of African descent. Equiano’s autobiography is universally accepted as the fundamental text in the genre of the slave narrative. Excerpts from the book now appear in every anthology and on any website covering American, African-American, British, and Caribbean history and literature of the eighteenth century.
Interest in Equiano has not been restricted to academia. He has been the subject of television shows, films, comic books, and books written for children. The story of Equiano’s life is part of African, African-American, and Anglo-American, African-British, and African-Caribbean popular culture.
But what kind of a book is the Interesting Narrative? Is treating it as a proto-African-American slave narrative the best way to understand it? How does knowing that, unlike most eighteenth-century authors, Equiano never sold his copyright, thus controlling every aspect of the production and distribution of his book through all nine of the editions published during his lifetime, affect our interpretation of the work? What might account for the fact that Equiano’s book was a bestseller during his lifetime? How important was the timing of the original publication of his book?
How would you compare the way(s) Equiano represents himself to the ways other autobiographers, such as Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass, represent themselves? Are you surprised by Equiano’s treatment of slavery? By the way he deals with religion? By his use of rhetorical and literary devices? How should we interpret and assess Equiano’s Interesting Narrative in light of naval and baptismal records that say he was born in South Carolina, rather than in Africa, as he claims?
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- Frontispiece and title page
- Dedication "To the Lords Spiritual and Temporal,"
- Chapters 1 and 2
- Chapter 5
- Letters to James Tobin, Gordon Turnbull, and Raymund Harris.
The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, by Olaudah Equiano. Full text online at Documenting the American South.
From The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, by Olaudah Equiano. Edited with and Introduction and Notes by Vincent Carretta. (Penguin Books, New York, 2003.)
Suggested Additional Resources
From the National Humanities Center's primary source collection The Making of African American Identity: Vol. I, 1500-1865. Olaudah Equiano Describes His Homeland in West Africa.
"Does Equiano Still Matter?" by Vincent Carretta, including exchanges with Lovejoy, Burnard, and Sensbach, The History of the Africa and the Atlantic World.