In The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, how did Equiano understand identity, both his own identities and the identities of others he encountered?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The identity of both Olaudah Equiano himself and other blacks that he comes across is well worth exploring further. The narrator is unflinching and unswerving in the way that he describes the horrors of slavery, but through this he insists upon maintaining the humanity of those slaves. For example, when he describes the horrendous Middle Passage, which is of course one of the most famous sections of this account, he evokes the horror of the conditions that slaves had to endure but refers to the slaves as men, women and children, rather than merely "slaves" or any other form of address. He staunchly refuses to let the fact of slavery impact his own identity or the identity of others.

However, having said this, what is really interesting is how the narrator comments on the identity of the overseers in the West Indies. Read the following quote and note how he describes their identity:

These overseers are indeed for the most part persons of the worst character of any denomination of men in the West Indies. Unfortunately, many humane gentlemen, by not residing on their estates, are obliged to leave the management of them in the hands of these human butchers, who cut and mangle the slaves in a shocking manner on the most trifling occasions, and altogether treat them in every respect like brutes.

Using words such as "brutes" and "human butchers" clearly indicates the narrator's feelings about these individuals. Whilst Equiano is adamant in insisting upon the humanity of himself and of other slaves, his description of such individuals who he sees as being intimately involved in the oppression of slavery indicates that their identity as humans is profoundly questioned and they are dehumanised through their own activities which make them "like brutes."


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