Olaudah Equiano Questions and Answers

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Compare and contrast Equiano, Stowe, and Douglass as anti-slavery writers. What do you feel is the strongest part of each of these authors' anti-slavery message, and which do you think makes strongest case for abolition? Be sure to give specific examples from their works, including quotations that closely fit you main answer.

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Thanh Munoz eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I would emphasize the following points that distinguish these three writers from each other, along with noting their individual strengths:

1) Olaudah Equiano's narrative begins in Africa. Of these three writers, he was the only one to have experienced first-hand, and to have been a victim of, kidnapping and forced transit in a slave-ship. The description of these events, in my view, is one of the most powerful segments of his story. He describes graphically the horrors of being forced into the hold of the ship, jammed in with countless other people, where there is (to say the least) no privacy and no possibility of hygiene, and where people's dignity is systematically taken from them.

The stench of the hold, while we were on the coast, was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for fresh air; but now that the whole ship's cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential.

In addition, Equiano forcefully explains that those things whites regard as proving the supposed "inferiority" of enslaved people are the direct result of this treatment and the deprivation to which people are subjected during their enslavement. The book is written with such lucidity and makes its points so well that it's unfortunate most people are unfamiliar with it.

2) Frederick Douglass's Life of an American Slave is compelling in its own way. Since Douglass was born in the US, his descriptions are somewhat different from Equiano's, and his emphasis is partly in other directions. The advantage he presents, in my view, is his ability to convey the specific hypocrisy of the American slavery system and of the claim by Americans that the institution is somehow justified by religion. He describes how his "master" tied up a "lame young woman" and beat her on her naked shoulders till blood ran, while the torturer quoted a passage from scripture that supposedly supported what he did. Douglass says:

Master would keep this lacerated woman tied up in this horrid situation four or five hours at a time.

In the appendix to his narrative, Douglass elaborates on this subject of the religious hypocrisy of the American slaveholder.

3) Harriet Beecher Stowe's achievement was to bring this situation to world attention in fictional form. Though the factual narratives are horrific and meaningful enough, the general public was not likely to read them in the large (in the case of Uncle Tom's Cabin, very large) numbers they would read a novel. Stowe's dramatization of the issues and the poignant scenes such as Eliza fleeing across the frozen Ohio River with her baby could not easily be equaled by nonfiction accounts for the emotional effect they would have on readers. Also, though it's sad to have to say this, the fact that Stowe was white probably endowed the story with a credibility the white audience, including that in Europe, would not have given the abolitionist novels by black authors and the factual narratives of Douglass and others.

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