Slave Narratives

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Compare and contrast Equiano Olaudah's and Phillis Wheatley's slave narratives.

Phillis Wheatley was a slave who was born in Africa. She published a book of poetry when she was about twenty years old, and died at the age of 31. She never wrote an autobiography.

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Phillis Wheatley left no narrative of her life, though multiple biographers, notably Margareta Matilda Odell, recorded her life story as a preface to her published poems. Olaudah Equiano, on the other hand, wrote a detailed, multi-volume narrative of his life, beginning with his time in Africa and including descriptions of the dreadful Middle Passage and the horrors of slavery. Beyond this, there are many similarities in their lives.

Both were born in Africa and brought to the Americas in the 1760s. Both place a great emphasis on Christianity, which they see as a vehicle to moral improvement. Wheatley even, in one of her poems, writes that it was a "mercy" that brought her from her "pagan land" so that she could be instructed in Christianity. Equiano, who catalogs the horrors of the Middle Passage in memorable prose, did not share this view.

Both attained considerable popularity as writers during their own time, though Equiano's narrative, unlike Wheatley's poems, was specifically used to support the growing antislavery movement. But the most significant difference is that Wheatley, a poet, did not publish a narrative along the lines of Equiano.

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Between Equiano Olaudah and Phillis Wheatley, the similarities in their experiences with slavery begin and end at the fact that they were black slaves. There could not be a greater contrast in the scope of the slave experience, and their narratives reflect this. Olaudah's narrative was one that likely resonated with most of those affected by slavery, whereas Wheatly had quite a rare, merciful experience.

Olaudah found his time in Africa to be largely pleasant, despite being a slave. He felt a profound connection to the land and would at times even forget that he was a slave, with his masters treating him as though he were family. It is only when he is delivered into the hands of the European white that the true nightmare of slavery sets in. It is a this point that he witnesses and experiences the true unbridled cruelty of the slave trade.

Wheatly, on the other hand, was delivered to white masters that were so kind that she often thought fondly of them and openly embraced their religion of Christianity, considering it a common ground between slave and master. She has often been criticized for this as well as her disdain for Africa, despite still openly condemning the practice of slavery.

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Olaudah Equiano and Phillis Wheatley had distinct reflections on their experience with slavery. Although they both underwent captivity and experienced the hardships of slavery, the work that they published during and following their emancipation differed greatly.

Equiano talked extensively about the hardships he was unjustly placed under because of his race and how slaves used God and their own inner strength to rise above slavery.

Wheatly, on the other hand, is often criticized for not focusing on the issue of race enough. Like Equiano, she was also religious. However, she considered the practice of religion as a bridge between slaves and their owners, as it was from the masters that the slaves were educated about the Christian faith. In some of her work, she seems to think favorably of her slave owners, and what they taught her about topics like English and philosophy. However, in other works, she openly condemns the institution of slavery.

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