Before we can talk about how Equiano's work fits into the framework of a slave narrative, we need to talk about the structure and purpose of this genre of writing. The primary purpose of the slave narrative was to dispel some of the myths surrounding slavery itself. One of these...
Before we can talk about how Equiano's work fits into the framework of a slave narrative, we need to talk about the structure and purpose of this genre of writing. The primary purpose of the slave narrative was to dispel some of the myths surrounding slavery itself. One of these myths was the idea that enslaved persons "enjoyed" their servitude and were treated well by people they worked for. Slave narratives contradicted this perception by elucidating the realities of slavery, including its physical, emotional, and spiritual abuses, from the perspective of those who experienced it firsthand. Another widely held belief used to justify slavery was the idea that enslaved persons were subhuman—intellectually and morally inferior to their white counterparts. Writers of slave narratives had to "convince" audiences of their own humanity by proving they were capable of analyzing their situation in an eloquent way and appealing to shared values, especially religion.
Equiano's narrative fits these characteristics quite well; in fact, it is considered to be the first influential narrative in what eventually became a very important genre. Equiano bears witness to many of the atrocities he experienced during his time as a slave, such as his journey on the "middle passage" across the Atlantic and the conditions under which slaves were sold in the West Indies. He also describes his experience with Captain James Doran, who treated Equiano poorly because he was "too educated."
Equiano also appeals to religious values. He was a devout Christian, but unlike many Christians who used religious texts as a justification for slavery, Equiano argued that Christianity should be a liberating force for enslaved people. He pointed out the hypocrisy of his overseers, who professed to be Christians but did not follow the religion's core precepts of "acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God" (Micah 6:8). Equiano also wrote extensively about his own spiritual practice, and it is not difficult to come to the conclusion that he is in fact more authentic in his faith than the people who used this faith to subjugate him.
There are some biographical details in Equiano's life that make his narrative different from other slave narratives, but he is able to leverage these differences in support of his overarching purpose. One important difference is that Equiano was born in Africa (in a region that is part of modern day Nigeria) and remembers some of his upbringing there. In his narrative, he describes his country as a place of rich history and culture, refuting the idea that African civilization was inferior to European society. He also explains that people of African descent have a darker skin tone because of their proximity to the equator, whereas most people in Europe and the early Americas believed it was a mark of sin.
Another interesting aspect of Equiano's narrative is that because he predominately worked for ship captains, he traveled extensively, to places like Turkey, England, Portugal, Italy, and Jamaica. His travels show that slavery was not merely an American problem, but a global one. However, he was not as intimately familiar with the system of American plantation slavery as other narrative writers, like Frederick Douglass. This is not to say that one type of narrative was more important than the other, but simply that they offered different perspectives that were both important in making the case for abolition.