What is the importance placed upon self-perception and self-representation in the first 11 paragraphs of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano?  

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is interesting that the opening words of Olaudah Equiano mention that his father owned slaves himself because it attaches a certain irony to the poignancy of his tale of captivity in which he was himself enslaved. Separated from his sister, who was also captured, Equiano first finds himself the slave of a chieftain who melts gold in order to form accessories for himself and others.

Equiano is obviously a bright young man as he easily acquires the languages of the different African nations with which he comes into contact on his transportation after the chieftain sells him.  Regarding this transportaion, he writes,

I must acknowledge, in honor of those sable destroyers of human rights, that I never met with any ill-treatment or saw any offered to their slaves except tying them, when necessary....

Further, Equiano is delighted when he is reunited with his sister, and when the captors realized this relationship, they "indulged us to be together."  However, she is later taken from him and he suffers "anxiety after her fate."  Later on, though, he is sold to a merchant whose wife seats him at the table with the family. To his surprise, the "young gentleman" waits until he first tastes the food; in short, Equiano writes that this politeness makes him "forget that I was a slave." But one morning, he is subjected to such hardship and cruelty that he is filled with horror as he is hurried away to a slave ship. After fainting, he fears that he will be eaten by

...those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and loose hair...who act in so savage a manner.

Clearly, Equiano, a prince in his own land, feels himself superior to the raspcallion crew of the slave ship who by some "spell or magic" caused this strange vessel to move. When he is put under the deck Equiano is overcome by the stench there.  In such inhumane confinement, many become sick from the lack of oxygen and bacteria and fall victim to the "improvident avarice" of the captors. Further, his opinion of their cruelty is heightened by their refusal to share any of the fish they catch with the slaves.

From these first 11 paragraphs, the reader infers that Equiano is very mannerly as he appreciates the polite treatment given him by the merchant and his family.  He feels himself far more civilized than the crew of the slave ship, who are inhumane in their insensitivity to the basic needs of the captives.

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