In what ways was literature an effective way to communicate social and political ideas in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano?

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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As a slave narrative, Equiano's Narrative was among the first of its kind, and like subsequent slave narratives, many of which adopted similar forms and narrative structures, its purpose was to mount a critique of the slave trade and slavery itself. As a work of literature, it consciously drew from older literary styles, like the spiritual autobiography, but its whole point was to communicate the idea that slavery was an inherently corrupt (and corrupting) institution unbecoming of a Christian people.

One way in which Equiano communicates this social and political critique of slavery is by unflinchingly describing the brutality and human misery that characterized the slave trade, and especially the infamous Middle Passage. In this passage, he paints a shocking picture of a slave ship:

The stench of the hold...became absolutely pestilential. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. ...This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.

No eighteenth-century reader could fail to be moved by such scenes, and Equiano's book helped energize the anti-slavery movement in Great Britain. Equiano's story also helped make a powerful argument against the arguments of racial inferiority that undergirded slavery. His book itself, as well as the success story it told, demonstrated to readers that through hard work and faith, people of African descent were as capable of achieving success--material and otherwise--as whites. 

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