Olaudah Equiano

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How did Enlightenment and Romantic ideas influence social justice calls in Equiano’s narrative?

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Although written during the Enlightenment period, Oludah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Oludah Equiano encompasses both Enlightenment and Romantic ideas in its call for social justice.

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Oludah Equiano's narrative about his experiences as a slave, published in 1789, were released in the middle of the Enlightenment era in England and the United States. Yet, in some ways, the book predicted the future by incorporating literary ideals that would be vigorously embraced by Romantic writers a few decades after Equiano's death in 1797.

The Enlightenment embraced the ideal of humans as rational, thinking beings. There was an emphasis on direct observation of the natural world and rational investigation of how it worked. Enlightenment philosophers thought it important to think about the nature of what it meant to be human, but also to acknowledge one's limitations. They also believed that "reason" and "passion" both existed within humans, but that it was important to cultivate one's ability to reason so it could control one's passions.

Romantic philosophers, by contrast, embraced passion. They didn't exactly want it to win over reason, but they sought ways to direct it so that human beings could experience, as Wordsworth put it, "spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion." Romantics saw the experience of these emotions as integral to the human experience.

Equiano weaves these two points of view together in his slave narrative. By publishing it in 1789, Equiano seeks to enter popular, civic debate about the slave trade - which was popular among Enlightenment intellectuals both for its topic (slave trading) and its style (civic debate).

Yet Equiano enters this arena in a new way. He's not an outside observer, claiming that his distance from the slave trade makes him "rational." Rather, he tells the story of the slave trade from the inside, having experienced it himself. His position is that his direct experience of the slave trade, not some impersonal detachment, is what makes him an authority—a very Romantic position to take.

Equiano uses the power of rhetoric or persuasion to make his case against slavery, which is another popular Enlightenment method of understanding the world. Yet like the Romantics, Equiano understands that pathos, or emotional appeal, is a powerful persuasive tool. While many Enlightenment minds pushed pathos to the background in their arguments, Equiano puts it front and center, seeking to persuade the UK Parliament by appealing directly to their emotions. He sees that reason alone won't stop the slave trade; it's time to put reason and passion together—harnessing both Enlightenment ideals about reason and Romantic ideals about emotion.

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