Burnhard.Goodbye-Equiano

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Unformatted text preview: Lending String: EMU,*RRR,JHE,JHE,DGU Patron: iviiLLER, Joseph Journal Title: Historically speaking. Pages: University of Rochester ILL .usrmmswymmwmmmmmw Ir- IMWW 2-1 If you need to request a resend, please do so within five (5) bus INDICATE PROBLEM: Article Author: Historical Society (Boston, Mass.) Article Title: Trevor Burnard; oGoodbye, Equiano, the Africano Imprint: Boston, Mass. ; Historical Society, [199 lLL Number: 41032872 Cali #: D1 .H53 Location: PRR Date: 03-24—08 Volume: 7 Issue: 3 MonfliiYear: 2006 Ariel ODYSSEY ENABLED Borrower: VA@ Shipping Address: University of Virginia Alderman Library/ILL 160 N. McCormick Road Charlottesville, VA 22904 Fax: 804 982—2307 Ariel: 128.143.166.41 Email: “WWWWWW iness clays. W University of Rochester Library (RRR) Rochester, NY 14627 Phone: (585) 275—4454 Ariel: 128.151.189.155 Odyssey: 128.151.2445 1D Historicaily Speaking o Janeen/[February 2006 GOODBYE, EQUIANO, THE AFRICAN Trevor Burn arcl ne of the interesting narratives in political and inteilectual life in the last decade has been the reappearance of old-fashioned concerns about the impor- tance of being truthful and the irretrievable damage that being caught in a lie does to a person‘s character. Whatever Bill Clinton did as president is overshadowed by his lie about his encounters with an intern that led him to falsely claim that “i did not have sex with that woman.” Tony Blair’s distinguished record is diminished for many Britons who, like me, believed him when he said that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. In intellectual life, proponents of postmodemism suffered grievous blows when the postmodernist liter- ary theorist Paul de Man was exposed as hav- ing obscured portions of his earlier life and suffered again when Alan Sokal, a physicist, submitted successfully a deliberately ridicu- lous article to a leading postrnodernistjournal. Periodic controversies about people assuming identities that were fabricated keep on emerg- ing, such as when the distinguished scholar of early America Joseph Ellis was alleged to have invented a story about himself as a Vietnam War veteran. What is significant in all these cases is that the lie mattered, even in the last instance, where the lie was not related to what Ellis did. No one has suggested that Ellis writes untruths in his published work. Yet his rather harmless fabrication of a war past led to public humiliation. Questions about lying have also become increasingly important in understanding the past, dramatically so in early American histo- ry, especiain in the history of slavery. The biggest controversy has surrounded Thomas Jefferson, who has been shown, pretty much conclusively, to have fathered children with his slave, Sally Hemmings.l Less well publi— cized but of as much moment has been Michael Johnson’s devastating demolition of a century-long scholarship that presumed that Denmark Vesey was the leader of a putative slave revolt in Charleston in 1822.2 Another controversy has surrounded the discovery by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of a novel, The Bondsworiranfr Narrative, by Hannah Crafis, which Gates claimed as the only surviving novel about slavery written by an American female ex—slave. The problem here is that con- clusive proof that the author was an ex—slave is missing. Although it probably shouldn’t mat— ter when evaluating literary excellence, whether Crafis was black or not makes all the difference in the world. As Gates notes in the case of Emma Dunharn Kelly-Hawkins, a writer once thought to be black, and now known to be white, when black writers are redefined as white, “people won’t write about her any more,” because what is important is discovering black voices not interesting new white writers.3 To my mind, the most intriguing discovery that a fundamental text in African-American writing is not what it seems has been made by Vincent Carretta about Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative. Carretta has discovered ey'idencefnot conclusive but compelling enough for him to consider it more likely to be true than to be falseithat Equiano was not an African but was probably born as a slave in South Carolina. Thus his vivid recollections of his childhood in Africa, his enslavement and transportation to the coast, and the trauma of the Middle Passage are inventions, “combina- tions of printed sources, memory, and imagi- nation.” Equiano was unable to resist, C arretta implies, the siren lure of becoming an authen- tic African voice describing the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade at a time when the abolitionist movement most needed such a voice. in market terms (and Equiano was acutely attuned to marketplace concerns—his construction of an Igbo identity was not a dis- interested intellectual act but brought him sizeable financial benefits), Equiano saw a market need for a firsthand account of how Africans experienced the Middle Passage and proceeded to supply that voice, creating in the process an Igbo identity that probably did not exist at the time. If we accept Carretta’s con— tention that Equiano was actually an American slave who had never lived in Africa, then Equiano is guilty of perpetrating two lies. He pretended to be offering an authentic account of himself as a victim of one of the great crimes in “Western history when he was not a victim—partly in order to advance an honor— able cause, partly to make money. He aiso invented himself as an Igbo and attempted to create, through his writings, a pan-Igloo identi- ty that suggests more connections between peoples in Africa than actually existed. These are serious charges, which should lead us, in ' my opinion, to question whether Vassa is a reliable witness in other areas and which, by ' casting doubt upon his truthfulness, should also lead us to be more suspicious of his char- acter and less effusive about his “genius,” as Carretta sees it, and his “exemplary status as an Atlantic creole.” The new findings about Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, are the most difficult to l deal. with of all the recent reevaluations of what seemed to be established historical fact in the history of slavery in the Americas. We . can cope with the fact that Jefferson had a pri- '_ vate secret that made his relationship with black slavery particularly complicated. Scandals that discredit revered dead white ,- men suit the mores of our cynical age. Finding out that the Denmark Vesey conspiracy exist , ed only in the imaginings of South Carolinian j slaveholders allows us to recast our attention with profit away from dealing with actual g slave conspiracies toward an examination, .3 along the lines we do with outbreaks ofwitch- i J 5 crafi hysteria in Salem, of why black behavior _‘ could encourage whites into panics about illu— sory slave plotsfl'We can also accept that Hannah Crafts was not an ex—slave or even a black woman because in dealing with a novel we do not mind as much as in other works whether the work is “true” or whether the 4 author is as she says she is, provided that the I' work itself has, as several critics have claimed, an underlying power and aesthetic _ importance.5 But discovering that Equiano was proba- bly not an African and that he probably made up his arresting passages on how he was t enslaved as a child and transported across on the Middle Passage is a different matter, pri- marily because the authenticity of his account is so crucial to its lasting significance. We don’t read The Interesting Narrative because it is well written, although Equiano does write well. We don’t read it, moreover, in the way that Carretta seems to suggest it might now be read, as an intriguing example of how an 1 African~American could become a self—made I man by refashioning his identity in responSe to . changing circumstances. We read The Interesting Narrative because it is true; bet Onl sla Pa: gel Na prr mt ter ass tea fir: res fi lf' acl 3P 3P lor JBl thi ..gi, m‘D.‘-<:D=fll (val—ho IUHQD. ;_a \v because it is an eyewitness account—the only one we have from a direct participant in the slave tradewf the cruelties of the Middle Passage, in particular, and Atlantic slavery, in general. The passages from The Interesting Narrative that are most used by teachers are precisely those whose authenticity is now most suspect. Equiano has become a canonical text because it has the ring of authenticity. We assign Equiano as a text because, as one teacher puts it, students “enjoy reading the first-person account of a wellmeducated and resourceful former slave whose life story is filled with remarkable adventures and great achievements?"S If it is not a first—person account of the travails of an African, then its appeal diminishes considerably. Indeed, its appeal declines so much so that we can no longer use Equiano as a guide to the Middle Passage, painful as jettisoning his vivid prose about this crucial event is to our strate- gies for making it understandable. Moreover, once we doubt whether Equiano was an African it becomes harder, contra Carretta, to believe him in other areas. I have, for example, always had my doubts about the prove- nance of his name: 1 have sur— veyed thousands of slave names in Jamaica and have never come across a name as outlandish as Gustavus Vassa. It also becomes more difficult to treat him, as Carretta urges us to do, as some- one who can be relied upon to speak for others. Why would we allow a fabulist to do this? 1 can see Carretta’s problem—his project was intended to praise Equiano, not to diminish him, and he has writ- ten a biography about the man—but I think that as well as reassessing how we interpret and use his autobiography, we need to reassess 1 the man himself. Carretta always gives Equiano the benefit 'nf the doubt. He is a “skillful and careful” writer. He gave a “voice” to millions of Africans, despite not perhaps being African himself, begging an obvious question of who should be allowed to speak for whom. He was a “pioneer” in creat- ing an lgbo national identity—an identity that increasingly seems like a fabrication. He is “a more profoundly self-made man than Franklin,” implicitly making a virtue out of his mistruths by equating him with another canonical figure in early American literature. He is a “masterful rhetorician,” whose shifting identities, some real some invented, can be seen as not only natural but also admirably effective. In fact, Carretta concludes, it does- n’t matter whether Equiano was an African or just pretended to be one, because “a diasporan African identity was as authentic as a native one.” I beg to differ. If indeed Equiano was American, not African (and it should be noted that Carretta’s doubts about his identity are founded on strong circumstantial evidence rather than on hard fact), then he has lied about the'most important feature of his life. His detractors at the time recognized that it was his status as an authentic African voice that gave his account its power. The Oracle newspaper raised doubts about Equiano’s parentage in 1792, claiming he was born in the West Indies-Significantly, it concluded that the abolitionist cause would be damaged if it ran Ill‘.. Description of a Slave Ship, 1789 'Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. leaned “for support on falsehoods as auda— ciously propagated as they are easily detect- ed.” Equiano recognized the danger and casti- gated the newspaper for “invidious false- hoods” designed to “hurt my character, and to discredit and prevent the sale of my Narrative”? He was aware that a customary charge made against slaves and Africans was that they were habitual liars, able to mimic the works of others but unable to create anything fresh unaided by white assistance. Not being a liar was thus doubly important. It confirmed his victim status as genuine and proved that Africans were as capable as whites of writing believable and true narratives. If, however, Equiano was actually a liar, net a truth teller, then not Only was a voice from Africa lost but also what racists said about Africans and their tendency to lie was correct. I don’t think those writers were correct in their estimation of the African character, but Equiano’s elaborations, even though made in a good cause, make such January/February 2006 - Historically Speaking 1 1 a contention less plausible than it should be. For this reason, although we would love to have a firsthand account such as that in the Interesting Narrative that brings alive the Middle Passage and New World slavery, we have to say goodbye to Equiano as a guide to that experience. He may remain important as an example of black self—fashioning but in the great scheme of things such importance is of limited and specialized interest. We may have to accept that, as Prime Levi argued for under- standing the Holocaust, “the survivors are not the true witnesses” because the “true witness- es” are the “drowned, the submerged, the annihilated.”ti In my opinion, Equiano cannot remain a central figure in the reconstruction of the Atlantic world 'unless the doubt that Carretta has cast upon his authenticity as an African disappears. Trevor Barnard is professor of American history at the University of Sussex. His most recent book is Mystery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo- Jamaican World (University of N0th Carolina Press, 2004). ' Forum: “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings Redux,” William and Marty Quarterly 57 (2000): 12l—210. 2 Michael Johnson, "Denmark Vesey and His Co-Conspiralors," William and M'ary Quarterly 58 (200]): 9157976. 3 Elaine Showalter and English Showalter, “Every Single One Matters," London Review oj‘Boolrs, August 18. 2005. 4 Philip Morgan, “Conspiracy Scares,” William and Mary Quarterly 59 (2002): l66; Winthrop D. Jordan, “The Charleston Hurricane of l822; Or, the Law‘s Rampage,” William and illary Quarterly 59 (2002]:177-78. 5 Nina Baym, “The Case for Hannah Vincent," in Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Hollis Robbins, eds, in Search othmnah Crty‘ts: Critical Essays on The Bandwoman’s Narrative’ (Basic Books, 2004), 315—331. 5 Angelo Costanzo, “Olaudah Equiano (W45- l797)," http:llcollegehmco.coznlenglishlheathlsyl- labuild/‘iguidelvassahnnl. 7 Cited in Vincent Carretta, "Questioning the Identity of Olaudali EquianO, or Gustavus Vassa, the African,” in Felicity A. Nussbaum, ed., The Global Eighteenth Carma-’1' (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 227—28. ...
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This note was uploaded on 04/07/2008 for the course HIST 213 taught by Professor Miller during the Spring '08 term at UVA.

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