Erogito

Restoration and Neoclassical Miscellanea

Slave Narratives: Does It Matter Who Tells the Story?

One of the many editions of Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave.

One of the many editions of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave.

Have you ever told someone a story about something that happened in your life? Maybe it was the story of how you broke your arm when you fell out of a tree. Whatever it was the story was an event in your life, who better to tell your story than you? But what happens when we are gone? Are the stories of our lives no longer real because we are not here to tell them? Who is authorized to say that we were here, that we existed? These are some of the same questions I asked when I read a few reviews of Aphra Behn’s “Oroonoko or, the Royal Slave” and realized that no one believed her when she said it was a true story. It is a fact that slavery existed in the United States, so why is it that the accounts of the lives of slaves are more often dismissed than believed?

Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko was published in 1688, and in it she tells of her time in a new sugar colony, Surinam, in early 1664. She writes about what she witnessed herself, as well as of things she learned directly from the slave Oroonoko. In The Development of the English Novel Wilbur Cross said of Aphra Behn’s story, “Oroonoko is the most humanitarian novel in English. Its purpose was to awaken Christendom to the horror of slavery. The time being not yet ripe for it, the romance for the public merely an interesting story to be dramatized” (Johnson 341). During the time in which it was published some felt Aphra Behn’s story was nothing but a well written novel. Later some historians called it a biography while others call it a travel narrative, or a work of historical fiction. What they never considered it to be was a slave narrative. Wilbur Cross was right when he said that the time was not ripe for it. Aphra Behn was ahead of her time in wanting her readers to see up close what slavery was like through the eyes of a slave.

Many fake portraits of Olaudah Equiano circultate, but this is one he commissioned himself.

Of the many images believed to be Olaudah Equiano, this is the actual portrait he commissioned.

What determines if something written about or during slavery is a slave narrative? The Encyclopedia Britannica defines a slave narrative as an account of the life, or major portion of the life, of a fugitive or former slave, either written or orally related by the slave personally.

Some historians dismiss slave narratives as unreliable because they believe that most of them are the result of abolitionist’s propaganda. The contradiction to this is that the same historians claim “any history of slavery must be written from the standpoint of the slave” (Nichols, 2). With that in mind it makes me wonder why critics deny the validity of slave narratives like Aphra Behn’s “Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave”, and Olaudah Equiano’s “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself”.  Olaudah Equiano’s narrative was published a hundred years after the tale of Oroonoko was published. The audience of the time was more receptive to the reality of slavery, and as a result Equiano’s narrative was the first slave narrative to become an international best-seller.

Although the two narratives were published about a hundred years apart, and Aphra Behn died fifty-six years before Olaudah Equiano was born their narratives still contain some similarities.  In each of the narratives both were kidnapped by slavers, experienced the middle passage, refused to eat during the middle passage, were promised their freedom, and were first sold in the West Indies: Oroonoko in Surinam and Equiano in Barbados. Similarities like these are prevalent through most slave narratives. As a result there are those who believe slave narratives are just another form of literary trope used to evoke the feelings of horror and dismay one should feel when they hear about the African slave trade and the volume of slaves that were in the United States.

A plaque that erected on October 11, 2000 in London commemorating the life of Olaudah Equiano.

A plaque that erected on October 11, 2000 in London commemorating the life of Olaudah Equiano.

The similarities in slave narratives do not mean the events of their lives did not happen, it means that in many cases the experiences were the same. In order to have their narratives remain as authentic as possible, many ex-slaves had to tell their experiences exactly as they happened. As a result of the similarity in experiences, there seemed to be repetitiveness in slave narratives. Today, slave narratives give us a window into a part of our culture that many do not want to see. Without these stories continuing to be passed down how would we know where we came from today?  Slave narratives are a necessary part of literature and history, without them how would it be possible to know in 2015 what took place in Surinam in 1664, or in Barbados in the 1760’s? More importantly, “If Oroonoko taught Europeans to sympathize with Africans, Equiano taught them that a black man could speak for himself” (3034).

Posted by: Nina Norman

Sources:

Behn, Aphra. “Oroonoko, the Royal Slave.” The Norton Anthology English Literature Volume C The Restoration and Eighteenth Century. Ninth Edition. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. NewYork: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 2313-58. Print.

“Slave Narrative”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 30 Nov. 2015

Equiano, Olaudah. “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself.” The Norton Anthology English Literature Volume C The Restoration and Eighteenth Century. Ninth Edition. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. NewYork: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 3035-43. Print.

Nichols, William W. “Slave Narratives: Dismissed Evidence in the Writing of Southern History.” Phylon 32.4 (1971): 403-09. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

 

 

 

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This entry was posted on December 7, 2015 by in Oroonoko, slavery.
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