Monday, November 1, 2010

Olaudah Equiano

"I was still more astonished to see people on horseback. I did not know what this could mean; and, indeed, I thought these people were full of nothing but magical arts."

- Olaudah Equiano

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

- Arthur C. Clarke

I admit with no small amount of apprehension that my familiarity with the early American slave writings is slim to nil. I spent a fair amount of time studying the events in various history classes, but the literature was always lost on me.
Until recently, I never really knew I was missing that much, I either discounted it, or otherwise never thought about it. It wasn't until a year or so ago that my opinions on such matters was drastically altered, by the very wise words of one of my greatest mentors in life. He told me that "you can figure out almost anything about any culture just by looking at their popular media", and it is in reading this account of the life of Olaudah Equiano that these words ring particularly true for me. Before reading this, my only other exposure to the writings of slaves came from people who were born into slavery, like Frederick Douglas and Harriet Ann Jacobs.
Equiano tells the story from the perspective of someone who grew used to life in Africa, and was taken, and while the validity of this story to this day is still a matter of controversy, that isn't the story that I myself am trying to tell. The point is, Olaudah is forcefully taken form his home and family, traded around among different people and different territories, some familiar and some not, treated kindly, treated poorly, given many different names, and finally forced into American society. The culture shock that this little boy endures at this point is palpable. My mind never really fathomed the depths of the intense changes these people were forced to cope with during their servitude. I think in many ways, my perception of this point in history was very painted by the perception of Americans from that time as well. when they carted boatload after boatload of screaming, sobbing slaves onto American shores for the first time, they were perceived as savages, sub human, and bereft of the intellect needed to exist in modern culture, and hence was the justification for enslaving them. This sadly is the very same perception I was left with, having known little to nothing about African culture prior to enslavement, the thought of boatloads of slaves being dumped into an unfamiliar civilization where they can't even communicate left nothing but an image of blank, scared faces. This reading tells a different tale, of a young mind reeling to make connections from their various cultures and lore to reconcile what is happening to them. From his culture, stories of magical beings and spirits were not unfamiliar, but when confronted with the insane wonders of this new world was tantamount to coming face to face with these fables. As Arthur C. Clark so eloquently put it, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." To put it another way, if you remove someone so far from what's familiar to them, their psyche will grasp at any straw it can to make sense of it all. The concept of Magic isn't a strictly African story, it's been all around the world for millennium upon millennium. So it would stand to reason that if you show someone something that they in all of their practical knowledge of the world cannot explain, chances are, their mind will wander towards magical thinking, or in this day and age, towards government conspiracy.
Nowadays, to think of the white man of the 1700's as a magic race is laughable. We were primitive and cruel, the only thing that really distinguished us from the rest of the cruel and primitive people of the world is that we utilized our cruelty through technology a little better than most had been able to.

1 comment:

  1. 30/30 Thanks for the especially thoughtful journal...glad to know you're appreciating the (deep, decisive) link between the study of history and the study of literature!