Olaudah Equiano and Phillis Wheatley in the American Literature
Olaudah Equiano and Phillis Wheatley, both of whom were enslaved in America at the time, had significant impacts on the development of American literature of the 1700s. It’s believed that they were abducted in Africa and sold as slaves in America at a tender age. Both authors share their views and life experiences as slaves in their pieces of literature. Their writings were affected by their background, education, and the life experience of voicing for the slaves. The literary pieces “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth” by Phillis Wheatley and “The Life of Gustavus Vassa” by Olaudah Equiano talk about the experiences, ideas, and views of the two authors concerning slavery (1; 2).
The two authors used different types of styles to write their narratives. However, they have some common topics. Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) talks of the inferiority of a black man in a world where there is power (3). He is, however, direct in his narration and considers superiority in the hands of the black, but according to Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), she only aims at empowering black people through her narration of the experience of her slavery period and the experience she got from America (3). Therefore, her mode of approach is indirect. Their background had a significant impact on their opinions, and it is the reason that they hated the superiority that the white community had. Embracing the American culture was difficult for Equiano, and the slavery experience made him develop a negative attitude. Their background gives them the knowledge of comparison between culture and religion. It greatly influences their writing as they narrate their experiences and express their views. According to Olaudah Equiano, the discovery of language was a source of liberating imagination, and the educational system of Africa was behind the system compared to that of America. However, according to Phillis Wheatley, she speaks of how blacks are seen to be scornful (3).
How it works
The works of the two authors show two different lives of Africans who lived through and experienced slavery. Besides their similarities in skin color and country of birth, their slavery experience differed. As a result, their ideas on the world they were born in and the world they got taken to become polarized. The slaves from the United States and England were being treated unfairly. Even though Equiano and Wheatley were born a few years apart, their background greatly impacted how they were treated as slaves.
Even as a slave, Equiano viewed Africa as a beautiful continent through the hands of those who captured him. He also considered his owners kind before being introduced to the European owners when his misery as a slave began (1). On the other hand, Wheatley was lucky to be brought into America. Her owners treated her kindly and raised her with education and success as their daughter. Wheatley became part of a society that perceived slavery as an incompatible element with Christianity. It enabled her to have a positive ideology from a young age. According to her, Africa was a “pagan land.” Africa would not have made it possible for her to believe in God and grow into adulthood as an educated, happy and successful woman (2).
Even though Equiano eventually found freedom and became successful in London, his perceptions towards Africa were more positive than that of Wheatley’s. The days he spent in Africa as a slave were better than those he spent with his captors of European descent. Many African-born slaves are likely to share his narrative, while Wheatley’s narrative is rare.
- Equiano O. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African: Written By Himself [Internet]. Google Books. DigiCat; 2022 [cited 2022 Oct 21]. Available from: https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=IAxzEAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT5&dq=Olaudah+Equiano+&ots=yxnV4ooBaU&sig=_-yJiG35CdKaPKjG49fiAvUek94
- Carretta V. Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage [Internet]. Google Books. University of Georgia Press; 2011 [cited 2022 Oct 21]. Available from: https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=S2W4O23rBwIC&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=Phillis+Wheatley+literature&ots=KiwrxoYdCE&sig=wHf_iBFIo6J4T510uIZ4Pfz_qEo
- Gates HL, McKay NY. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York, W.W. Norton & Co.; 1998.