- "Olaudah Equiano: Representation and Reality": An International One-Day Conference
Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative (1789) was a bestseller his day and today his book is once again commercially successful. With a spate of recent editions, the narrative is now widely available to different readerships, and it is studied by general readers as well as by professionals from American Studies, Black Studies, Postcolonial Studies, English literature, history, and other disciplines. The international conference convened by Brycchan Carey with Karen Lipsedge (Kingston University, UK) attracted some 60 delegates as well as many distinguished speakers, who addressed the theme of "Representation and Reality." Despite the title's resonance with theoretical concerns, the focus of several presentations was quite literalist: Was Equiano born in Africa or in the Carolinas? How can his birthplace be ascertained and what is its relevance to Equiano studies [End Page 543] today? Which are the implications of even questioning Equiano's African birth?
In 1982 S. E. Ogude (Benin, Nigeria) and in 1999 Vincent Carretta (Maryland) raised the question whether Equiano had indeed been born in West Africa as claimed in the first part of his autobiography, thereby taking up a suspicion that had already been voiced in hostile contemporary reviews of the book. This, in turn, implies reservations about Equiano's upbringing in Africa, his kidnapping, and perhaps most important about his personal experience of the Middle Passage. Both scholars delivered keynotes at the conference and whilst Ogude seems to have changed his view on this point, Carretta continued to raise questions by contrasting the Narrative with archival evidence such as the parish register of St. Margaret's church, Westminster, and the muster book of the "Racehorse," both of which suggest a birthplace in the Carolinas. Ogude acknowledged the lack of hard evidence but affirmed that Equiano was "truly an Igbo man" as his assertive character and business acumen allegedly bear out. Another line of reasoning to support his African nativity was suggested by Angelo Costanzo (Shippensburg, Pennsylvania), who observed that falsifying his birthplace would have endangered the Narrative's anti-slave trade rhetoric and impetus. As Equiano would not have put his political cause at risk, Costanzo argues, he cannot have misrepresented his birthplace. Not all contributions welcomed the candid analyses facilitated by the conference. Obiwu Iwuanyanwu (Central State,Wilberforce, Ohio) went as far as accusing those who examine Equiano's African birth of professing "anti-Equiano scholarship" with the potential to jeopardize the "enduring human truth" of Equiano's text.
The ongoing debate about the authenticity of The Interesting Narrative can certainly have an impact on the status which Equiano sustains in Black Atlanticist discourse. Kenneth R. Curtis (California State, Long Beach) recounted how the inclusion of an excerpt from The Interesting Narrative in a history textbook met with some resistance by his publishers. Yet the very controversy about the text's accuracy can be instructive to students of history and allows the "explor[ation of] issues of textual criticism" in the classroom, Curtis suggested. Frank Kelleter (Goettingen, Germany) argued that the "rhetorical ethos and the rhetorical pathos" of The Interesting Narrative do not rely upon the author's African birthplace. He read the book as a public speech act on behalf of a variety of narrative voices and [End Page 544] still perceived a "unified purpose" (as claimed by one camp of Equiano scholars) despite the text's hybridity (as emphasized by another group of critics). This raises the question whether a text such as The Interesting Narrative cannot convey historical truths, such as the experience of the Middle Passage, irrespective of the veracity of such experience as autobiography.
The conference also offered space for further new approaches to Equiano studies. Helena Woodard (Austin, Texas) inquired into Equiano's role in "The 'Cult' of Cultural Tourism" and interrogated his "presence" in sites commemorating slavery, such as Elmina Castle and Wilberforce House. Kerry Sinanan (NUI Galway, Ireland) suggested reading "Africanness" as a continuum, enabling critics to consider Equiano an African irrespective of his birthplace. She cautioned that the logic of slavery should be undermined...