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  • Enlightened Black Voices: Witnesses and Participants
  • Wilfred D. Samuels
Adam Potkay and Sandra Burr, eds. Black Atlantic Writers of the 18th Century: Living the Exodus in England and The Americas (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1995). Pp. 268.
Robert J. Allison, ed. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995). Pp. 222.
Vincent Carretta, ed. Unchained Voices: Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the 18th Century (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1996). Pp. 387.
Paul Edwards and Polly Rewt, eds. The Letters of Ignatius Sancho (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994). Pp. 288.

At last when the ship we were in had got in all her cargo, they made ready . . . and we were all put under deck. . . . The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspiration, so that the air soon became unfit to respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells and brought on sickness among the slaves of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of the purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains now become insupportable; and the necessary tubs into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.

(Carretta, 204–5)

The words of this metaphoric descent into death and hell are those of Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa), a former slave, recalling, in his best selling eighteenth century autobiography: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written By Himself, his experience of being placed in the slave ship’s hold in preparation for his journey from Africa through the “Middle Passage,” the gateway to western slavery. In the end, what amazes is not the cacophony and endemic stench of death of this “almost inconceivable” “scene of horror,” nor even Equiano’s survival, along with thousands of fellow slaves who crossed the Atlantic to be “seasoned” and commodified, bought and sold in the slave economy of the West Indies and the Americas. [End Page 239]

Most remarkable is what is evidenced by the four texts reviewed below. In the process of successfully recording their experiences and quest for identity and freedom in a world that, ironically, labeled them incapable of intellectual development—as the most significant ideological and philosophical guides of the Enlightenment relegated African Blacks to the bottom rung of some “Great Chain of Being”—Equiano and his former fellow captives also succeeded in constructing a credible and valuable foundation for a Black Literary Tradition, Afro-British and African-American literatures, despite their status or marginalization, and despite the subsequent historical denial or devaluation of their significance to Western literature.

In Black Atlantic Writers of the 18th Century Adam Potkay and Sandra Burr focus on the works of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, John Marrant, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, and Olaudah Equiano. The first American edition of Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself (1791) is the centerpiece of Robert J. Allison’s work. To this list, Vincent Carretta, in Unchained Voices: Anthology of Black Authors in the English Speaking World of the 18th Century appends fourteen names of Black British and American writers, including Phillis Wheatley, Benjamin Banneker, Briton Hammon, Jupiter Hammon, Francis Williams, Johnson Green, Belinda, George Liele, David George, Boston King, Venture Smith, and Ignatius Sancho (whose letters are collected and edited by Paul Edwards and Polly Rewt in The Letters of Ignatius Sancho ). Compositely, the narratives, letters, poems, sermons and essays record and celebrate, for the most part, the writers’ inevitable struggle for agency, identity, unity, and wholeness during the Age of Reason.

The compiler/editors seek to unravel, as Potkay and Burr note, “a vivid sense of the various contexts necessary for understanding the stories of [the writers’] lives” (ix, emphasis added). Directly and indirectly, each editor examines the relationship between the...

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