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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.4 (2001) 615-619

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Forum: Teaching Equiano's Interesting Narrative

Equiano Lite

Srinivas Aravamudan

In Adam Potkay's essay, a vehemence about the importance of rhetoric in Equiano's Interesting Narrative is combined with a new twist on academic anti-intellectualism, whereby "a group of sceptical twenty-year-olds" is wheeled out to battle against "postcolonial theory's effort at refashioning Equiano in its own image." 1 While almost every single published work of scholarship on Equiano that I know registers the obvious fact that The Interesting Narrative appears to be a spiritual autobiography, does this mean that the text contains no other material worthy of classroom or scholarly discussion? Potkay is content with beginning and ending all further discussion by pointing to the Christian claims made in the text and to some of the classical rhetorical tools with which those claims are made. To hold that position about Equiano's worth is no crime, although some would call it poor teaching and perhaps also a disservice to cultural history. By this manner of accounting, the Iliad is about rescuing an abducted woman and the Odyssey a very long voyage.

However, all literary scholars may not be content with belaboring the obvious. Potkay's answer to the question "what is the relationship between literature, as we now conceive it, and religion?" 2 vacuously reaffirms "the Calvinist Methodism [Equiano] accepted and sought to promulgate." 3 As Equiano's narrative is one about conversion, even a laconic undergraduate might wonder: conversion from what, into what? Deeming the conclusion to the process of conversion as the only significant meaning is greedy haste. Even and especially in the eighteenth century, there are other secular and religious worlds to discover in Equiano's text. Potkay's narrow definitions of Christianity cannot bear very much reality. While Equiano's conversion might be a happy focus for evangelically minded students, it would be less than edifying to the historically and anthropologically curious and those who might profess other faiths or none at all. If Potkay is indignant that religion is an ignored category of analysis in literary studies today, he ought to lead the way to an expanded understanding of the category rather than a narrow reiteration. Potkay's knowledgeable student-skeptics--at least when postcolonial theory is at stake--appear naively ready to believe uninflected accounts of eighteenth-century black Christianity.

Potkay (and his student coeditor) decided to rename their anthology after having been lent a copy of Paul Gilroy's book, The Black Atlantic, by "an au courant friend." 4 The editors should clearly have stuck with the earlier, more limited, but far more honest title, "Black Anglican Writers of the Eighteenth Century," as the published Black Atlantic Writers of the Eighteenth Century misleads readers with the faultypremise that Christian writing by blacks is the only black writing worthy of attention. Taking a religion-friendly scalpel to The Interesting Narrative in that edition, Potkay and Burr dispense with the picaresque aspects of the text. While Potkay now regrets his then "editorial nod" (or marketing gimmick), [End Page 615] he can no longer agree "that Equiano's belief in divine providence has loose parallels to the Igbo conception of chi . . . noting this parallel serves only a political, and no real explicative, purpose." 5

Political purposes seem extraneous to real explication in Potkay's view of literature in general, much though he forgets the extent to which The Interesting Narrative in its appeal is also a political manifesto. The book's preface is addressed "To the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and the Commons of the Parliament of Great Britain." Equiano's claim about his own work is that its "chief design . . . is to excite in [Britain's] august assemblies a sense of compassion for the miseries which the Slave-Trade has entailed on [his] unfortunate countrymen." By his own definition, Equiano is "an unlettered African, who is actuated by the hope of becoming an instrument towards the relief of his suffering countrymen." 6 These concerns with "the inhuman traffic of slavery" convince many readers, including Houston Baker, Henry Louis Gates...


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