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  • Equiano’s Nativity: Negative Birthright, Indigenous Ethic, and Universal Human Rights
  • Yael Ben-ZVI (bio)

The debate on Olaudah Equiano’s nativity has been dominated by ideas of authenticity, identity, gain, and loss.1 Imagining Equiano’s possible African birth as the foundation of entitled selfhood, scholars have read the option of his Carolina origin through Orlando Patterson’s influential “social death” thesis, according to which the enslaved experienced a “loss of native status” and became a “genealogical isolate” deprived of “all ‘rights’ or claims of birth” (5).2 One of the central questions in the debate is how one should read Equiano’s baptismal record, which lists “Gustavus Vassa a Black born in Carolina 12 years old” (Carretta, Equiano the African 89). While some scholars accept the possible validity of this information, Cathy Davidson compares this fragment to adjacent entries featuring parental names and birthdates instead of races or overseas birthplaces and denounces the record for its “erasure” of Equiano’s “black and/or African parentage,” “exorcism” of his “non-Christian past” (29), and validation of the “natal alienation” that Patterson identifies as a “constituent element” of slavery (Patterson 5).3 Stephanie Smallwood applies Patterson’s phrase to her analysis of slave nativities and contextualizes such erasures in the eighteenth-century “stigma” that turned African births into unintelligible, antihistorical signs of “ignorance and inexperience” (202).4

When Patterson asserts that “social death” results from loss of “native status,” he implies that nativity is necessarily privileging—an assumption based on an Enlightenment view of birth as the inception of human entitlement.5 John Locke, for example, argues that “Men, being once born, have a right to their Preservation” (303), and adds that “Every Man is born with a double Right: First, A Right of Freedom to his Person” and “Secondly, A Right . . . to inherit . . . his Fathers Goods” (411–12). Thomas Paine declares [End Page 399] more forcefully than the US Declaration of Independence that “all men are born equal, and with equal natural rights” (216). Since this tradition helped consolidate birth as the paradigmatic requirement for political membership and civil rights (Stevens, Reproducing 10; Shachar), recent studies of birthright focus on citizenship as an institution that allocates rights according to the territorial or genealogical contexts of individual births.6

This article contextualizes Equiano’s nativity within tensions between several constructions of entitlement. I am interested in the relations between exclusive and universal formulations of rights, and between ideas of positive birthright (as Locke and Paine stress) and the negative birthright that was the lot of slaves by birth. My discussion of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789–94) focuses on interactions between a Eurocentric rights discourse that excludes enslaved and colonized subjects despite Enlightenment promises of universal entitlement, and an emergent indigenous one that critiques Eurocentric exclusions and advocates universal human rights. Each of these discourses responded to Christian and Enlightenment ideals of humanity and to localized social histories.

Paine uses Christianity to support the idea of natal entitlement by arguing that every individual derives “its existence from God” who endows him or her with the same “natural right” given at creation to “the first man that existed” (216). Historians of natural and human rights locate Christianity’s contribution to universal entitlement in its perception of “humans” as “children of a caring God” (Tierney 343) and in the principle of equality guiding the imperative and “capacity” of individuals to “love their neighbors as themselves” (Ishai 26). But universal entitlement was one end of a central Christian “dialectic” between “universalism and particularism,” as J. Jorge Klor de Alva argues (62). Transatlantic slavery, Alva asserts, tilted Christian theology toward particularism by excluding the enslaved from the spiritual endowment on which Christian fellowship was based (64).

The two arguments clashed as early as 1550 in the Valladolid debates between Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and Bartolomé de Las Casas. Spain’s King Charles V convened the debates in order to shape imperial policies. Sepúl-veda employed an Aristotelian perspective and defined Indians as “barbarians” who were therefore the “natural slave[s]” of their new Spanish masters (Brunstetter 418; see also Carozza 293...