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Biography 24.4 (2001) 975-978

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Roland L. Williams, Jr. African American Autobiography and the Quest for Freedom. Westport: Greenwood, 2000. 176 pp. ISBN 0-313-30585-4, $52.95.

Roland L. Williams frames his discussion of African American autobiography with an account of his great grandfather Charlie Williams, who was born a slave, together with his own experience growing up in Philadelphia and his later encounters with racism as a young man in California. Both sketches serve to authenticate the central themes of his argument--freedom and success through initiative inspired by reading. In so doing, he suggests the historical and national dimensions of this family experience. [End Page 975]

The quest for freedom through "learning and acquired knowledge" and the "striving to make things better" is the ideological axis that structures Williams's analysis and serves to link African American narratives with those of contemporary white narratives. Thus, Williams pairs a reading of Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) with Benjamin Franklin's The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1791); Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave Written by Himself (1845) with Richard Henry Dana, Jr's Two Years Before the Mast (1840); and Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) with Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall (1855). The intent of this comparative reading is to show that black Americans no less than white Americans have sought inclusion in American society because they have understood this to be the promise of America:

Each of the black books, with the white one, has a hero who embodies a New World sense of valor that beckons people to gain enough knowledge to support themselves in the world, as if they were seasoned swimmers in a big sea, changing all the time. The inventions envision a democratic organism overflowing with learning as a natural source of justice. (13)

That white Americans have failed to see this shared ideology and these shared aspirations is due to the racial blinders of what Williams calls the Blackwall Hitch ("a thick knot of reasoning, encompassing an erroneous idea of people with African roots"). Thus, for example, Thomas Jefferson considered blacks as "not men" because of his presumption that they were naturally inferior. For this reason Jefferson counseled transporting them away from America if they ever gained their freedom. And blacks too, Williams argues, have failed to embrace fully this ideological heritage, too often subordinating claims of national identity to an emphasis on black nationalism and ethnocentrism. Thus, Williams is critical of black studies programs that sprang up in the 1960s, the separatist politics of Black Power, and the scholarship of such individuals as Addison Gayle, Houston A. Baker, and Henry Louis Gates, as overly focused on the divisions rather than the connections that sustain cultural "expression" and cultural "inclusion."

To make his case, Williams situates these various autobiographical works within a broad reading of Western culture. Beginning with Greek culture and the Odyssey and the Aeneid (though also with references to such epics as Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia and the Ramayana and the Mahabharata of Hindu culture), Williams argues that these epic works reveal that until the "dusk of medievalism" and the discovery of the New World the cultural emphasis was one where "men [saw] themselves in the world as passengers, [End Page 976] as opposed to pilots, in their personal lives." However, beginning with Dante's Divina Commedia through to Spenser and Milton, the printing pressof Gutenberg, and the full flood of discovery in the West, there was a cultural shift wherein "folks everywhere . . . were moved to see themselves as pilots, rather than passengers, in the world." America in particular manifested the spirit of this transformation and embodied it in epic forms:

Given the mind emergent in America, rating people born to run their own affairs, only a personal confession, a song of the self, could harbor an epic charm. A long, unrhymed, meterless autobiography, recollecting a rise in society enabled by the benefit...