The introduction to the unit should include a brief history on the origins of the African slave trade. To Be A Slave by Julius Lester serves as a practical model to outline the scope of the unit on slave narratives. Lester’s Prologue begins with an excerpt from a letter from John Rolfe of the Jamestown, Virginia colony to Sir Edwin Sandys, Treasurer of the Virginia Company in London. (The Negro in Virginia, p. 1) (Lester, p. X.)
In brief, the letter chronicles the delivery of more than twenty African slaves to the colonies after the ship survived a storm in the West Indies. According to Lester, “[t]he African slave trade was already over a hundred years old when the Dutch ship landed twenty Africans at the Jamestown colony in 1619.” Lester tells us further that “[e]ighteen years after the first Africans came to the Jamestown colony, the first American built slave ship sailed from Marblehead, Massachusetts. Its name was the Desire.” (Lester, p. X.)
I. Slave Narratives of Capture
The Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa
provides one of the most intriguing and beguiling slave narratives in print. First appearing in two volumes in London in 1789, the story unfolds like an enchanted fairy tale told through the eyes of a little African prince who is captured first by African slavers and then is ultimately sold to European slavers who thrust him aboard a ship laden with human cargo bound for the West Indies. There he witnesses all the atrocities of the Middle Passage. Destined to be a free man, the young prince fights, cajoles, and connives his way to a dubious citizenship in his new homeEngland. The African prince becomes the English gentleman.
The narrative is told in the characteristic two voices of many slave writings (Gates, xiv). The first voice is that of the eleven-year-old Benin prince who is captured with his sister by marauding rival tribesmen. In this phase of the narration, the reader learns fragmented aspects of West African Igbo culture. We learn that Olaudah came from a tribe known for its poetry, music and artistry, that his father was a wealthy chieftain who had many slaves, and that slavery as it was practiced among the West African people for all its brutality was in no comparison to the total denial of humanity that Olaudah and his kinsmen were to face.
The second voice belongs to the cultivated black Englishman who cleverly, ingeniously fashions a story whose sharp purpose is to seduce the reader into loving and respecting the African boy’s courage, craftiness, intelligence, and his invincible yearning for freedom.