Wednesday, February 16, 2011

It always comes back to Benedict Anderson

With all this scandalous talk of whether or not Olaudah Equiano actually was taken from Africa and traveled through the Middle Passage to America, and how it affects the authenticity of The Interesting Narrative, it brought me back to a passage in Chapter 2 of the narrative, of which I had circled and starred and wrote 'Benedict Anderson!' in the margin when I read it. The passage reads:
"The[ manners and customs of my country] have been implanted in me with great care, and made an impression on my mind, which time could not erase, and which all the adversity and variety of fortune I have since experienced, served only to rivet and record; for, whether the love of one's country be real or imaginary, or a lesson of reason, or an instinct of nature, I still look back with pleasure on the first scenes of my life, though that pleasure has been for the most part mingled with sorrow"

We had discussed in class that, even if the community of a nation is 'imagined' as Anderson says, it still effectively instills pride for one's country, and a bond between citizens of the country. How does this reconcile with this passage from Equiano's narrative, with the knowledge that Equiano may not have actually ever lived in Africa and danced the tribal dances? I personally felt that, whether this was Equiano's story or not, it is definitely someone's story, and still holds a lot of truth and authenticity. Perhaps, though Equiano claimed it has his own, it serves as the collective story of all the slaves brought to America from Africa, and although the author didn't personally experience it, many others did, and that's what makes the love of their country 'real'.


  1. interesting that you brought this up. I didn't make the connection before but it definitely makes sense...imagined communities, (potentially) imagined stories, what else is "imagined"?. In the end, it comes down to a matter of trust and acceptance. We can always keep questioning, whether it is about the validity of Equiano's story or the bond between communities. We can even question our own existence (thats all we talked about in philosophy class)...but are these type of questions ever going to get us anywhere? Like Rachel said, even if Equiano didn't write this story, its more about who/what he this case he represents the plight of slaves on the midway passage. Even if he didn't experience it himself, there is validity to the people he represents.

  2. We can even question our own existence (thats all we talked about in philosophy class)

    This made me LOL, Emily S.

    I guess one way to look at these matters has to do with the political import of Equiano's project. The lived experience of the Middle Passage, arguably, brings the trauma of that event into stark relief. Perhaps--and I reapeat, perhaps--Benedict Anderson allows us to question the connections that other seek to establish to that event. As I suggested yesterday, trauma studies have spent a lot of time interrogating who can claim trauma. Maybe another context, however, is the Afrocentric movements of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Clearly, those movements were meant to highlight a shared national culture for a population whose cultural history had been fragmented by the trauma of slavery. Nevertheless, can we ask whether or not that history is entirely imagined?

  3. Equiano definitely has a sense of pride for Africa, whether or not he actually was born there. Perhaps he tells us he was born in Africa because in his mind he really does come from there. I'm not saying that he is crazy, just that he blurs and imagines his history in an effort to justify why he has so much pride. In the time when he wrote these memoirs, people probably could not understand why anyone would be proud to come from Africa, so he was giving them a 'personal' reason and childhood memories that he believed they could understand and relate to. His history may have been imagined, but his pride in his country was definitely real, and in effect tangible through his autobiography.

  4. While I believe that Equiano's narrative may speak to some truths of the middle passage, I don't think it is legitimate for him to claim it as a non-fiction piece. If a Jewish man who wasn't at the holocaust wrote a non-fiction piece describing the events I'm sure it too would speak many truths to what happened, but it still does not change the fact that whatever experiences he writes about are fiction. I think there is much to learn and appreciate about Equiano's narrative, don't get me wrong, but the fact that he does not claim his piece as fiction and even goes as far as to write at lengths about how everything he writes is true I believe is wrong.

  5. In response to Andrew's comment, it's difficult to place Equiano's narrative into a specific genre. I know I keep doing this in these posts, but I looked up the definition of "non-fiction." Read the first paragraph of this Wikipedia article:
    According to this definition, I would consider Equiano's narrative a non-fiction piece. Though it may not be accurate or 'authentic,' the author made it seem so at the time he wrote it. And honestly, I think that's all that matters. I still consider the narrative 'authentic' because his narrative conveys what many of his people experienced during his time.