The Black Atlantic Series
An African’s life: The life and times of Olaudah Equianoh is the latest offering from scholars who have tried to write biographical accounts of the enslaved African’s life. The author, James Walvin, is a Professor of History at the University of York and as researched widely on the history of slavery.
One must always be suspicious of the relevance and authority of such writing when the basis of the material is a reasonably comprehensive account by the subject himself. What can Mr Walvin offer us that Equiano has not? His introduction gives a clue as to as to what he hopes to achieve: “I tended simply to abstract sections of Equiano’s text, quoting and reprinting him, without too much criticism of the text itself. Indeed this has been the predominant tendency amongst historians”. He goes on to argue that “Equiano’s life is often as striking for its omissions as much as for its more obvious details. He sometimes brushes aside, skips over or minimises issues which closer reading suggest had a clear importance to him.” Walvin concludes “we can only really make sense of Equiano in that historical setting (of the Atlantic slave trade). In short, his work is an attempt to understand Equiano’s life and experiences by relating his account against a background of the historical realities of the time.
I am very doubtful about the how possible it is for him to achieve his aim of filling the gaps which Equiano “brushes aside, skips over or minimises” using this method or indeed any other method short of speaking to Equiano or those close to him. The bottom line is if you want to understand Equiano’s life, read Equiano’s book. That, with a broad understanding of the issues of slavery, would give you the a proper insight. Any conclusion reached by professor Walvin would need a large degree of subjective interpretation that would not necessarily be more valid than the next person’s.
The above criticism in no way takes away from the importance of this book. If it fails to reveal anything new about Equiano’s life, it, at least, helps give the reader a good understanding of aspects of the slavery experience. On this, there just has not been enough serious writing on such a great human tragedy. Contrast this with lesser events like, say, the 2nd World war holocaust which still sees endless, books, exhibitions, trials, reparations, documentaries, T-shirts and all the works. There is still so much to be done in our understanding of and healing the experience and legacy slavery. Works like this can only help towards this end.
An African’s Life is published by Cassell as part of its Black Atlantic Series and is on sale at £25 (hardback).
ALWAYS ELSEWHERE: TRAVELS OF THE BLACK ATLANTIC
This is the second of Cassell’s Black Atlantic series which explores travel writing of Black writers. The writing is a collecting of 50 stories - mainly extracts from literature from the 18th century to date. The publishers describe it as the first truly international collection of travel writings by Black authors, and as “evidence of the bewildering variety of journeys which have taken place between Africa, Europe and the Americas in all direction”.
The stories come from various sources – books, letters, diaries, newspaper reports and in some cases fiction – by all manner of Black travellers including the enslaved, political activists, sailors, immigrants, soldiers and foreign correspondents.
The book’s claim to be “the first truly international collection” of such writing should be taken with a pinch of salt, given the wealth Black of publications that have emanated from the United States (many of which are not very well distributed in this country). However, this point not very relevant. Of more importance is that this book is such a valuable collection – from a historical or simply literary perspective. The book reveals a wealth of Black writing to which – embarrassingly – I was unaware. There were valuable extracts from Books I never knew existed - books that cover issues that affect my life even today! Take Robert Campbell’s Arrival at Lagos (an extract from A pilgrimage to my Motherland, published in 1859). Campbell speaks about Lagos – the city of my youth – in the early 19th century. In the short extract, he spoke about situations and people which I had studied as abstractions in History classes in Nigeria. He MET and spoke about King Dosumu of Lagos… And this account is just one of fifty. And all fifty are part of much larger publications, many of which I had not read. I foresee a lot of reading in the nest few years, thanks to Always Elsewhere.
I feel so much more comfortable with this book than The black Atlantic’s other offering because it does not seek to make judgements and it largely shows no pretensions. It is just the accounts of those who lived through the times and experiences.
Always elsewhere is a must for every Black library - indeed every library. The understanding of the past and present of Black people by the society at large can only help to break down the fear of the unknown which rests at the root of most prejudice. And for Black people, it can only strengthen our sense of self. Otherwise it could be purchased simply because it is a good read.
At £49 for the hardback version, I it is worth the price, but the publishers must recognise that this puts the book beyond the reach of many of those who need to read it. The paperback version has been published. Buy this book.
Always Elsewhere is Edited by Polly Rewt - a research fellow at the university of Stirling.