Recovered Writing: PhD in English, African-American Literature Theme Analyses of The Black Atlantic, Cosmopolitanism, and Olaudah Equiano (and Others), Spring 2009

This is the thirty-second post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

Dr. Babacar M’Baye is one of the most generous professors at Kent State University that I had the pleasure to learn from and work with. In the spring of 2009, I took his 76104 African-American Literature seminar. On the first day, we discussed the overview of the course and its assignments including the first of the five theme analyses included below. Based on my reading and thinking about the topics of this first analysis on Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic and Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, I asked Dr. M’Baye if I could meet with him after class to discuss an idea for my final paper. He enthusiastically agreed, and we ended up talking for several hours that afternoon. When I thought that I was taking up too much of his time and tried to disenage, Dr. M’Baye offered up another idea, thread, or proposal that kept the conversation rolling solidly forward. The fruits of that and other conversations led to an early form of my essay, “Engineering a Cosmopolitan Future: Race, Nation, and World of Warcraft,” which was included in The Postnational Fantasy, my co-edited book with Masood Raja and Swaralipi Nandi. The seed of an idea contained in this theme analysis led to my larger work and a greater opportunity to work with my friends and colleagues. I have Dr. M’Baye to thank for that.

To help us focus our thinking and encourage seminar discussion, Dr. M’Baye gave us the opportunity to write five brief analyses during the semester. We had the freedom to explore these based on our scholarly interests and research. The first analysis is on “The Black Atlantic, Cosmopolitanism, and Olaudah Equiano,” the second is on “Becoming Free in the Stories of Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince,” the third is on “W.E.B. Du Bois, Carol Swain, and African-American Duality” (something I wrote on tangentially before here and here), the fourth is on “Sociology of Master and Slave Relationships,” and finally, the fifth is on “African-American Writing, the Tabula Rasa, and Inverting the Hierarchy.” Due to their brevity, I believe that much more could be said on each topic. In retrospect, I would reconsider how to approach and explain some of my arguments. As with the previous Recovered Writing posts, these are presented as-is.

Jason W. Ellis

Thematic Analysis 1–The Black Atlantic, Cosmopolitanism, and Olaudah Equiano

Paul Gilroy argues in The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993) that:

The specificity of the modern political and cultural formation I want to call the black Atlantic can be defined, on one level, through this desire to transcend both the structures of the nation state and the constraints of ethnicity and national particularity. These desires are relevant to understanding political organising [sic] and cultural criticism. They have always sat uneasily alongside the strategic choices forced on black movements and individuals embedded in national political cultures and nation states in America, the Caribbean, and Europe. (19)

His theory of the black Atlantic breaks down the traditional historical barriers raised to encapsulate national and geographic narratives. Instead, Gilroy qualifies his theory as, harkening back to Deleuze and Guattari, “the rhizomorphic, fractal structure of the transcultural, international formation I call the black Atlantic” (4). The black Atlantic is the cross-pollination, transplantation, and circulation of language and culture that ignores historic and legal ideas of national and ethnic boundaries. It is a hybridization of cultures and languages that was a part of the cybernetic feedback loop of modernity. The black Atlantic formed and was formed by modernity–they are inextricably linked through, using Gilroy’s image, “the ship,” which “immediately [focuses] attention on the middle passage, on the various projects for redemptive return to an African homeland, on the circulation of ideas and activists as well as the movement of key cultural and political artifacts: tracts, books, gramophone records, and choirs” (4). It is the movement of people and ideas that lends Gilroy’s theory to a cosmopolitan reading in all of the disputed meanings of that word–morally, economically, culturally, and politically. Without naming it as such, Gilroy’s theory is cosmopolitan in nature, because it is based on a transcendence of boundaries and a sharing of ideas conveyed by individuals and their creative works.

Olaudah Equiano represents a cosmopolitan figure within Gilroy’s black Atlantic theoretical framework via his autobiography, The Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789). Equiano, a trained and well-regarded seaman, traveled the world aboard ships as a slave and later an emancipated freeman. On one level, the black Atlantic, as a network of relationships and movement of people and ideas, made Equiano a hybrid in part of African descent with a particular ethnic and cultural past. Also, there are significant moments of signifyin’ in his autobiography evidenced by his veiled sarcasms and dealing with the white hegemonic world in the eighteenth century. Another part of his hybrid identity is his Englishness. He understands how to use the English language as a tool, and he recognizes English ways aboard ship and in personal relationships. Furthermore, the isolated world of the ship presents another set of codes that Equiano mastered in order to negotiate his way in a world diametrically opposed to his personhood as a free and cosmopolitan individual who enjoyed encountering other cultures in his far travels abroad. Furthermore, he makes compelling arguments for opening trade between England and Africa instead of relegating Africa as a place for colonial rapaciousness. Equiano sought to engage his world as a cosmopolitan rather than take from it following the anti-cosmopolitan post-Enlightenment European model. And what is most intriguing about his narrative is that the anthropological study of his homeland is not the only cultural observations taking place. As a cosmopolitan, he observes, critiques, and incorporates that which he feels will improve his person as a citizen of the world.


Jason W. Ellis

Thematic Analysis 2–Becoming Free in the Stories of Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince

The Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) is as fascinating a story as it is a groundbreaking work for African American Literature. It is interesting how Equiano weaves together the harrowing tales of his life as a slave and later as a black skinned freeman in the eighteenth century. Some forty years later, The History of Mary Prince (1831) relates the oral narrative of Mary Prince as a person born into slavery on the island of Bermuda. Her travails and the descriptive power of her story clashes with that of Equiano, which probably gestures toward the rhetorical purposes underlying the publication of these stories. Setting aside issues of argumentative purpose, these two early slave narratives are united in the process of freedom. Each narrative relates a different trajectory for the emergence of freedom, or the best facsimile thereof at that time, for these two people of African descent. Equiano’s liberty is secured through capitalist exchange and the purchase of self from the European master. Prince attempts to purchase her freedom, but it is ultimately a matter of travel and law that secures her freedom. What do these different achievements of freedom during the long Slave Trade Era have to say about the nature of personal liberty and agency for those persons grossly deprived of it?

Equiano eventually purchases his freedom from his then master, Robert King. Recalling his day of emancipation, Equiano writes, “When I got to the office and acquainted the Register with my errand, he congratulated me on the occasion, and told me he would draw up my manumission for half-price, which was a guinea. . . .Accordingly he signed the manumission that day; so that, before night, I who had been a slave in the morning, trembling at the will of another, was become my own master, and completely free” (Equiano 144). There were two exchanges of capital in Equiano’s attaining freedom. First, he had to pay King for himself, and then he had to pay the Register for drafting his manumission papers. With these things done, and the manumission papers signed by King, Equiano’s status from slave to freeman shifts as from morning to evening; within the space of a day, he “becomes” free, but there is nothing about his person that has changed. What has changed is the quasi-legitimate status as a freeman. I use the modifier “quasi,” because we learn through the remainder of the narrative that having manumission papers were not absolutely respected by “free” whites.

Mary Prince’s freedom was achieved by her reversing the Middle Passage with her master and mistress to London, England where she “knew that [she] was free” (282). Even though England was the largest slave holding country in the world at that time, there was legislation in place to prevent the holding of slaves within England (and this was extended to other British territories in the subsequent Slavery Abolition Acts). However, it meant little for Prince to be free in England with no means of support, shelter, or employment. Her owners used this to their advantage to keep her under their control until two to three months after her arrival in England, until their threats to “thrust [her] out” (282) pushed her to leave of her own accord. Unfortunately, she could not, with the legal assistance of others, convince her owners to buy her freedom and return home a free woman. Thus, Prince was a free woman within England, but that freedom would dissolve immediately if she returned to the West Indies. Hence, her freedom, though enforced by law within the British Isles, was tenuous without the exchange of capital that made Equiano’s liberty a reality. However, the individualized freedoms of Equiano and Prince are something short of the freedom enjoyed by the hegemonic Europeans of that era. Prince desired manumission papers like those Equiano secured from his master, but as we see from Equiano’s narrative, the freedom afforded by such papers are not always worth the paper that the words of freedom are written on.


Jason W. Ellis

Thematic Analysis 3 — W.E.B. Du Bois, Carol Swain, and African-American Duality

In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W.E.B. Du Bois wrote:

            After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, –a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.  It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.  One ever feels his twoness, –an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder (214-215).

In this passage, Du Bois is laying out his theory of African-American duality.  When he published the collection that this passage is contained in, the use of the word “Negro” to denote persons of African descent did not semantically illustrate the duality Du Bois addresses.  However, the hyphenated identity of African-American came into widespread use during the 1980s, and it encapsulates graphically, on the page and in the mind, the “twoness” that Du Bois describes.

Even though Du Bois published this work over a hundred years ago, the reality of African-American hybrid identity in the United States is an ongoing pragmatic fact.  The continuity of African-American marginalization from the antebellum era to the present pressures African-Americans to negotiate and maneuver their identity with the white hegemony (government, capital, and social sphere).

Du Bois goes on to write:

            The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,–this longing to attain self-consciousness, manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.  In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost.  He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa.  He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world.  He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed or spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face (215).

Du Bois does not desire to dissolve “American Negro” identity, but he desires the freedom to be both without the threat of racist retaliation.  In this passage, he makes a profound observation that white American and African America have knowledges and cultures that can be shared.  This is one of the main arguments for open borders for immigration, because the cross pollination of cultures leads to the synthesis new things that were not possible within the isolated cultures.  As forced immigrants, African-Americans bring their own experiences and heritages from Africa and from their experiences as slaves that can enrich the American experience as a whole.

Dr. Carol Swain, professor of Political Science and Law at Vanderbilt University, recently presented at the Kent State library on the topic, “Immigration, Identity Politics, and the Decline of America: A Challenge for President Obama.”  Her presentation, particularly considering Dr. Swain being African-American, flies in the face of Du Bois’ argument for the maintenance of what we now call African-American identity.  Her presentation was primarily about the problems she sees with immigration in the United States, but at the end, she swung things around to identity politics in general.  She sees America as being a homogenous population with a shared sense of what it is to be American.  She acknowledged that it is a divisive issue between white and racial/ethnic diversity, but she considers assimilation “a good word” (however, she didn’t exactly say what standard folks should assimilate into).  She stated that, “we need to see ourselves as Americans,” and “we need to give up some of that [racial/ethnic] identity and have one identity.”  Interestingly, early in her talk she said, “black men running the two major parties doesn’t solve the race problem.”  So, it seems that she acknowledges that there is a “race problem,” but I cannot agree with her solution taking the United States back to isolationist politics and the farce of the “melting pot.”  Invoking nationalism and a call for national identity in a world of increasing globalization and cosmopolitan movement is an unacceptable retreat into a national tortoise shell.  Dr. Swain’s position is one that will further erode the pragmatic position of the United States within the world body politic, and her desire for the erasure of identities in favor of an essentialized national identity is tantamount to an erasure of history.


Jason W. Ellis

Thematic Analysis 4 – Sociology of Master and Slave Relationships

Henrietta Jacobs/Linda Brent wrote in this significant passage from her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861):

If you want to be fully convinced of the abominations of slavery, go on a southern plantation, and call yourself a negro trader.  Then there will be no concealment; and you will see and hear things that will seem to you impossible among human beings with immortal souls. (499)

She is referring to the “concealment” of the horrors perpetuated on black slaves by white masters on Southern plantations.  Each plantation was largely isolated from the others by the breadth of arable and unusable land.  It is the isolation of the plantation from public view, and the policing of slaves by the slave owner that perpetuated a system that Jacobs calls “a curse to the whites as well as to the blacks” (498).  The curse of slavery is something that is also recounted in other slave narratives.  One such example is found in The Life of Frederick Douglass where he writes, “I saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder” (373).  Another example comes from The History of Mary Prince (1831) where she relates, “They were not all bad, I dare say, but slavery hardens white people’s hearts towards the blacks” (258).  Jacobs goes on to call it “the demon Slavery” (532).  These passages report on the effects wrought on slave and master, and they reveal a historical progression of the effect of master-slave relations since the time of the earliest slave narratives.  Slavery, as an institution or system, initiates a set of power relationships in which the slave is subjugated to the will of the master.  But, where does the brutality enacted by masters on slaves come from?

The recent expose of the interrogation tactics at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq is a recent reminder of the dehumanizing atrocities that one human can inflict on another.  Antebellum slaves were in a similar situation to those Abu Ghraib prisoners, or prisoners anywhere, because they were held captive in a panopticon-like prison that extended across the entire Southeast of the United States.  The South was like a prison containing smaller plantation prisons, and these isolated feifdoms, plantation owners took on the role of guards and their slaves were prisoners.

The master/guard and slave/prisoner relationship was explored in a controversial experiment known as the Stanford Prison Experiment.  Held in 1971, the Standford Prison Experiment randomly assigned a group of 24 male college student volunteers to be either guards or prisoners for an extended role-play within an artificially constructed jail.  During the early stages of the experiment, certain behaviors began to be exhibited on both sides of the guard/prisoner divide.  Prisoners lost solidarity, began to identify with their prisoner number rather than their own name, and would accept their meted punishments.  The guards, with no other beginning difference than the volunteer prisoners, became abusive, controlling, and manipulative–they took charge of the prison and assumed complete control over the lives of the prisoners.  Zimbardo, as the lead researcher, assumed the role of the prison’s warden, and he admits that even he found himself slipping into the situation as if it were real and not simulated.  Obviously, there is something powerful at work in a situation when some people exercise full authority over others.

The atrocities that occurred during the slave era reveal something deeply embedded in the psychology of human beings that was later illuminated in the Stanford Prison Experiment.  There is something about the situation, the institution of slavery itself, which warps the possibility of an equal relationship between persons.  This is not an apology, but it is a perspective deserving further discussion in a historical context.


Jason W. Ellis

Thematic Analysis 5 – African-American Writing, the Tabula Rasa, and Inverting the Heirarchy

In the slave narratives of Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs, and the later writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, there is the repeated engagement of the enlightenment concept of the tabula rasa, or blank slate.  The idea of the tabula rasa refers to the theory that each person is born without knowledge or culture, and it is through education and acculturation that one learns to be a particular type of person.  The ideal is to enrich the tabula rasa so that one’s intellect blossoms.  However, the ideal professed for slaves was to debase their intellectual potential, because enrichment of the mind would result in slaves who would not wish to remain slaves.

An important European representation of the tabula rasa is in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).  Victor Frankenstein’s Monster is not created with knowledge or experience.  Instead, he learns, as a child learns, and eventually is able to speak and read thanks to observing a family from his careful hiding space next to a cottage (reminiscent of Harriet Jacob’s hiding place).   However, he serendipitously learns about his creator, of who he demands to create him a mate.  Following Victor’s decision to destroy the female creature, the Monster says, “Slave, I before reasoned with you, but you have proved yourself unworthy of my condescension.  Remember that I have power; you believe yourself miserable, but I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you.  You are my creator, but I am your master; obey!” (172, Penguin Classics edition).  The Monster’s education and mastery of his own circumstance results in his deconstructing the creator/created and master/slave hierarchy between Victor and himself.  This possibility was the fear of the Anglo-European masters.

In The Life of Olaudah Equiano (1814, four years before Frankenstein), his freedom comes about through, in part, education.   He writes, “I thought now of nothing but being freed, and working for myself, and thereby getting money to enable me to get a good education.  For I always had a great desire to be able at least to read and write; and while I was on shipboard I had endeavoured to improve myself in both” (95).  His education is part of what enables him to obtain his freedom and lead a very cosmopolitan lifestyle as a seaman.

In The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), Douglass relates how an early mistress taught him how to read and write, but quickly stopped after his master scolded her and Douglass.  His master said, “A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master–to do as he is told to do.  Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world . . . if you teach that nigger . . . how to read, there would be no keeping him.  It would forever unfit him to be a slave. . . . It would make him discontented and unhappy (364).  For Douglass’ master, education and the filling of the tabula rasa would “spoil” a slave, and make him “unfit” to be a slave.  Again, Douglas’ master exhibits the fear that education and the subsequent consciousness raising inverts the hierarchy of master/slave, which leads to trouble for the Anglo-European master.

Harriet Jacobs writes in her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) of her first mistress who taught her how to read and write at early age:  “While I was with her, she taught me to read and spell; and for this privilege, which so rarely falls to the lot of a slave, I bless her memory” (449).  It is this early education that facilitated her beginning “the war of my life” (460).

Du Bois’ experience as an educated African-American in the early twentieth-century reveals the frustration he felt being unable to affect change through his many schemes.  But, his story of the two “Johns” in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), reveals the violent reaction of a frustrated awareness that fatalistically mirrors the final confrontation of Victor and the Monster.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.