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Oloudah Equiano’s Narrative of the Life and Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin demonstrate the formation of a national identity in which minorities must justify their rights reasonably and quietly, while white citizens can defend their own rights or causes as outspokenly as they desire. This, at best, amounts to white Americans dramatically appropriating the struggle of African-Americans with good intentions, in Stowe’s case. The American national identity is one in which white “Americans” speak on behalf of a subjugated culture, rather than it being acceptable for members of that culture to speak for themselves.
Stowe’s appropriation of the slave experience breaks convention in that it openly relies on emotional appeal for the sake of exposing the evils of slavery. Equiano on the other hand, avoids sentimentality or flair almost as if it discredits his argument as an African American writer lobbying for freedom. One of the most defining characteristics of Equiano’s Narrative of the Life is its unnerving apologetic nature. From the top of the narrative, Equiano “justifies” his account with an entirely unnecessary degree of humbleness. He in fact designates the entire first paragraph to an explanation—the book is being written at the request of his friends, he will not be offering the narrative of a “saint or hero” (355), he does not wish to attract personal attention or garner sympathy, and that his sufferings have been small in comparison to many others’. Equiano writes not as if he is trying to reveal the nature of cruelty, but as if he is analyzing the cost and benefit of slavery in order to demonstrate the “reasonableness” of freedom. Stowe on the other hand, uses decadent storytelling tactics to create a downright fanciful tale. The scene in which Eliza must wade through “cakes of floating ice” is dramatized almost as if the struggle of slaves would make good entertainment for white readers.
In contrast to Stowe, Equiano’s language is startlingly cold. While Stowe goes out of her way to dramatize, Equiano goes out of his way not to. In describing his separation from his sister as a child he even writes that the episode left him in a “state not to be described” (358). This kind of language minimizes his struggle, and contributes to the humble, reasonable image he is projecting. Equiano often tells us that he felt distressed, but does not show it. We are not feeling so much as comprehending. In Equiano’s case, the use of emotion as a slave would only attract criticism and be looked down on as manipulation or exaggeration. If Stowe were to passionately describe that same “state” in Uncle Tom’s Cabin this would likely be well received; the writing is coming from an inherently “reputable” source that doesn’t need to seem balanced or gracious in order to maintain credibility.
Stowe’s use of vernacular spelling in her dialogue is extremely humanizing next to Equiano, but this may be for some of the wrong reasons. While Stowe humanizes her characters, she also deeply patronizes them. Slaves in her novel are sweet and good-natured, like Uncle Tom, but they’re also designed to be pitiable like children. Stowe created a novel in which it allowed supporters of slavery to pity slaves, but not necessarily recognize them as capable equal adults. Equiano on the other hand, is writing from the first person perspective of exactly that: a capable and equal human being. It is not surprising that one of these depictions was more appealing to racists than the other. The fact in and of itself that it was Stowe’s novel rather than Equiano’s that kick started the civil war is evidence of a skewed national identity. It was not the first person accounts of slavery that moved the nation; it was a white woman’s fictionalized account. These works are part of a growing national identity that prioritizes the validity of the white voice often even regardless of substance.
In both works there are slave owner figures that are non-abusive or even benevolent. Equiano, for example, wrote that one of his masters “possessed a most amiable disposition and temper, and was very charitable and humane.” And one of his masters goes out of his way to remove him from harm. Equiano does however make it clear that his circumstances are relatively exceptional. Equiano does describe their cruelty, then describes why treating slaves humanely is really in the best interest of slave-owners. In both cases this may partially be strategic in the context of America’s national identity: both Stowe and Equiano were attempting to expose the disadvantages of slavery but in order to sway their white audience there was some degree of courtship necessary. Were they to write slave-owners as monsters, they would enrage their audience and lose their voice. It is arguable however that Stowe included “good” slave-owners because she, being white, lived a life that allowed her the privilege of seeing the good in everyone. The Shelbys supposedly have personal relationships with their slaves and cared for them dearly, but ultimately still cash out on them as property when things get tough. This plot detail addresses that even in the best of circumstances under “good” masters, slavery produces betrayal and no slave owner can avoid the base reality of their capitalization on another human being.
Stowe and Equiano both acknowledge the value that Christianity has in national identity and its necessary relevance in an abolitionist piece. Stowe emphasizes it symbolically, particularly Eva’s death in Ch. XVII. Stowe manipulates the story to expose false Christian morality and the role it plays in slavery. Stowe makes a martyr of Eva and in doing so symbolizes how slavery is destroying true moral Christianity. The death of this child confronts white Americans with the looming question of whether or not there is room for slavery in honest Christianity. God shouldn’t see color, and Christian morals indicate that one should “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Eva is dedicated to piety and as a child is inherently innocent. She is the stereotypical “truth teller” of the story. This played an important role in appealing to (and questioning) the bedrock of American identity, which has traditionally been Christianity. Stowe and Equiano both make this point; slaves are Christians too. This challenges that comfortable national identity: how can both a slave owner and a slave be true Christians simultaneously?
Equiano addresses Christianity somewhat casually throughout his narrative, but directly ensures nonetheless that the audience knows of his faith. Equiano seems to include Christianity in his narrative as if he knows it is a requirement for credibility. This concept of the “reasonable” Christian slave is of course problematic because it still serves the standards of the oppressor rather than the needs of the oppressed. Equiano also reminds us that in Africa, his people governed themselves by rules similar to Christian guidelines. This serves two purposes. On one hand it innocently demonstrates that his values match those of Christianity and that he is making an attempt to “do right”. This frames freedom as more “reasonable” or beneficial to slave-owners. On the other hand, the statement implies something more radical: white Christians and Africans are equal. It implies that the Christian rulebook is not necessarily unique or superior and is, if anything, hypocritical. Equiano’s narrative is full of tongue-in-cheek commentary on Christianity. He describes being “plundered or used ill by tender Christian depredators” (378), hitting home the hypocrisy of Christianity in the context of racism and slavery. While Christians should be tender, compassionate and forgiving, they are instead violently exploiting an entire race.
While Stowe primarily manipulates emotion and drama to indicate the effects of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Equiano exercises staunch factuality to illustrate a similar point. Equiano represents slaves as equal and intelligent human beings, while Stowe’s novel capitalizes on stereotypes in order to appeal to the sensibilities of racists. This epitomizes a difficult part of American national identity to face; the nation thought it was more compelling to hear the sufferings of slaves through a whitewashed filter rather than face the atrocity of slavery firsthand through a narrative. Slaves were required to maintain “reasonableness” in their attempts to justify freedom.
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