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Identity in The Slave Narrative

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During slavery, many slaves did not have an opportunity to have a sense of identity for themselves. Their whole life was dedicated nothing more than to work and obey their masters as chattel or an animal would. For this reason, many black writers, during the slave era, wrote autobiographical narratives about their experiences and the lack of identity as a human being in an enslaved world. In Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano narratives, we see how slaveholding affects a slaves’ sense of identity and how one can create an identity of their own making through education.

As an African and a slave, Equiano had no identity. Equiano’s story of lost identity began at a young age when he was kidnapped from his home in the Ibo tribe at the age of eleven. Children around the age of eleven are starting to learn their identity as a person, so when Equiano was kidnapped he lost a big part of himself and what he knew. When becoming enslaved, he had no control over his own movements to even his own name. His name changes several times from Jacob, Michael, and to finally Gustavus Vassa.

The name Gustavus Vassa comes from one of the Captains aboard a ship in 1754, since then he kept the name and goes by it in his writings. Equiano sought from early on to discover who he was, but slavery controlled his chance for self-discovery. After he bought his freedom, Equiano was finally able to make himself a true identity and discover a real sense of self. He made his own decisions about where he went and what sort of employment he pursued. Equiano reclaimed a new identity through his faith of Christianity and with his new self-discovery he lost his African roots. He writes, “I no longer look upon Europeans as spirits, but as men superior to us; and therefore I had the strongest desire to resemble them; to imbibe their spirit and imitate their manners…” Equiano (136).

This shows that while trying to figure out his new self, he loses his African heritage by stating that white men are superior to Africans. He does to better become part of the English culture and to assimilate with the Englishmen. This assimilation can be seen as a self-preservation for him, so he could use his autobiography as a playbook to other Africans and maybe writing in code to others African American writers. Frederick Douglass also had little to know about his identity just like Equiano. He only knew himself as a slave who didn’t know his age, like most slaves, and that his father was the master and white man. He was pulled away from his mother at a young age and never got to have a chance to have a mother and son bond. This can affect a child’s identity by them not knowing where and who they came from. With all this, Douglass begins a lifelong journey to self-discovery from the slave identity forced upon him. His first step to claiming an identity was through education.

Through his masters’ mistress, Sophia Auld, he learns the ABCs and learns to spell small words. This was soon forbidden by his master saying,” if you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. Learning will spoil the best nigger around” Douglass (351). This news does not shut down Douglass’ desire at an educated life to freedom, he writes, “Mistress in teaching me the alphabet, had given me the inch and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell” Douglass (353). He continued to learn to read and write with the help of the white children on his street. Through education, Douglass began to change his self-perception from a slave to a man and begins to resist his slave role forced upon him and fights against it. Douglass’ rebelliousness leads to a fight with Mr. Covey, a slave breaker he was with for a year. He wrote, “this battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave” (Douglass 369).

To Douglass, he felt this fight created in him “a sense of his of my own manhood” and from that point forward, allowed him to reject the slave identity forced upon him and focus on gaining his freedom (Douglass 369). When comparing these two narratives we see that an identity can have a strong impact on a slaves’ life. Their narratives about slavery and freedom had similar experiences and interests. Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano both had similar tragedies and experiences from early childhood to adulthood. They experienced being taken away from family and forced to take on a lost identity because of it.

In their narratives, they wrote about fighting against slavery and joining the abolitionist movement. To Douglass and Equiano, education by reading and writing meant that they were on their way to freedom. This allowed them to teach others that getting an education at the time of slavery proved to be not impossible. Identity is an important that all children and adults need to have. Without an identity, there is no meaning or purpose to a person’s life. This is why slaves were stripped of a having sense of purpose, so they would not have any reason to go against a master’s orders.

African writers rose out of slavery because they felt like becoming a writer would help put a sense of identity to their name. Writers like Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass, came about since their identities were ripped away from them the moment they became enslaved. African writer narratives documented to many people the true story and effect of slavery told from a first-hand account. When we read their narratives, we can conclude that they weren’t just searching for freedom, but they were on a journey to find themselves through writing and reading.

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Identity In The Slave Narrative. (2020, May 19). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 26, 2021, from
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