Black History Month: Olaudah Equiano

Black History Month: Olaudah Equiano

The following post is written by our pastoral intern Julius Thomas. It is the third part of a series during Black History Month called 4×4, in which we will be doing four short summaries of literary works written by authors of African descent. Here are Part 2 and Part 3.

“O, ye nominal Christians! might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you? Is it not enough that we are torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain?”

One of the most daunting verses in the Bible comes from Amos 2:6: “…they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.” The prophet Amos is pointing to the blatant injustice of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Those within society who are meant to protect and care for the less fortunate sell them for a profit. They strip away all of their God given dignity and consider them to be rubbish. The needy, castouts, lower class are only good for one thing: more monetary gain for the rich.

Olaudah Equiano’s quote above alludes to similar injustices. A slave during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, he wrote his memoir, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, to shine a light on the wretchedness of the slave trade and its drastic ramifications on the individuals involved. Born in 1745 in Nigeria, Olaudah was taken from his home as a young boy. He would be sold about 4 times before buying his freedom from a Philadelphia Quaker and becoming an abolitionist in London. Notice how in the autobiography’s title Equiano includes two different names: “Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa.” This is because Equiano was given a new name upon becoming a slave. Olaudah Equiano is his free name, and Gustavus Vassa is his slave name. Though seemingly subtle, the name change depicts a slave’s very identity and culture being stripped from him, along with his physical freedom. 

The pain and suffering is evident as you read through Equiano’s memoir. But Equiano also points out the glimpses of light in the midst of darkness. He records how he had the pleasure of meeting and befriending many people who helped him along the way. They taught him to read and navigate the seas, and by God’s grace, Olaudah gave his life to Christ through their testimonies. But let’s be clear—the conversion does not erase the massive blemish of Christian passivity and willful ignorance. Yes, we can rejoice in God’s faithfulness and yet lament Equiano’s suffering at the hands of Christians and non-Christians alike. Olaudah was in such anguish that he wrote in his memoir, “Now my whole wish was to be dissolved, and to be with Christ—but, alas! I must wait mine appointed time.” 

Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography is a vital component in history. By spotlighting his own physical and mental abuse, Equiano’s work serves to be an important link to understanding the slave trade from the perspective of the slave. We invite you to read his work and rejoice in God’s faithfulness and yet lament the atrocity of the slave trade.