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  • by Michael Rickard II

"Two Flights to Freedom: Equiano and Douglass' Common Narrative Elements While Escaping Sla

Slave narratives contain several common elements. One of the common elements is that the narratives record a long and complicated journey from (and within) bondage to freedom. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (“Equiano”) and A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (“Narrative”) each contain elaborate stories of both men experiencing incredible advances and reversals. The wheel of fortune is constantly spinning in both men’s stories, with them experiencing reversals of fortune that Charles Dickens could not have conceived. Equiano and Douglass’ journeys to freedom are similar in that they both experience ups and downs but they differ in their sufferings as well as the geographical differences of their journeys.

Equiano and Douglas both experience changes in their environment. Equiano is bounced all over the Western Hemisphere, being enslaved in his homeland of Africa, then being taken to the Caribbean, Europe, and North America before achieving freedom. Douglass is born in North America and is sent to various areas of the American South before he escapes north. Both men experience adversity, made all the worse by racism. Both men manage to achieve freedom through dedication and intelligence.

Equiano and Douglass experience different pathways to slavery but they are both unpleasant. While Equiano lives free with his family until his capture at age eleven, he suffers the brutal journey from Africa to the Americas known as the Middle Passage. Equiano survives the physical and mental torment of the trip but it is clear from his writings that the horrors of the trip are burnt into his memory. Douglass is born into slavery and with the exception of his grandmother, he has limited contact with his family. Douglass has few memories of his mother and disturbing suspicions that his father may be a white slaveholder. Douglass has the trauma of witnessing his Aunt Hester being whipped by jealous white overseer for her having a liaison with another slave.

Douglass does not have to undergo the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas but he faces constant upheaval in his life as he is bounced around from one slaveholder to another. While some slaveholders are not as bad as others, they are all bad. One slaveholder works him hard but feeds him enough, while another works him without providing sufficient food. When slaveholder Thomas Auld sends Douglass to a slave breaker (Mr. Covey), Douglass is almost broken physically and mentally. However he eventually stands up to Covey, besting him physically and finding a new sense of determination to be free.

Equiano faces several setbacks in his journey towards freedom. He is promised freedom by a slaveholder ship captain after years of faithful service, only to be sold into slavery again. Along his sea journeys, Equiano must deal with the racial inequality around him in the Caribbean and North America. He is swindled out of money he has earned and has several close brushes with the authorities, chiefly because he is black. Equiano also experiences dangers from the sea as he finds himself aboard a British ship during the Seven Years War.

Douglass too learns a harsh lesson about racial inequality. When he attempts to work, he is assaulted by whites who are jealous that he will take their jobs. Although Douglass fights back, he succumbs to numbers. Douglass has no legal redress as no white man will vouch as a witness for him and he learns that a black man has no legal standing.

Both Equiano and Douglass share a common bond of literacy leading to their gaining freedom. Both men learn to read and write and it proves to be helpful in their self-discovery. Equiano is taught by fellow sailors and given various opportunities to expand his knowledge. Douglass is initially taught by a white slaveholder but eventually has to learn on his own for while Equiano’s literacy makes him more valuable as a slave, Douglas must hide his literacy as his slaveholder Hugh Auld ultimately sees literate slaves as dangerous.

Religion plays a different role in each man’s journeys. Equiano’s journey seems more fixed around religion. Early on in his narrative, he compares his fellow Africans to the Hebrews, suggesting a common bond (the Hebrews’ battle for freedom from the Egyptians would become an allegory for American slaves). Equiano finds great solace in Christianity and the promise of salvation. On the other hand, Frederick Douglass seems to be initially hostile to Christianity as he sees what hypocrisy by so-called Christian slaveholders is. Later, Douglass will point out that he does not hate Christianity. Rather, he wishes that slaveholding Christians would realize the hypocrisy of their actions both in slave-holding and in being cruel to their fellow man i.e. slaves.

While both Equiano and Douglass exhibit remarkable intelligence in how they acquire English literacy, Equiano takes a more intellectual path while Douglass is more of a manual laborer during his time as a slave. Equiano spends a significant time working aboard ship performing a variety of duties based on mental acumen. He is also given much more freedom than one would expect of a slave, accompanying white men into town. While Douglass initially works in less physically strenuous roles (such as when he works as a household slave for Hugh Auld), he eventually is sent to much more physical jobs.

Despite setbacks, both men acquire freedom. Equiano works until he has earned enough money to purchase his freedom. Douglass saves his money and bides his time until he eventually escapes to the northern United States. Both men rely upon their lives as slaves to educate whites about the horror and evils of slavery with Equiano reaching out to those in Great Britain during the 18th century and Douglass appealing to people in the United States in the 19th century.

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