The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African is a staple of college history and literature course. Published in 1789, Equiano’s autobiographical account of the slave trade entered American consciousness as a definitive, first-hand account of the horrors of slavery, especially the middle passage. While not as famous (nor, arguably as influential) as Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Equiano’s text could withstand one criticism constantly leveled against Stowe’s work–that it was fiction.Perhaps that is one reason why responses to Vincent Carretta’s Equiano The African: Biography of a Self-Made Man (Athens: U of Georgia P, 2005) were so polarized. In the process of researching his work, Carretta uncovered evidence that implied Equiano may have actually been born a slave in South Carolina. For some (I’d count myself among them), it does not matter much if Equiano was relating his own experiences or those told to him over a lifetime of interacting with slaves who had undergone the middle passage. For others, however, a second hand account is always more suspect and, perhaps, prone to exaggeration.
Jason Young’s Equiano in Africa does not overtly mention this controversy, but it does, perhaps, speak to it. It is an eleven minute short film with Equiano’s text read over images of contemporary life in Benin. The most obvious point of interest in the film is how closely Equiano’s descriptions align with the native behavior displayed in the film. In and of itself, this does not prove that Equiano’s narrative is authentic, but it does support the belief that his narrative is substantively accurate in its descriptive passages, bolstering support for the contention that his descriptions of the middle passage are not simply fabricated.
Young’s film, then, is an excellent classroom resource. At eleven minutes, it can easily be played in class to stimulate or inform debate about the text. Since a rough cut is available for free at IMDB.com, it can also be fairly easily assigned viewing in conjunction with course reading.