Can it go Both Ways? The Duality in Abolitionist American Literature

According to the Gilder Lehrman institute of American History, from 1526 to 1867, over 10.3 million slaves were brought across the Atlantic ocean from Africa to the United States. 10.3 million people were subject to the horrors of an institution that has scarred this nation permanently. Innocent men, women, and children were taken from their homes and forced into a system of direct oppression that decimated them physically, spiritually, and emotionally. A population of people endured centuries of terror in unspeakable ways. Despite it’s overwhelming support at first in early America, there were many individuals who fought against slavery and argued against it and the atrocities that came with it. Through their writing, writers argued against slavery in ways that may have influenced change. One relatively common theme in these writings is the fact that they all contain a hint of duality when it comes to the culture and ideologies they support. Specifically, the writings of Equiano, and Wheatley have a duality that is directly shown in their writings of abolition. In some ways, they fight the ideas and beliefs of the oppressor, however, at the same time, they also follows and take part in the dominant culture of the oppressor. Their writing takes on both sides in some ways that creates and interesting paradox throughout the pieces.

The first writing that expresses this is that of Equiano. In his narrative, Equiano captures many of the horrors of the slave trade, and in doing this, he highlights the inhumane horrors these people have to experience. He uses his own insight and experiences into the issue to create a narrative that leaves the reader absolutely shocked. He writes with a specificity that really makes the reader feel as if they are experiencing it themselves. This is best shown when Equiano writes “The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship’s cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential.” (Equiano, 364). This quote does a good job of showing the fact that Equiano experienced these things first hand. He was a part of this experience, and because of this, he has a unique perspective on what it means. Rather than keep his experienced private, he wanted to advocate for his people by using his outlet to show the world the horrors of the slave trade. He fights for his people, and his heritage by convincing the world to combat slavery. This powerful message is one that underscores the evil of Slavery. It highlights the lack of morality it takes on, and by doing this, it creates a strong argument against it’s ideology.

The duality component of Equiano’s argument is embodied in the fact that despite the oppression he had to go through, he became entangled and immersed in the culture of his oppressor. He found himself assimilated into their culture in some ways. He got to a point where the belief that they were superior to him became so ingrained in his mind, that he actually started to believe it. He began to have the mindset of his oppressor, and because of this, there is a massive duality in the way he writes about freedom. This is best shown when Equiano writes “I not only felt myself quite easy with these new countrymen, but relished their society and manners. I no longer looked upon them as spirits, but at men superior to us; and therefore I had the stronger desire to resemble them, to embide their spirit, and imitate their manners.”(Equiano, 368). This quote is a perfect example of the ways in which Equiano takes the side of his oppressor. He describes them as superior, and in some ways, he makes them out to be more civilized. This paradox makes its way into his writing. He agrees with the oppressor in many ways, but at the same time, he argues against their actions.

In addition to Equaino, Wheatly also has a system of duality in her writing. Throughout her poems, Wheatly expresses a similar belief system to that of Equiano. She believes that her oppressor is more of a blessing than a curse in many ways. This is best shown when Wheatly writes “Should you, my lord, while you pursue my song, Wonder from whence my love of freedom sprung, Whence flow these wishes for the common good, by feeling hearts best understood, I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate was snatched from Afric’s fancied happy seat…”(Wheatly, 403). This quote expresses her love for where she came from. She describes Africa as a “fancied happy seat”. In doing this, she sets a tone for her purpose in her writing. She loves where she came from, and freedom is what shes advocating for. This idea is completely contradicted in her next poem when she writes “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, may be refined to join the angelic train.”(Wheatly, 403). This quote expresses the belief in the conversion narrative she has. She believes that in finding god, these people who are being oppressed can become free spiritually. She believes that by conforming to white system of dominant culture, they are doing the right thing. Wheatly, in the same way as Equiano, has a system of duality in her writing that creates an interesting paradox.

Overall, many of the writings of early American Literature contain a system of duality that can be summed up as a battle of identity. Many individuals were being caught up in a fight of conformity that bleeds into their writing. Contradictions such as these create a paradox that is very evident in this literature.