Equiano may defy the stereotypes of an Afro-British slave but his story fits within the historical narrative all too well. He spends all his time trying to break free from the stereotypes that plagued the 18th century instead of exposing them for their flaws. Equiano can be seen pushing himself away from the ‘lesser blacks’ as he writes about a tribe that he was nothing like, “…I was very much struck by this difference, especially when I cam among a people who did not circumcise, and ate without washing their hands.” He goes through great lengths to showcases his ability to navigate, trade and solve math problems to argue for his freedom. His argument is simple. He is too smart to be a slave. He would rather be known for his brilliance than his humanity. Securing himself in the hierarchy is more important that bringing equality.
Like the majority of politicians before and after, Equiano does very little to dismantle the power structure of slavery once he has risen to the top of it. The abolitionist tones in this text are hard to take seriously when he has adopted the very institution for the sake of profit. He is more concerned with standing out from the slaves than standing up for them.
This may be harsh treatment for someone who has lived such a horrible life but Equiano is has held himself as a character witness against slavery. He has lost a very important distinction between being a victim and being innocent. Slavery made everyone a victim and not even the worse criminal deserves to be treated like chattel. Equiano’s narrative is offensive. It doesn’t matter if they were clean, common or Christian. Humans shouldn’t be slaves. You can’t deserve something like that.
The echoes of slavery can still be seen throughout America today. There has been much effort to remove racist and segragational laws but this does very little to remove the hate and racial tension unraveling in the streets today. Omni and Winant write “…racial inequalities and injustice had much deeper roots…” (69) than some black and white rules law books. Removing this overt racism does not necessarily translate into internalized changes.
America was built on a white power structure and nothing short of its total destruction will ever eradicate it. Even then, there is no guarantee. We have all been raised to notice race and taught to identify with the groups that look most like us. The secret to breaking racial tension and prejudice is being able to notice difference without using it to describe difference. Society may not be able to pass a law like that, but fortunately, we don’t need to wait for one. We are all free to search, identify and remove our personal prejudices wherever they find them. People will always have the surprising potential to be good.
Equiano uses the color of people’s skin to describe their behavior while asking to not be defined by the color of his. This is the kind of racism that Omni and Winant warn about. Racism does not have to have any overtly negative consequences to be harmful to society. It simply has to be allowed to exist. Equiano may not be depriving people of their humanity, but he uses the whiteness of their skin to lump them together into one common and over-generalized preconception. When he describes a variety of these white people, he is only adding different stereotypes. This would be no different than a white man saying there are all kinds of black people: rappers, Baptists and athletes. These are only a variety of stereotypes.
I have been changing tires for the past eight years of my life. I am also taking 18 credit hours at USC, maintaining a strict workout routine and doing everything I can to provide an income for my wife and two children. Very few people see these latter details of my life as I am covered in grease and getting behind the wheel of their BMWs. They simply see a 30 year old guy changing the tires on their 60,000 dollar calls. They see a guy that is beneath them. The social identity that accompanies many remedial jobs like mine has a tendency to hide the real lives that get up everyday and do what it takes to make it. It turns people like me into a name tag.