Orientation to Exhibition

his Exhibition aims to open a wide and provocative window onto the universal phenomenon of masquerade, with scripturalization/-izing (or hyper-signification) of black flesh/blackface as one of its most persistent and disturbing modern practices and ideologies. The window-opening of this somewhat unusual if not destabilizing “exhibition” is accomplished through engagement of one of the earliest and best known of the early Black Atlantic narratives as itself an example, it is assumed here, of masquerade, of pointedly playing with black flesh as a way of playing with the making of the human. Poignantly entitled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written by Himself, this narrative was first published in Britain in 1789. This performance of self-narration was written by a figure who was born, as it is reported, in or around 1745, in either Igboland in western Africa (southeastern Nigeria) or some place in or around South Carolina.  He was from his youth forced through enslavement to negotiate the world within and on the edge of a maritime subculture. His narrative was something of a best-seller at the time. Its sales reflected and consolidated the author’s notoriety as one of the most widely known end-of-the-eighteenth century Anglophone African Atlantic figures. He died in 1797 as a man of some notoriety and wealth and influence.

This Exhibition is not a reading of the life of the Equiano/Vassa. It makes use of The Interesting Narrative (1789) not as history or biography but as portal through which analysis of the construction and maintenance of modern (North Atlantic) worlds—backwards and forward in time and stretching beyond any one particular situation of the modern--can be sharpened, made provocative and disruptive of assumptions held by conventional historians, literary critics, and essentialists of “race.” For too long simply viewed as an example of the fraught genre of (ex-) “slave narrative,” or “spiritual biography,” The Interesting Narrative was successful beyond other such narratives for several reasons, not least because as it was mostly directed toward abolitionist colleagues it was so much a masquerade, a bravura performance, of modern subjectivity. 

Because it was written by a black-fleshed person, The Interesting Narrative helps readers to “see through” black flesh some of the blinkered moments and major perduring issues and problems having to do with the constructed-ness of modernities. Such constructed-ness includes ongoing mimetic racialization practices and ideologies (scripturalization), which in turn reflect types or stages of enslavement, resistance, complex subjectivization. 

Stage I
“We [Eboes] are…a nation of dancers, musicians, poets…”; Or, 
Knowing the World through/as Masquerade
Stage II
“The White men had some spell or magic”; Or, 
Translatio studii et imperii (Transfer of Learning and Power) as Scripturalization
Stage III
“The book remained silent”; Or, 
Scripturalization as White Violence on Black Flesh
Stage IV
“The Ethiopian was willing to be saved by Jesus Christ”;
Or, Black Mimetic Translation of Scripturalization 
Stage V
“[T]he veil [removed]…I saw…things...that…can never be told”;
Or, Signifying on Mimetic Scripturalization of Black Flesh 



he Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, was first published in Britain in 1789, by subscription—the process of getting buyers to commit to purchase, in full or in part, a copy or multiple copies prior to publication. The publication was so well and so widely received—especially by British and other abolitionist-minded individuals and groups—that there were nine (authorized) editions in Britain before the death of the author in 1797.  The complex narrative was much more than an example of the “slave narrative” genre of the 18th and 19th centuries; and it was also something less than or more creative and ingenious than a simple “life story” or “biography.” It was and remains—as its complex title with its complex authorship suggests—a window onto, if not a mirror of, invention of the self (especially the Black-fleshed self) and of western modernities. That the invention work was crafted by a Black-fleshed person born in mid-eighteenth century (either in what is now southern Nigeria or South Carolina), who was kidnapped, made a slave, and a “stranger” in relation to dominance and power, but who also came to realize economic success, a degree of psycho-social integration into (via biblical-evangelical Methodism and traditional Anglicanism) and popular acclaim from such worlds is all the more remarkable--“magical”?--begging analysis. What did Equiano/Vassa see or experience? What did he come to know about how the world operated, the assumptions around which it turned, that accounts for his account, his humiliations, his survival, and successes? This Exhibition provokes the unmasking of a compelling theory and analysis. 

Summary: An autobiography of Olaudah Equiano.


The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or, Gustavus Vassa, the African written by himself

Summary: An autobiography of Olaudah Equiano.

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An engraved portrait of Olaudah Equiano which appears in his autobiography.

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Olaudah Equiano of Gustavus Vassa, De Africaan

An engraved portrait of Olaudah Equiano which appears in his autobiography.

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Shipwreck on the Bahama banks with a quotation from the Bible (Job 33:14-16, 29-30) under it.

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Bahama Banks, 1767

Shipwreck on the Bahama banks with a quotation from the Bible (Job 33:14-16, 29-30) under it.

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