The Destruction of the Sense of Self in The Classic Slave Narratives by Olaudah Equiano



When a leader exudes passion, it is empowering to those around them. Their leadership tends to inspire others to want to become better, to put forth more effort, to drive harder towards the goal and ultimately emulate the leader they are inspired by. This was not the case, however, for African Americans in the 18th century, for their superiors did not lead but rather dominated. In The Classic Slave Narratives, Olaudah Equiano recounts his time as a slave which began at the young age of eleven. He shares stories of his time with various masters as he was moved from location to location witnessing horrific sights at each one. The passages selected show the true colors of the complicated relationships being evaluated, as those in the position of power begin to momentarily falter in their position of authority. Equiano’s stories highlight the complexities of a relationship based in domination through the vivid portrayal of lies, verbal violence, and anxieties due to the lack of humanity within the slave-master dynamics. He continues to make his case through his description of the codependent and hypocritical actions that accompany the master-master dynamics. Equiano’s experiences give readers an inside look into the harsh and often hidden realities of slavery, as well as the contradictions and anxieties that result.

In The Classic Slave Narratives, the complexities of relationships are demonstrated by the internal conflicts of slaves viewing their master both as a father figure and as a torturer, and the masters equal conflicts of viewing their slave both as family and as property depending on the situation. In the narrative, Equiano's master is Michael Pascal whom he had been traveling with for quite some time. Pascal treated him well and even trusted him with certain responsibilities that allowed for a little freedom in Equiano's life. The complexities in the relationship are seen in two major ways within the selected text. The first medium through which this is seen is in Equiano's feelings towards Pascal. On the surface, Pascal had begun inadvertently preparing Equiano for his future as a potentially free man, which led him to become somewhat of a father figure to him. He was someone who Equiano grew to trust deeply, stating that he knew Pascal would, “never suffer me to deceive me, or tell lies… he would not think of detaining me any longer than I wished,” (pg. 90). While Equiano's perspective on their relationship has the potential to be viewed as a case of earned trust, it is more likely due to latent domination. Pascal, under the guise of benevolence, forces his views on Equiano in domineering ways. In reality, their relationship is anything but a familial one. This is seen when Equiano’s emotions changed upon Pascal's betrayal of him when he threatened to, “cut his throat,” (pg 91). Pascal's cold act of deception promptly adds a complicated dimension to their relationship, as he blatantly abuses the level of trust Equiano placed in him. 

The second major complexity is evident in Pascal's feelings towards Equiano. Much like Equiano viewed Pascal as a father figure, Pascal often treated him like he was his son. He allowed Equiano to lead a relatively normal life in comparison to most slaves; he even let him befriend his young daughter. Pascal made it apparent that he cared about Equiano, yet he kept him as a slave nonetheless. When Equiano confronted him to explain that by law he was a free man upon arriving in Deptford, Pascal became enraged, swearing uncontrollably before exiting the room, (pg. 90). Here it became clear that the complicated back and forth of their relationship diminished the usually unambiguous line of right and wrong between a slave and their master. It can be inferred that in Pascal's eyes, Equiano had become too comfortable as he now stood up for himself and his rights. Furthermore, one can speculate that Pascal viewed losing control over his slave as a defeat and possibly even an embarrassment. His need to assert dominance, despite the relatively positive relationship he had created with Equiano, created a feeling of uneasiness as the toxic qualities of domination become undeniably visible. Pascal's decision to exploit the trust-filled relationship he and Equiano shared highlights the complicated aspects of a master-slave dynamic because it allows readers to see the love-hate relationship a master has with possessing so much power. From these passages, one can deduce that Pascal may not know how to go about having a relationship with someone that momentarily felt like family all whilst owning them. Just as the slaves are trying to navigate their emotions and understandings of the situation, the slave masters are attempting to do the same despite it appearing as though they have it all figured out. 

The complexities of domination-based relationships are further seen when evaluating the hypocritical and dependent dynamic between masters. Shortly after their argument, Pascal flagged down the first vessel he could find and sold Equiano to its captain. Equiano explained to the captain, Captain Doran, that he could not be a slave for he had served his time and had been baptized; he had overheard a lawyer, as well as others, telling his master that for such reasons he could not be sold. He explains that, “They both said that those people who told me so were not my friends,” (pg.92). The master-master relationship becomes one of codependency as they rely on each other to deceive their slaves and to keep the pattern of oppression going. Equiano clearly exemplified knowledge of the subject when talking to Doran and he was so confident that he replied to their comment by stating, “It was very extraordinary that other people did not know the laws as well as they,” (pg. 92). One can surmise that his incorporation of sarcasm made Doran feel as though his sense of authority was being threatened, for Doran rebutted with a threat rather than letting the comment dissipate. 

The masters worked together to train their slaves into submission using similar tactics of continually sending mixed signals, as well as the frequent use of undermining language. Masters like Pascal and Doran seemed to have placed themselves on pedestals, incorporating a dynamic of aristocracy, continually acting as though they were the elite. While evident in many scenarios, Equiano brings the prevalent aristocracy to light when talking about his possessions. He explained that he only had one coat, which Pascal took from him, while saying, “If your prize money had been 10,000£ I had a right to it all and would have taken it,” (pg. 92). Anxieties are further developed as it becomes clear to readers that the master's view themselves as untouchables, justifying their horrid actions with each other. After sharing this statement, Equiano continued to describe how he went and hid any possessions he still held in fear of Doran taking his belongings just like Pascal did. Once again, the masters use similar approaches of instilling fear within their slaves and eventually conditioning them to act within their will prior to even saying anything. Such actions are highly oppressive as they prevent slaves from forming the ability to think for themselves. By habitually impeding on their slaves' attempts to form their own thoughts, they actively destroyed their sense of self. Without the chance to develop opinions independent of their masters, slaves lost the opportunity to make themselves a unique and thoughtful member of society. Despite being aware of their actions and the consequences that came thereof, the masters chose to proceed and compensated for their wrongdoings by frequently and covertly reassuring one another. 

Throughout the narrative, Equiano emphasized the toxic relationship between his fellow slaves and the men in charge, naming numerous accounts of acts of oppression and harmful exploitations. Complexities are highlighted through the internal conflicts displayed in the master-slave dynamic that simultaneously mirrors familial qualities. Contradictions and anxieties arise when analyzing the codependent nature between masters, as well as the undeniable hypocrisy seen in their actions. After further investigation, it becomes increasingly evident that the negative relationships contributed to the destruction of the slaves' sense of self. The master's unwavering need to assert power heavily prohibited the slaves' ability to break free and become an individual. Equiano's narrative superbly illustrates the complexities of these relationships by providing the reader with copious perspectives to ponder how different power dynamics play a role in this time period.