Peter and Elijah in Equiano’s Narrative

In Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative, the Bible is used as an intertext to bolster his own credibility and posit himself as an equal amongst the predominately white European Christian population that would be critical of his narrative. In addition to this, Equiano utilizes architextual elements from the captivity narrative to parallel himself with other notable biblical figures, showing his readership who would have been familiar with these critical characters to hone in not only religious sentiments, but political propaganda as well. The passage in which Equiano describes his freedom exemplifies this acutely:

‘I glorified God in my heart, in whom I trusted.’ These words had been impressed on my mind from the very day I was forced from Deptford to the present hour, and I now saw them, as I thought, fulfilled and verified. My imagination was all rapture as I flew to the Register Office, and, in this respect, like the apostle Peter,[ U] (whose deliverance from prison was so sudden and extraordinary, that he thought he was in a vision) I could scarcely believe I was awake. Heavens! who could do justice to my feelings at this moment… My feet scarcely touched the ground, for they were winged with joy, and, like Elijah, as he rose to Heaven, they ‘were with lightning sped as I went on.’ (Kindle Locations 1860-1868).

If we are to juxtapose this with the book of Peter and that of Elijah, the parallelisms are conspicuous not only on the visible level, but indeed below that as well. Peter, the apostle was imprisoned by Herod and sentenced to death, but was able to escape by a miracle (an act of divine and purposeful intervention by God). Given a cursory glance, it may appear that the parallelism does not go so far: Equiano was also imprisoned by slavery and released; however, given a close reading, readers understand there is more to this allusion to Peter. Peter, like Equiano, endured many hardships and as a Christian, was persecuted for his beliefs of introducing the Gentiles and Jews to Christianity. This is important, because Equiano similarly was thrown into oppression because of racial prejudice and like Peter, advocated the blending of groups, albeit racial groups (as opposed to Peter’s advocacy of mixing religious groups). This serves as a defense against slavery: Equiano recognizes himself not only as Peter the unfairly imprisoned and God delivered, but also as Peter, the merging of groups and champion of eliminating prejudice. Elijah similarly serves a purpose within this passage. Although Elijah was not imprisoned like Peter, Elijah is taken up into heaven by God as a reward for being a devout follower. However, Elijah’s story goes deeper than this. The story of Elijah is a confrontation against oppression from the evil king Ahab, whom worships Baal (a false god) and is defeated with Elijah’s prayer. His steadfast faith is enough to convince the people of Israel to turn away from the king and Baal, and faith in the Jewish God is restored. Equiano’s narrative follows similar progressions. Throughout the narrative, we witness several testaments of his faith and against the system of slavery and prejudice, which can be compared with Baal. Indeed, Ahab is only the vehicle by which Baal is able to lead the Israelites astray; the white slave owners are the palpable executors of this ideology of oppression. In defeating Baal and Ahab, Elijah’s story contextualized in Equiano’s narrative is the call to arms advocating for the defeat of slavery and slave owners as well.

To an audience that was familiar with biblical stories and themes, this ideology and parallelism would not go unnoticed. In fact, it would likely serve as efficient propaganda given the obvious similarities. In accordance with other English literature at this time, religious allusions and symbolism were popular and had served for a driving force for social and political change. Although Equiano humbles himself as the beginning of his narrative, the comparisons to great figures like Peter and Elijah go deeper than references to freedom. He is situating himself as an apostle who has conquered against the roots of tyranny and will inspire the people to discard their prejudices—their Gentile prejudice—their Baals.

 

-Sara Nuila-Chae

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