Middle-Passage History For Modern Times

February is Black History Month. As the nation recognizes the experiences and achievements of African-Americans, writer Kai Wright reads from a rare first-hand account of slavery's middle passage.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

In February, of course, we celebrate Black History Month where we remember events and individuals that have played an essential role in this country's history. Editor and writer Kai Wright is going to tell us about some exceptional stories.

In the first installment, Kai tells us about a rare, first-hand account of one enslaved African's passage from Africa to America. Kai, tell us more about black history.

Mr. KAI WRIGHT (Editor, The African-American Experience): Thanks, Michel. One of the most famous of the sources - the primary sources that historians have used, are slave narratives, one of which is by a man named Olaudah Equiano.

Now, Olaudah's story is unique because he offers a first-person account of being captured on the coast of Africa and hopping onto a slave ship for the infamous middle passage. That's something that we don't have a lot of first-person accounts from.

So, the section I'm going to read from his narrative, which became very popular in the abolition movement, first in Britain and then in the United States, opens with him talking about his, sort of, idyllic childhood in the area that is now Benin, and then describing the day he gets captured.

One day, when all our people were going out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls and in a moment, seized us both. And without giving us time to cry out or make resistance, they stuffed our mouths and ran off with us into the nearest wood.

Here they tied our hands and continued to carry us as far as they could till night came on, when we reached a small house where the robbers halted for refreshment and spent the night.

He goes on to describe getting separated from his sister and being marched to the coast, where he then describes the scene.

The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea and the slave ship, which was then riding anchor and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound by some crew members, and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits and that they were going to kill me.

Their complexions, too, differing so much from ours. Their long hair and the language they spoke, it was very different from any I had ever heard, united to confirm me in this belief. Indeed, such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment that, if 10,000 worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country.

When I looked around the ship, too, and saw a large furnace of copper boiling and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate. And quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted.

In the movie "Amazing Grace," which details the British abolition movement's history, actor Youssou N'Dour portrays Olaudah Equiano.

(Soundbite of movie "Amazing Grace")

Mr. YOUSSOU N'DOUR: (As Olaudah Equiano) When you reach the plantation, they put irons to the fire, and do this to let you know that you no longer belong to God but to a man.

Mr. WRIGHT: Olaudah Equiano eventually went on to be sold in Virginia and had a unique life, where was able to get educated because he was a slave to a lieutenant in the British Royal Navy.

So, slave narratives offer this kind of rich detail of an experience that really animated the abolition movement, and that was the sort of thing throughout black history that would allow a meaningful opposition to shock a nation and say, hey, this is something more than we thought it was. And ultimately, it would lead to the banning of a trade that involved millions, indeed, billions of dollars in today's terms.

So, that's why I like Olaudah's story. It's one of the very few first-person voices of that experience that historians have been able to turn to. And I'm pleased to have been able to share the interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano.

MARTIN: Thank you, Kai. Kai Wright is editor of the African-American Experience - black history and culture through speeches, letters, editorials, poems, song, and stories. He joined us from our studios in New York. We'll hear Kai each week this month in our series, Tell Me More About Black History.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Books Featured In This Story

The African American Experience
The African American Experience

Black History and Culture Through Original Speeches, Letters, Editorials, Poems, Songs, and Stories

by Kai Wright

Paperback, 736 pages | purchase

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