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In the eighteenth century, a small group of black men met the challenge of the Enlightenment by mastering the arts and sciences and writing themselves into history. The battle lines were clear—literacy stood as the ultimate measure of humanity to the white arbiters of Western culture. If blacks could succeed in this sphere, they would prove that African and European humanity were inseparable. Without a literary record, blacks seemed predestined for slavery.The small but dedicated group—now known as the Black Atlantic writers—who stepped forward to meet this challenge published their autobiographies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They not only defied the popular opinion of the time that blacks were unfit for letters, but inaugurated the Black American and Black British literary traditions.While slave narratives are often excerpted and anthologized, they are rarely collected in their entirety. Pioneers of the Black Atlantic is the first anthology to include the complete texts of the five most important and influential narratives of the eighteenth century. Included here are the writings of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, John Marrant, Ottobah Cugoano, Olaudah Equiano, and John Jea.Their stories, resonant still in our racially divided world, are landmarks in the history of autobiography and human rights.
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The transatlantic slave trade was the underside of the Enlightenment's achievements in social progress, and for many Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, and Afro-Americans, narratives of their experiences were the most powerful weapons for achieving self-affirmation and freedom. "The stakes were high," notes Pioneers of the Black Atlantic coeditor Henry Louis Gates Jr. "If blacks could be shown to be capable of imaginative literature, they might jump a few links of the Chain of Being, in a pernicious game of 'Mother May I?'" The five works in this engaging collection represent the wide range of opinions and viewpoints of black thought in the 18th century. "A Narrative of the Lord's Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black" and "The Life, History, and Unparalleled Sufferings of John Jea, the African Preacher" recount the Christian fervor of black liberation and the cultural collisions of Negroes and Indians. In "A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, As Related by Himself," we witness the New World Creolization of African and European sensibilities. Ottabah Cugoano's "Thoughts and Sentiment on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species" is an impassioned, Afro-Victorian outcry against the enslavement of human beings, while "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African" is one of the most comprehensive and well-known accounts of the early American black experience (and is, by far, the longest of the narratives here). Pioneers of the Black Atlantic provides valuable insight into a literary movement that was as powerful in its day as the Harlem Renaissance would be a century later. As Gates's collaborator, William L. Andrews, writes, "The literary efforts of these pioneering writers to fashion a distinctly multicultural identity for themselves in their autobiographies resonate powerfully with our contemporary world." --Eugene Holley Jr.About the Author:
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Humanities, chair of the Afro-American Studies Department, and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard University.
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