Daily Archives: February 4, 2007

Learning About Africa: Third in a Series

 

 

The Life of Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano is a fascinating figure. Years ago I came across his autobiographical account of his childhood in Africa, capture, middle passage, time as a slave in various parts of the Americas, and life as a freeman in England. I was particularly taken with the African portions of his story as so much of it made me think of Sierra Leone. Thus I was delighted to come across The Kidnapped Prince: The Life of Olaudah Equiano adapted by Ann Cameron for children.

Because even this adapted version has some very harsh sections and because so much about this time and slavery is new and overwhelming to my 4th graders, I read it aloud to them while they follow along in their own copies of the book. They have small booklets (chapbooks, I call them) in which I encourage them to jot down interesting words and ideas as well as personal responses. All of this gives us much to talk about, understandably.

I’ve since learned that there is some question whether Equiano was actually born in Africa. The arguments on both sides are compelling. Whether he was or not, scholars seem to at least agree that what he describes is accurate. That is, if he did not experience Africa as a child firsthand, he had informants who had.

Whatever the truth of his birth, I continue to recommend Camerons’ adaptation as a highly accessible first-person account for children of what it was like to be enslaved in the 18th century. Olaudah’s voice is a compelling one, only lightly abridged by Cameron (as I’ve checked her version against the original) that completely engages children and helps them to begin a lifelong journey of considering the whole idea of slavery and what it means in terms of America then and today.

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African Attention

Watching Leonardo DiCaprio share the screen with genuine handless black Africans or Ralph Fiennes’s gardener learn a lesson in postcolonial realpolitik while I munch my popcorn doesn’t rouse me to action; it stirs horror, pity, sometimes repulsion, sentiments that linger uneasily until the action starts up again to sweep away that empathy with another explosion, gunfight or rousing chase.

So writes Mahohla Dargis in her excellent essay, “Africa at the Cineplex,” in today’s New York Times about the true outcomes of the recent swatch of commercial features about Africa. Movies like Blood Diamond along with recent ad campaigns and celebrity trips — all are certainly making the continent and its troubles more familiar to Americans. But, as Dargis, points out, what of it? Are Americans understanding Africa any better? Doing anything, really? We Americans are lucky to be able to spend a few hours in the cinema feeling for Africas or to be able to buy something nice for ourselves and, on the side, give a few dollars to Africa as well. And the film companies make money for themselves, their investors, with a bit goes to Africa as well.

Don’t know the answer, but I’m glad there are folks like Mahohla Dargis pointing out the realities of Our African Attention.

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