Black Atlantic Writers of the 18th Century:
Living the New Exodus in England and the Americas
Edited by Adam Potkay & Sandra Burr
Reviewed by Kathryn Rummell
The Journal of African Travel-Writing, Number 1, September 1996 (pp. 94-95).
© 1996 The Journal of African Travel-Writing
Black Atlantic Writers of the 18th Century offers readers a single volume in which to read narratives by four important black writers of the late eighteenth century--Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, John Marrant, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, and Olaudah Equiano. These narratives, published between 1770 and 1793, relate the struggles of the four men as they make their way from captivity to freedom. More important than their deliverance from slavery, however, is their discovery of Jesus Christ and their conversion to Christianity. Editors Adam Potkay and Sandra Burr seek to illustrate the narratives' primary focus on the black pilgrims' journey to salvation; indeed this emphasis on spiritual autobiography provides their volume with unity and coherence, and justifies the collection of these four narratives.
In the introduction to this volume, Potkay skillfully places the black writers' religious experiences within the context of late eighteenth-century Evangelicalism. In lucid prose, Potkay explains the main tenets of Methodism as well as its attractiveness for blacks. Emphasizing the "sudden and vividly conscious experience" of the "new birth" in Christ, Methodism sought to embrace all races and classes, and was therefore particularly appealing to blacks searching for spiritual comfort in a foreign world. Potkay devotes a substantial amount of attention to the Reverend George Whitefield, in the introduction as well as in the notes, beca use he was perhaps the most instrumental figure for blacks converting to Methodism. Differing from John Wesley by espousing the Calvinist doctrine of the elect, Whitefield influenced a large number of black writers, including the poet Phillis Wheatley and the writers in this volume. In fact, all but Cugoano explicitly mention Whitefield in their narratives. And, as Potkay asserts, these narratives announce Whitefield's presence in their tendency "to express a Calvinist world view of election and grace; of saints and sinners; of the just workings of providence through human misery and delight."
Crucial to Methodist doctrine is the idea of Exodus, and this idea is echoed in the narratives gathered here. The theme of Exodus, freedom from enslavement and pilgrimage through the wilderness, was particularly meaningful to Whitefield because he was an itinerant preacher, and therefore quite literally practiced what he preached. The same theme reveals itself in the four spiritual autobiographies in this collection. Marrant, unique because born a freeman, wanders through the Georgia and South Carolina wilderness, spreading the gospel to various tribes of Native Americans. Gronniosaw, Cugoano, and Equiano are all delivered from the literal bondage of slavery as well as from the spiritual bondage of sin; each embarks on a personal pilgrimage to salvation. In addition, each writer self-consciously marks his narrative as a spiritual autobiography. Gronniosaw, for instance, ends his narrative by referring to his family as "pilgrims, and very poor pilgrims we are traveling through many difficultie s towards our heavenly home." In his narrative, Equiano explicitly compares his pilgrimage to the Israelites' journey. Finally, the writers use the theme of Exodus to their advantage to directly and indirectly point out the injustices of slavery. Potkay's impressive introduction provides a thorough religious background for reading and understanding these black writers' spiritual journeys.
Potkay and Burr helpfully introduce each narrative by offering a brief biography of the writer and a bibliography of the narrative's editions. Their choices for copy-texts are carefully explained, and they often include significant emendations from other editions in the notes to each narrative. The notes, in fact, are the volume's greatest strength. Informative, thorough, and extremely helpful, the notes are culled from a variety of primary and secondary sources, and testify to the high level of scholarship practiced by the editors. The book does not include a master bibliography at the end, however, which might have proved helpful to the scholar interested in a particular aspect of a narrative. Similarly, although the editors intend for this edition to be beneficial to "more advanced scholars of eighteenth century and black Atlantic studies," both Cugoano's and Equiano's narratives have been abridged. Nevertheless, the intelligent and copious notes compensate for this drawback, and make the edition useful to both students and scholars.
Readers of this journal will also be attracted by the narratives' descriptions of sea and land travel. In addition to spiritual journeys, each of the narratives reprinted here chronicles physical journeys--across Africa, up and down the eastern coast of North America, across the Atlantic, and throughout England. In many cases, the travelers record geographic and cultural observations as carefully as they narrate their spiritual epiphanies. This volume, then, will appeal to readers interested in issues as various as travel-writing, high-seas adventure, and spiritual autobiography.