WOW Review: Volume XVI, Issue 2

The title is made from black out poetry against a colorful brick backdrop. A semi-transparent portrait of a Black man in 1700s dress is in the bottom left corner.Nearer My Freedom: The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano by Himself
Written by Monica Edinger and Lesley Younge
Zest Books, 2023, 216 pp
ISBN: 978-1728464077

This multigenre biography is based on Equiano’s autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789). This series of 119 first-person found poems presented in chronological order is interspersed with one- or two-page informational prose sections that provide historical context and further information for the previous or following section of poems. The book is lightly illustrated with portraits, maps, and drawings of the period.

“A Note on Language” at the beginning of the book attests to the authors’ commitment to preserving the original text, including using “Negro,” “slave,” and “master” as well as some British spellings and archaic words. In the informational sections, they use updated terms, including “Black,” “enslaved person,” and “enslaver.”

In his autobiography published in 1789, Olaudah Equiano begins by sharing his journey as a captive of the transatlantic slave trade. He was born in 1745 and started life as a free child in the advanced kingdom of Benin in the southern part of what is now Nigeria.

We are a nation of dancers, musicians, poets.

Every great event
every triumphant return from battle
celebrated with songs and public dances” (p. 15).

The informational text that follows notes that “Equiano’s description tells us about the loving families, safe homes, and rich cultures from which enslaved people were torn” (p. 19). Over twelve million Africans were captured for enslavement between 1492 and 1870 (p. 33). A quote from his autobiography describes his horrific experience in the cargo hold on the Middle Passage, the journey from Africa to the Americas, which took twenty-one to ninety days (p. 41).

He first arrived in the Americas in Barbados where he described himself as “unsaleable” (p. 49) and was shipped off to Virginia.

Now on a Virginia plantation
Now called Jacob

I was born and named Olaudah

Now weeding grass and gathering stones
Now with no person I could understand

Now exceedingly miserable
Now constantly grieving

Now I wished for death” (p. 50).

After a short time in agriculture, Equiano became an enslaved sailor in the British military during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). He tells of learning to use weapons, to read and write, and how to sail. After the war, he worked on merchant ships where he was paid. Still, he was sold or passed from one owner to another.

In all the islands in which I have been
(no less than fifteen)
the treatment of the slaves was nearly the same.

The slave trade has a tendency
To debauch men’s minds,
To harden them to every feeling of humanity!” (pp. 93-94).

Equiano “strategically tried to stay close to those who might help him reach his goal of liberation” (p. 102). Overcoming trickery, through hard work, and with the help of one of his “masters,” Captain Pascal, he eventually purchased his freedom (his manumission is printed in full on page 115). Equiano then worked as a skilled sailor who traveled extensively while participating in the slave trade as a buyer, seller, and transporter of enslaved people (p. 188). Ironically, he served as a free man on Pascal’s sloop. When the captain died while they were at sea, Equiano served in his place and brought the ship safely to port (poems 76 and 77, pp. 117-118).

During his journeys, Equiano met Quakers and other abolitionists and came to understand that his own freedom was dependent on freeing all enslaved people. He took a prominent role as an abolitionist leader in England. In 1788, he wrote an eloquent letter to Queen Charlotte and implored her to use her influence to end enslavement (pp. 186-187). His best-selling autobiography made Equiano “the first successful professional writer of African descent in the English-speaking world” (p. 56). The book was released at a critical time when Parliament was debating the future of slavery throughout the colonies.

In a section at the end of the book titled “Creating A Verse Version,” co-authors Monica Edinger and Lesley Younge share their process for crafting Equiano’s autobiography into a series of found-verse poems. They provide an example of how they looked for “Equiano’s most glittering gems of phrasing and descriptions” and molded his words “around poetic devices and forms” (p. 196) to arrive at each poem found in this book.

This book can be used with the haunting and powerful black and white wordless book The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo by Tom Feelings. First published in 1995, the 2017 reprint includes two additional introductions by author-illustrator Kadir Nelson and by Feelings’ son Kamili along with historical notes by scholar Dr. Sylviane A. Diouf. In addition, The Atlantic Slave Trade by Johannes Postma (2005) includes excerpts from Equiano’s autobiography and other first-person accounts of people who were victims or perpetrators of transatlantic human trafficking.

The authors of Nearer My Freedom offer both a bibliography and titles for additional reading including other informational books such as To Be a Slave by Julius Lester (1968) and Never Caught: The Washington’s Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar (2017). There is also a young readers edition of the latter, Never Caught: The Story of Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Kathleen Van Cleve (2020).

Nearer My Freedom can be paired with another first-person biography of a prominent enslaved author presented in verse format, The Slave Poet of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarita Engle and Sean Qualls (2011). Fiction pairs could include YA first-person verse narratives such as Home Is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo (2021), Solo by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess (2022), and Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam (2019).

Nearer My Freedom: The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano was a 2024 Young Adult Library Services Association finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award.

The co-authors of this biography have served as educators. Monica Edinger taught 4th-grade at the Dalton School, and Lesley Younge has taught for seventeen years in progressive independent schools. After college, Monica spent two years in Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps volunteer. Her previous book for young people is Africa Is My Home: A Child of the Amistad (2013), illustrated by Robert Byrd. In addition to Nearer My Freedom, Lesley has published a picturebook, A-Train Allen (2023), illustrated by Lonnie Ollivierre.

Judy Moreillon, Tucson, Arizona

© 2023 by Judy Moreillon

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WOW review: reading across cultures
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