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.
A small but dedicated group, now known as the Black Atlantic writers, stepped forward. Their autobiographies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, 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.
As Pioneers of the Black Atlantic makes clear, this vibrant group of writers knew and read each other well. In their introductory material, editors Henry Louis Gates Jr. and William L. Andrews illustrate common themes, including the fascinating trope of the “Talking Book.” Invoking the curiosity each Black writer felt when confronting white literacy and the anxiety that books did not “speak” to them because they were Black, the “Talking Book” appears in all the narrative at crucial juncture, when the writer realizes that literacy can be the road to freedom. The Black Atlantic writers lived in a world defined by intertwined identifications with Africa, England and America. Their experience was truly multi-ethnic in scope. By creating and developing literary self-portraits they were able to contribute to Western letters and establish a strong transatlantic Black voice.
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.