I don’t have a story.
My life hasn’t been very exciting.
Who would want to read about me?
Olaudah Equiano had some of these same thoughts as he sat down to write his memoir, which was somewhat ironically titled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Equiano wasn’t convinced that his life story was all that interesting.
In fact, he opens his memoir by saying that writing about yourself can be seen as a self-indulgent, vain act—deemed unbelievable, at best, or disgusting, at worst. Then, he goes on to issue a kind of apology for being exceedingly average.
“People generally think those memoirs only worthy to be read or remembered which abound in great or striking events; those in short, which in a high degree excite either admiration or pity: all others they consign to contempt and oblivion.”
At the time, the author did not see the value of his own writing.
Equiano was enslaved in the 18th century. His autobiography covers the entirety of his life, starting with his boyhood in Eboe—in what is now Nigeria. When he was around eleven years old, he was captured and sold into slavery. One of his masters named him Gustavus Vassa, and he used that name throughout his life but chose to publish his autobiography under his African name.
Equiano was later purchased by Robert King, a “charitable and humane” Quaker merchant, who let him buy and sell goods and fruits. From those trades, Equiano saved forty pounds sterling money—the same amount King paid for him—and used it to buy his freedom in 1766. From there, Equiano goes on to describe his adventures as a world-traveling tradesman and his spiritual transformation.
We look at that today and say, “Of course, he has a story!” But when Equiano looked at himself, he sort of shrugged and said, “I guess I’ll write this for my friends because they asked me to, and if it helps the cause of humanity in some small way, so be it.” He had no idea what difference his story would make. His exact words in the opening paragraph state, “I do not aspire to praise.”
But praise is what he got. Originally published in 1789 in London as a two-volume work, his book became one of the first widely read slave narratives. It went through eight British editions and one American edition during his lifetime, and it was translated into Dutch, Russian and German. Ultimately, Equiano’s story played a large role in shifting public opinion about the slave trade in Britain.
The slave trade was abolished in 1807, but slavery remained legal in most of the British Empire until 1833. (It would take another three decades—until President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation—for slaves to be free in the United States.)
Equiano put his experience into this perspective, once again reinforcing the idea that his story might not be the most exciting one out there, as he continues in the opening paragraph, “I offer here the history of neither a saint, a hero, nor a tyrant.”
Imagine if Equiano would have let himself be overcome by the idea that his story wasn’t good enough and decided not to write his autobiography. Look at the rich history we would be missing.
Someone out there cares about your story—family, friends, neighbors, maybe even strangers who can see bits of themselves in your experiences. You might not immediately see the impact of sharing your life story, but one day, it will come into focus.
You have a story worth telling.