Slave Narrative to Selfie Narrative: Equiano and Instagram

June 27, 2022   •   By Kaushik Tekur

IN THE FIRST chapter of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself (1789), Equiano writes, “People generally think those memoirs only worthy to be […] remembered which abound in […] striking events. […] [A]ll others they consign to contempt and oblivion.” Today, there is hardly an anthology of 18th-century literature without at least a few excerpts from Equiano’s extraordinary narrative. Such canonical status is not only because the “events” described in the narrative are “striking” but also because they are poignantly still relevant in a “post-emancipation era.”

On February 16 of this year, Equiano.Stories premiered on Instagram as an insta-film — a modern-day social media adaptation of Equiano’s autobiographical narrative. Produced jointly by Stelo Stories and the DuSable Museum of African American History, the insta-film uses the Stories feature on Instagram, in which the content is meant for a shorter duration of consumption than the usual posts. The handle has then saved the stories as Highlights, which, as an Instagram feature, allows users to extend the longevity of Stories originally meant to disappear in 24 hours. By using this feature, the film manages to approximate the effect created by Equiano’s lines and their subsequent legacy, in that a set of Stories meant for immediate and urgent consumption can sometimes manage to extend their presence in the collective imagination and avoid “oblivion.” According to Equiano, perhaps because the media through which he presented his narrative — print — was ephemeral, and the content insignificant for mainstream England, his narrative would be forgotten once slavery was abolished. This insta-film adaptation of Equiano’s narrative continues to speak not only to writers’ and directors’ understanding of consumers’ attention as a limited resource but also, more importantly, to the afterlife of slavery.

Like Equiano’s narrative, the insta-film is also presented in the first person. When Equiano first enters the screen, we infer that he is recording himself with a phone in a “selfie-angle,” and he proceeds to introduce himself, his family, and his background. In some of the film’s posters, Equiano is presented as a boy taking a selfie with his camera, and, in most scenes, the camera is present in visibly shaky hands, which helps retain the participant-narrator aspect of Equiano’s narrative. But, unlike the original narrative where Equiano identifies the “chief design” of the narrative as exciting in his readers “a sense of compassion for the miseries which the Slave-Trade has entailed on my unfortunate countrymen,” here Equiano explains that the page is meant for “random stuff.”

As opposed to the print Equiano, who was acutely aware of and careful in presenting the sociopolitical situation in which he was producing his narrative, the digital Equiano comes across as a “fun kid” frolicking across in his native land until he is kidnapped. The insta-film alters Equiano’s age and the tense in which he narrates his tale. While in the original narrative an adult free Black man narrates his past, in the insta-film, it is an unassuming child who takes us through his life as he is living it. And print Equiano doesn’t just narrate his childhood as history but, instead, frames it as a past constantly juxtaposed against the contemporary context of the British Empire. For example, in the first chapter, speaking about his kingdom, Benin in West Africa, Equiano writes: “Those prisoners [of war] which were not sold or redeemed we kept as slaves: but how different was their condition from that of the slaves in the West Indies!” The narrative is presented in the past tense, an adult Equiano revisiting his childhood to read it against his present. In the digital adaptation, juxtapositions of this kind are glaringly absent, and a child’s narration retains merely the viewer’s sympathy without preserving the critical comparison and commentary of the original narrative.

Still, the insta-film has made several thoughtful decisions in adapting this narrative, over two centuries later, to a very different medium. The film approximates the “self-publication” of Equiano’s original narrative; highlight number 30 in the film presents the background to the narrative’s publication: “Trusting no one but himself, he decided to self-publish and to keep all the rights.”

A story in Highlight 30 of the film

Arguably, print Equiano is always trying to retain his authorial autonomy, and the insta-film replicates this struggle by utilizing the Instagram feature that allows users to manage the content on their own handles. Social media platforms like Instagram, having been naturalized over the last decade or so, give users the sense that the content on their phone truly belongs to them and that they have absolute control over its circulation and consumption. But even as the film successfully replicates an enslaved individual’s attempts to narrate their own story, parallels drawn between a burgeoning digital-scape and a then-burgeoning print-scape are not necessarily so neat.

The insta-film deftly utilizes several other features made available by the medium, including how places are marked with geotags such as “Home” and “Tinmah,” among others. Links to more (para)content take users to posters that basically annotate Equiano’s narrative. (Most of this educational content, created with the aim of being used in classrooms, is put together by the DuSable Museum of African American History and Stelo Stories Studio.) Further, the digital Equiano uses the Story feature on Instagram to record the abrupt jumps in the original narrative. Frequent kidnappings and enslavement leave very little control over his own life and narrative, and Equiano captures these sudden changes in the plot of his life through paragraph and chapter divisions. The story feature is put to similar use; each “story” in the film is in fact a short episode or e-paragraph narrating a particular incident or description.

Finally, the film uses captions, text across the stories, and emoticons to convey the narrative to a modern-day Instagram user. In doing this, the production strives to present Equiano as, initially, one of us, who then meets with a tragic fate. In Equiano’s original narrative, the first several chapters are dedicated to establishing how Benin (in present-day Nigeria) is different from Europe and the colonized Americas, including its people, fashion, food, architecture, and even forms of slavery. He is shaken by the differences he observes after being kidnapped and having to confront white people. The insta-film does not carry with it sufficient intensity to compare to the struggles of the print Equiano and his original narrative with regard to “fitting in,” trying to establish himself as a human and not property.

As a result, modern-day Equiano is seen as being at much more ease in the digital world than 18th-century Equiano. In the episode in the print narrative in which Equiano speaks about his confrontation with the book as an object, he writes:

I had often seen my master and Dick employed in reading; and I had a great curiosity to talk to the books, as I thought they did. […] I have often taken up a book, and have talked to it, and then put my ears to it, when alone, in hopes it would answer me; and I have been very much concerned when I found it remained silent.

This was Equiano’s initial relationship with the medium in which he comes to eventually narrate his own story. This sense of defamiliarization of the medium of narration draws the readers’ attention to the political economy of the circulation of commodities of narration. The book as a commodity of narration is not universal and “natural,” and Equiano learning to utilize this commodity to narrate his own story is a cultural process of engaging with Western forms of storytelling, far beyond the mechanical process of learning to “handle” a book.

Later, when he gets baptized and admitted to a school by the “benevolence” of a few English women, Equiano writes, “I had the stronger desire to resemble [the Europeans] […] I therefore embraced every occasion of improvement; […] I had long wished to be able to read and write; and for this purpose I took every opportunity to gain instruction, but had made as yet very little progress.” By the time he comes to write his experiences, Equiano expresses himself through a deeply Christian register, adapting a spiritual autobiographical form of writing to his purposes, ensuring that his story fits a few hundred pages that can be printed and circulated.

This struggle with medium specificity and literary authenticity is completely missing in the film. Digital Equiano could give any influencer a run for their money, and, as a result, the insta-film too comfortably naturalizes the commodity of narration. The producers describe the film in most places as: “What if an African child in 1756 had Instagram when he was enslaved?” This description raises the question, how did an African child transformed into a commodity (without his own narration) so easily and naturally gain access to a commodity of narration? The slave narrative, among other things, is the declaration of freedom from chattel slavery and the right to narrate this story. Hence, Equiano’s struggle with slavery is also a struggle to narrate in his own voice, a struggle with Western media, commodities, and genres of storytelling. It is this simultaneous struggle with the medium that the insta-film effaces, in the process mischaracterizing Instagram as a natural and transhistorical mode of storytelling.

Still, what the adaptation lacks in its examination of commodified narration, it ably explores in its depiction of “fitting in” within a Western context. Equiano in the original largely writes himself into the Christian narrative as someone who learns the religion and the gravity of its principles. Even as he highlights his cultural background and identity, Equiano is invested in fashioning himself as a Christian who is as good as — on occasion, even more pious than — the white Christians. In the film, Equiano’s use of a selfie-narrative to record “random stuff” helps him fashion himself as an always-already insider to this contemporary digital world. Modern markers of civilization that lie in creating a digital persona with the right aesthetics, ensuring it never comes across as “cringe,” are things Equiano handles stylishly. While this again removes the traces of the struggles the print Equiano has in narrating his story of freedom from chattel slavery, the final result — that of knowing what to say and how to say it for maximum impact — is central to the insta-film’s aesthetic and its power.

This creative liberty to shorten the original narrative and condense the scope to Equiano’s childhood is perhaps something the viewer would want to grant the producers, given their vision of making movies for “young people.” Still, by giving us access only to Equiano’s childhood, his quest for freedom is cut short. In Equiano’s narrative, details about his childhood and culture play a major role in constructing the “humanity” that Equiano stakes his own claims on. Against the British-constructed image of inhuman savages, Equiano’s narrative highlights the “human” in himself, his friends, and his countrymen; their feelings of love, fear, anger, sorrow, surprise, and joy clearly highlighted throughout the narrative, such that the enslavement is positioned as fundamentally unjust and inhumane. When Equiano finally gains his freedom, the reader has access to Equiano’s assertion of relative independence and a continuing fight against the “infernal invaders of human rights.” With this missing from the film, what we have left is a rather exotic presentation of Equiano’s culture and the most gruesome part of Equiano’s enslavement. His successful struggle against the system at a personal level and for his countrymen is only mentioned in a few stories toward the end of the film textually.

Without the later sections of the narrative, the film becomes a mere “sympathetic” representation of the trauma and violence inflicted on Black bodies. Available for easy circulation and consumption, the film’s Instagram handle currently has close to 100,000 followers, with possibly even more people having viewed the stories. We can only think about this film alongside the other videos already in circulation depicting violence against Black people. Many critics have drawn attention to the problems involved in this popular consumption of atrocity videos. Last year, Jason Okundaye, among others, drew attention to the construction of the genre of “Black trauma porn” and the implications of the uproar against it on Black social media. Equiano’s insta-film, despite its detailed production and creative ingenuity, lends itself to be subsumed under this genre — something that Equiano’s original narrative makes hard, if not impossible.

Equiano.Stories was not a one-off experiment in adaptation and intermediality. The New York Public Library launched the Insta Novels program in 2018 with the aim of making “great stories available even more widely.” The program digitized Alice in Wonderland, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “The Raven,” The Metamorphosis, and A Christmas Carol as stories highlighted on NYPL’s Instagram handle. An innovative move on the part of the library in collaboration with an independent advertising and creative agency, the program got an estimated 300,000 people reading these texts in less than a year’s time. The very next year, Mati Kochavi, “an Israeli hi-tech billionaire” from a family of Holocaust victims and survivors, and his daughter Maya Kochavi created Eva.Stories a retelling of the real-life story of Eva Heyman and her experience of the German occupation of Hungary as documented in her diary. This production company behind Eva.Stories is the aforementioned Stelo Stories, and they plan to release 10 such films aimed at a young audience.

Equiano.Stories in just a few months has already created quite a stir. The insta-film is an impressive creative work bringing to life Equiano and parts of his narrative through an innovative adaptation across different genres and media. At the same time, in the context of popular circulation and consumption of videos depicting violence against Black people, the insta-film presents an exoticized and traumatized digital Equiano, shorn of most of the agential struggles against sociopolitical and narrative injustice that make the original story so urgent for a public readership.


Kaushik Tekur is a PhD student at the Department of English, Binghamton University (SUNY). His research interest lies in studying 18th-century English literature and its engagement with the then–British Empire’s evolving policing and surveillance practices.