They dubbed it the Port of No Return. When their ancestors left that port at Elmira Beach, Ghana – or Goree Island, Senegal, or any of a number of similar African ports – and set out on the perilous journey over the ocean to the Americas, there was no going back for the New World Negroes. That is what for most Africans in the Americas was the beginning of their history. Whether resident in a small island nation or in the American colonies, whether under the domain of a British, Spanish, French, or Dutch colonial power, and whether shuttled back and forth between several of the above, New World Negroes were tied together by a history of displacement and slavery. However, for them, national domains, language barriers, and geographical boundaries were not as defining and absolute as they were for their European masters. Rather, their boundaries and borders were established by race. The best-known early work of the African Diaspora appropriately stands as the prototype of diasporic writings across borders, Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, the 1789 autobiography of an African seeking to survive the Middle Passage, assert his name, vindicate his culture, define his identity, justify his very being, establish his relationship to fellow Africans in the throes of a slave system that viewed Africans as merchandise, and establish a place for himself in a colonial society.

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Copyright © 2011 Cambridge University Press. This article first appeared in The Cambridge History of African American Literature.

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