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Monday, April 12, 2010

The life of a Muslim slave in America

Jonathan Curiel

It’s a summer night at the Civic Center in downtown Atlanta, and the guests, dressed in suits and evening gowns, walk amid glass cases displaying artifacts from America’s slave period (pic, right).
There are the tall, wooden “Doors of No Return” from a 17th-century slave-trading fort in Ghana. There is a plantation’s whip. There are iron shackles. And there is a hush around these objects; they bring tears to the eyes of some visitors.
At a case titled “Cultural Gifts From Africa,” the mood changes to upbeat. Among the objects it displays is a small, yellowed, 15-page manuscript written in Arabic. Its owner, Derrick Beard, tells passersby that it was written in 1831 by a Muslim scholar, a slave from West Africa, named Omar ibn Said, who was more literate than many of the slave masters he encountered in the Carolinas. Listeners tend to repeat the same interjection: “Really?”
Beard is used to it. Said’s brief autobiography, The Life of Omar ben Saeed, is the only one known to have been penned in Arabic by an American slave. The manuscript’s inclusion in the “America I AM: The African American Imprint” exhibition, which has toured the United States since early last year, is giving new audiences a firsthand look at a document Beard says “has more relevance today than it did in 1831.”
Despite being enslaved by Christians, Said saw the importance of co-existence between Islam and Christianity in America. Addressing his words directly to Americans—but also indirectly to Muslims—he states that, despite the existence of the institution of slavery, there are nonetheless good people in the United States, notably his owners, whom he calls “a very good generation.” Beard sees Said’s manuscript as the first plea for religious co-existence written by a Muslim in America. Said had lived for 61 years when he wrote it; he had been a slave for 24 of them.
“This manuscript is important because here’s a man who’s advocating having an interfaith dialogue,” says Beard, a collector of African–American history who acquired Said’s autobiography at a 1996 auction. “What else could be more appropriate to bring to the public today?”
For almost 200 years, those familiar with Omar ibn Said have debated how complete or genuine his supposed conversion to Christianity was. Said began his autobiography with the 67th surah of the Qur’an, Al-Mulk (“dominion” or “ownership”). Starting, as do all surahs but one, with Bismillah (“In the Name of God…”), its text continues, “Blessed be He in Whose hands is Dominion; and He over all things hath power….” Said’s meaning is clear: It is God who holds sway over creation.
Compared to other slaves, Said was treated well by his owner, James Owen, a prominent North Carolinian whose brother had been governor. Said was excused from manual labor on the plantation belonging to Owen, “who does not beat me, nor call me bad names,” he wrote. “During the last twenty years I have not seen any harm at the hand of Jim Owen.”
Pic: What is left of the Owen plantation today, unmarked and largely overgrown.
From his retention of Arabic—which even after decades in America he could write complete with the diacriticals that indicate short vowels—to his relatively friendly relationship with the Owen family, everything about Said was exceptional, and this drew public attention to him across the United States during his own lifetime, too.
In the 1820’s, Francis Scott Key, who authored America’s national anthem, sent Said an Arabic-language Bible, hoping it would help convert him to Christianity. Newspapers wrote about Said, including one article from 1825 that described Said as “good natured” and speculated that he had been a prince in Africa, because of his “dignified deportment.” Around the mid-1850’s, when Said was over 80 years old, a daguerreotype of him was taken, followed a few years later by an ambrotype. These images, like those made of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, cemented the public’s perception of Said as an important African–American figure.
Muslims comprised upward of 20 percent of African slaves brought to the United States, and like Said, a number of them impressed white Southerners with their proficiency in Arabic and their desire to maintain their observance of Islam’s requirement of five daily prayers. Both of these traits humanized them in the eyes of their owners—sometimes sufficiently to lead the owners to infer they were Arabs or noble Africans deserving of better treatment than other slaves, according to historian Allan D. Austin, who authored two books on the subject. What made Said more exceptional still was his maturity: When a warring African army captured and sold him in 1807, he was already 37 years old.
Born in Futa Toro (“the land between two rivers”), in what is now northern Senegal, Said came from a large, prosperous, pious family. In his Life, Said wrote that he “continued seeking knowledge for twenty-five years,” learning from his brother Muhammad and two other “shaykhs,” a word that can mean “learned men.” He claimed 15 siblings, and he waxed proud of his adherence to Islam in Africa—ablutions, prayers and alms “every year in gold, silver, harvest, cattle, sheep, goats, rice, wheat and barley.” He was, Austin says, “a scholar and a teacher.”
Like many other Muslim slaves in the antebellum south, Said was under powerful pressure to adopt his master’s religion. By 1831, Said was attending church and reading the Bible—in Arabic. However, his written emphasis on Quranic surahs convinces Alryyes that Said “was playing an in-between game,” professing enough Christianity to pass as a convert without denying Islam.
The night I interviewed Beard and saw Said’s manuscript behind glass was the opening night of the “America I AM” exhibition in Atlanta. The night had the feel of an Academy Awards ceremony. By special invitation, guests heard live African music and speeches (paraphrasing W. E. B. Du Bois, organizer Tavis Smiley asked, “Would America be America without its Negro people?”), then walked through an exhibition whose entry mirrored those of traditional mud-and-timber buildings in West Africa. Images of famous African Americans adorned the walls, from Frederick Douglass to Barack Obama—and including Omar ibn Said.
It’s not only here that Said is remembered, but also in southeastern North Carolina. A few years ago, Adam Beyah (pic), a member of a Fayetteville mosque named the Masjid Omar ibn Sayyid, drove about an hour south to the small town of Bladenboro, where “Owen Hill”—Said’s plantation—had been located. Beyah and his companions were seeking Said’s grave, but they found that the plantation had disappeared, covered over by smaller, subdivided properties. “We were driving down the street, and we saw a lady in the yard,” says Beyah. “We pulled over and she asked what we were looking for. We told her, ‘Omar.’ She said, ‘Oh, you’re talking about the Prince?’”
She pointed Beyah to a nearby property, which they explored until they found “remnants of an old house and some grave stones,” says Beyah. “I’m not going to say it was Omar’s grave. I don’t know whose grave it was.”
According to research by Thomas C. Parramore, a North Carolina historian and professor who died in 2004, Said’s tombstone, which read “Omar the Slave,” disappeared many years ago.
Said died in 1864, one year before Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment that officially abolished slavery in the United States.
Adapted from Aramco magazine, April 2010. The writer is the author of "Al’ America: Travels Through America’s Arab and Islamic Roots" (2008, New Press), which won an American Book Award.


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