As a Library of Congress docent, I get advanced notice of special programs at the world’s greatest library. So when I got word of the special program opening the Omar Ibn Said Collection, I quickly adjusted my schedule and came in on one of my off days in order to devote a whole day to the event.
From the loc.gov site, “The Omar Ibn Said Collection consists of 42 digitized documents in both English and Arabic, including an 1831 manuscript in Arabic on “The Life of Omar Ibn Said,” a West African slave in America, which is the centerpiece of this unique collection of texts. Some of the manuscripts in this collection include texts in Arabic by another West African slave in Panama, and others from individuals located in West Africa.” I was excited about the collection for several reasons, including my interest as an archivist, my interest as a former Africanist, my ever-present interest in African American history, and a personal interest in the history of Islam in the United States that dates back to my impressionable teenage years and a youthful flirtation with Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam.
The morning session was devoted to the academic and scholastic significance of the collection. The chief of AMED, Mary-Jane Deeb introduced the session and Eugene Flanagan, Director of General and International Collections moderated a panel consisting of Professor Sylviane Diouf of Brown University, Professor Adam Rothman of Georgetown, and Professor Ala Alryyes from CUNY Queens College.
All the pertinent information is at the loc.gov site above. I’d like to share here some personal observations from the presentation that stood out for me personally.
First of all, Omar Ibn Said was born in 1770 in Futa Toro, an area that overlaps the border between present-day northeastern Senegal and southeastern Mauritania. The area has an ancient history of advanced metalwork and a more recent history (since around the 12th century) of Islamic scholarship and religious learning. See more about Futa Toro here.
Here is where it gets a bit interesting (and this was brought out peripherally in the panel discussion). Ibn Said was a 37 year old religious scholar when he was captured in 1807, hardly a prime candidate for the slave trade. He was an academic, not a farmworker, and certainly not a manual laborer. So why did he get caught up in the slaver’s web?
It goes back to the US Constitution. Compromises, weird compromises were struck between the northern states and the southern slaveholding states in order to get the document approved by all the states. One such compromise, called the “slave trade provision” was included in Article 1 of the Constitution and said, basically, that there could be no Congressional prohibition on the international slave trade for twenty years from ratification. Sure enough, in 1808, twenty years later, the international slave trade was technically outlawed. But in the two years prior, 1806-1808, there was a made dash by slave traders and slave shippers to get as many Africans as possible kidnapped, captured and shipped to the United States. Omar ibn Said got included in that mad dash, where, frankly, in a more “normal” time, he would have been left to his booksand students.
Another significant point in time was the year he published his autobiography, 1831. I scribled something in my notes that the panelists eventually mentioned. 1831 was the year of the Nat Turner rebellion and there had been a series of slave revolts previously, primarily in Virginia and the Carolinas. Omar Ibn Said was enslaved nearby in North Carolina at the time. (I’ve done some creative writing on Nat Turner, a sort of deconstruction of the “Confessions.” A Sonnet Crown. It’s a work in progress.). I have to do some research to find out what may have been the commercial and/or political forces that supported the publication of Ibn Said’s autobiography, the popularity of the genre at the time, and how the published document might be used. I think we are OK with the idea that Ibn Said had his own personal motivation to putting pen and ink to paper, and there was a mention that writing in Arabic afforded him a bit of safety, because who else inside the power structure could read Arabic at the time?
The final significant point for me is the fact that Omar Ibn Said lived for 93 years. He died in 1863, just two years prior to emancipation. One of the panelists showed deep emotion in expressing his regret that Ibn Said didn’t live long enough to experience freedom. I spoke with the panelist afterwards and shared with him my thinking and sentiment based on my own experience and the Stockdale Paradox. In essence, Omar Ibn Said, whether as a result of trauma or of cool rational calculation, made accomodations with his environment in order to survive, to thrive. He learned English. He learned Christianity (though it is a subject of debate whether he actually converted). He worked in the house, so to speak, and even said (some one quoted it on the panel) he wore the master’s clothes and ate the master’s food. And because of those accomodations, he lived a relatively good life, reached his 90’s, continued his writing, and left a legacy that we are still exploring over a hundred and fifty years after his physical death. Not too shabby for a small town Islamic scholar and religious teacher.
I’ll have more to write on this after reading the Ala Alryyes book.