Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas

By Sylviane A. Diouf | Go to book overview
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4
Literacy
A Distinction and a Danger

A large proportion of the Muslims arrived in the New World already literate, reading and writing Arabic and their own languages transcribed in the Arabic alphabet. As other Africans came from exclusively oral cultures, and as learning to read and write was either illegal or actively discouraged for all slaves in the Americas, literacy became one of the most distinguishing marks of the Muslims.

The Muslims' literacy clearly set them apart from the rest of the slaves and became as distinctive as a physical trait. A slaveholder was so impressed with his literate slave, for example, that he mentioned only this characteristic when he put a notice in the Charleston Courier of February 7, 1805, to advertise him as a fugitive. Thirty-year-old Sambo was a “new negro” who had absconded with another African and a nativeborn woman. He was, reported the owner, a man “of grave countenance who writes the Arabic language.”1 It would be interesting to know how the slaveholder came to learn about his new slave's literacy, as well as what, and under which circumstances, Sambo—a common name among Hausa—had been writing.

Illiteracy among men and women was not restricted to the slave quarters. Many male colonists and most women could neither read nor write, because literacy in European cultures was reserved for the wealthy males. The furthest some societies went was to allow the poor and women to read for religious reasons—so that the Bible could be accessible—but not to write. As a result, a large number of American colonists who came from what were considered the lower European classes were illiterate or barely literate. In the colonies themselves, education was reserved for the privileged few; the movement toward mass literacy started only in the nineteenth century. Prior to that, in Brazil for instance, “the simplest rudiments were so little diffused that not infrequently wealthy ranchers of the interior would charge their friends of the seaboard to secure for

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