Prince among Slaves: A Documentary Film Project

Article excerpt


Some biographies help us understand the broad historical themes and issues of the period during which the subject lived. Others appeal to the universal emotions of the human experience. And some simply entertain us with vivid characters and nearly novelistic events. One compelling story that does all three is Prince Among Slaves. A 90-minute documentary aimed for broadcast on PBS, it tells the true story of an African prince who was sold into slavery in the American South in 1788. His name was Abdul Rahman Ibrahima Sori, and he remained enslaved for forty years before ultimately regaining his freedom and returning to Africa.

The broad outline of Abdul Rahman's biography reads like a fairytale: A young prince falls from a life of power and privilege into exile and enslavement in a strange land. There he endures unimaginable indignities, yet carves out a life, marries a woman enslaved like himself, and has children. Then, through improbable circumstances, he is granted his freedom and returns to his homeland, manages to rescue his wife and children from enslavement, and sees his royal status recognized in the very land that held him in bondage.

But the story did not take place in a fantasyland. Rather, it happened in the United States, during the foundational period of American history. Arriving in the United States just after the country adopted the Constitution, Abdul Rahman remained enslaved until the fateful election of 1828, a forty-year period when early divisions between North and South began to grow and the contradictions deepened between the ideals of liberty and equality to which the country was dedicated and a dependence on slave labor that many considered essential to the national economy. Abdul Rahman lived his life against the backdrop of this eventful period of history, and his story sheds new light on all its essential themes.

Through his dramatic biography, Prince Among Slaves will probe deeply into the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Beginning from its sources in Africa, the film will examine the slave routes that brought enslaved Africans like Abdul Rahman to America. From his story, we learn how the "business" of slavery worked, and about the social, economic and political factors that lured Africans, Europeans, and Americans alike to participate in it. As his story continues, we see how enslaved Africans worked within their limited circumstances to create lives for themselves. We also see the country's first attempts to reconcile the conflict between the desire for freedom of enslaved persons like Abdul Rahman and the nation's economic and social dependence on the "peculiar institution."

Our story also sheds light on the surprising and little known history of the early religious and cultural lives of newly enslaved Africans in post-Revolutionary America. It reveals the early anti-slavery movement and delves into the characters of the African-born enslaved people, who have received scant attention on American television since audiences were mesmerized in the 1970s by the story of Kunta Kinte on the groundbreaking series "Roots."

Thoroughly researched and documented in Terry Alford's biography of the same name,1 Prince Among Slaves comes alive through first-person accounts as well as letters, photographs and historical records that taken together paint a vivid picture of the extraordinary times in which Abdul Rahman lived. Newspaper articles, numerous diaries, plantation registers, advertisements for slave sales, and church sermons provide depth and a fuller context to the story, which interweaves themes of bondage and deliverance, pride, forbearance, guile and providence. With strong, vivid characters animating a great, morally complicated narrative, we also learn about a long-forgotten group - America's first Muslims. Abdul Rahman was among the tens of thousands of African Muslims who were captured and brought to the Americas through the slave trade.

This window on history is also a story of universal themes that reach deeply into the human experience. …