Magazine article The Christian Century

Muslim Slave's Narrative Offers New Window on Africans in America

Magazine article The Christian Century

Muslim Slave's Narrative Offers New Window on Africans in America

Article excerpt

The only known existing autobiography written in Arabic by an enslaved person in America is now available to the public online, thanks to the Library of Congress.

It is the story of Omar ibn Said. Born in about 1770 in Senegal, he was captured at age 37 and taken to Charleston, South Carolina. In 1810, he ran away and was captured again when he stopped to pray in Fayetteville, North Carolina. There, he was bought by James Owen and remained enslaved until his death in 1864. Like an estimated 20 percent of enslaved Africans taken to the Americas, Said was Muslim. He was also a wealthy and highly educated Islamic scholar who studied under his brother and other Muslim religious leaders.

The Library of Congress acquired Said's 15-page autobiography, written in 1831, from British auction house Sotheby's in 2017. The digitized version was published in January on the library's website, and facsimiles are available for public viewing at the library.

Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division at the Library of Congress, said the autobiography changes the picture many have of people brought as slaves to America.

"It shows that many of them were monotheists who followed an Abrahamic faith, and that some were very highly educated," she said.

Including the Arabic manuscript "The Life of Omar Ibn Said," the Omar Ibn Said Collection includes 42 original documents in both English and Arabic, along with Arabic texts written by another West African slave in Panama. …

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