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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

April 14, 2020: Arab American Stories: Yarrow Mamout

[April isn’t just National Poetry Month; it’s also National Arab American Heritage Month. So this week I’ll highlight a handful of the many compelling Arab American stories & figures I feature in the final chapter of my book We the People, leading up to a weekend post on contemporary Arab American writers!]
On the Early Republic figure who became an iconic image of the new nation.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, a significant portion of enslaved African Americans were Muslim, many of them from cultures that would also be defined as Arabic (especially North African ones like Morocco and Tunisia). While there is great value in remembering that historical community as a whole, the vast majority of those Muslim and Arab Americans, like the vast majority of all enslaved people across the more than three centuries of American slavery, are unfortunately not specifically or individually remembered. But as the United States moved into the Revolutionary era and its aftermath, collective histories began to be produced more regularly, and thus individual Americans to be highlighted more frequently. That’s true of a number of Arab Americans who fought in the Revolutionary War, a list that includes Bampett Muhamed, Yusuf ben Ali/Joseph Benhaley, and Joseph Saba. And it’s true of one of the more famous individuals from the post-Revolution Early Republic period, Washington, DC’s Yarrow Mamout (also known as Muhammad Yaro).
Like most Early Republic figures, Mamout had been in America since well before the Revolution: he was sold into slavery in the West African nation of Guinea in the early 1750s (when he was around 14 years old) and brought to Annapolis, Maryland. For the next half-century Mamout was enslaved on both the Samuel Beall plantation in nearby Takoma Park and at Samuel’s son Brooke Beall’s home in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington; over those decades Mamout developed a reputation as a skilled handyman and brickmaker. Thanks to the gradual earnings those trades brought him, in the late 1790s he was able to purchase his freedom from the Beall family, and he subsequently bought his own home in Georgetown; the neighborhood had become home to a sizeable African American community in the Early Republic period, and Mamout would serve as one of that community’s most prominent investors, financiers, and community leaders. Better remembering impressive individuals like Mamout, after all, likewise helps us better remember such communities, which even when they were located in the nation’s capital during that formative period have too often been forgotten.
Mamout himself might have been forgotten after his 1823 death if it were not for his connection to another prominent Early Republic figure, the painter Charles Willson Peale. Peale painted renowned portraits of many of the framers and Revolutionary icons, and in 1819 he learned of Mamout and sought him out as another potential subject. He did end up painting a beautiful and deeply human portrait of Mamout, and during their sessions learned a great deal of Mamout’s story and life, which Peale documented in his meticulously kept diary. That account has become an important primary source reference for biographers of Mamout, but it also reflects Mamout’s presence and role in the broader communities of Georgetown and the Early Republic US. As Peale writes, “Yarrow owns a House & lots and is known by most of the Inhabitants of Georgetown. … He professes to be a mahometan [Muslim], and is often seen & heard in the Streets singing Praises to God.” Both the portrait and this prose description are images of Mamout, snapshots into an identity and life that spanned the most formative three-quarters of a century in American history—a period in which Arab Americans like Yarrow Mamout played compelling and important roles.
Next Arab American story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Arab American figures or stories you’d highlight?

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