Wednesday, April 15, 2020
April 15, 2020: Arab American Stories: Omar ibn Said
[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 watching an inspiring figure and text finally enter our collective memories, and the need to push further still.
Omar (or Umar) ibn Said (or Sayyid; ah, the complexities of historical and cultural names!) was from the Fulani people in the 19th century West African nation of Futa Tooro (part of modern day Senegal), and was kidnapped into slavery sometime around 1807 (when he was in his 30s, and not long before the 1808 legal abolition of the slave trade). He was brought to Charleston, SC, enslaved to a brutal master there from whom he escaped to Fayetteville, NC in August 1810, and recaptured, imprisoned, and eventually sold to a kinder master, James Owen of NC’s Bladen County. Owen, a devout Presbyterian, purchased Said both a Qur’an in English and a Bible in Arabic, in order to help Said learn English but also to discuss religion with him in an effort to convert him to Christianity. It’s unclear whether Owen succeeded, but in any case Said remained committed to expressing his Muslim and Arab American experiences and identity; in 1831 he completed a fifteen-page autobiography in Arabic, which has been recovered (in conjunction with another prominent Muslim American, on whom more in a moment) and remains the oldest extant Arab American text.
I spent much of my life entirely ignorant of Said’s story and autobiography; but while many of the figures and texts I highlight in this space remain largely unknown in our broader collective memories and conversations, Said and his book have actually started to receive some national attention in the last couple years (the same period in which I learned about them). The Library of Congress put Said’s book (the full title of which is The Life of Omar ben Saeed, called Morro, a Fullah Slave in Fayetteville, N.C. Owned by Governor Owen) on digital display in early 2019, and that digitization led to a good deal of follow-up news coverage (at least compared to most 19th century figures and texts), such as this March 2019 story from the Boston public radio station WBUR. That visibility in turn has prompted additional scholarly and pedagogical work with Said’s narrative, as illustrated by this wonderful November 2019 Teaching United States History post from my friend Matthew Teutsch on his experiences teaching the book. I know the structure of my posts often follows up second paragraph points with a “but,” and I am about to make a somewhat similar rhetorical move—but I want to be very clear that this increased visibility and attention for Said and his book are entirely good things, and indeed a great model for adding histories and stories to our collective memories.
My “but” in this case is just an argument that we should not see Said or his book as in any way individual, unique, or isolated (a trend I’ve seen in at least some of the news coverage), but rather as part of broader Muslim and Arab American communities and networks in the early 19th century. Said himself offered a perfect starting point for focusing on the latter in 1836, when he sent a copy of his book to Lamine Kebe, a Muslim American former slave living in New York City. Kebe had purchased his freedom after some forty years of slavery in South Carolina and Alabama, and had moved to New York where he became a prominent community leader known as “Old Paul.” Prominent enough to be known to Said as a fellow Muslim American to whom he should send his book; and enough of a community leader to keep Said’s book alongside more than thirty other works on Muslim and Arab identities, cultures, and religion, a collection that was discovered after Kebe’s death and has become an inspiring research archivist for all those interested in these 19th century American communities. Which, as I hope this whole week’s series has made clear, should be all 21st century Americans.
Next Arab American story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Arab American figures or stories you’d highlight?