Well, it’s been fairly obvious to those of us who are watching that public education and public schools have been under attack by right wing parents and neo-fascist state governments for the past few years. Leaving aside “Don’t Say Gay,” the focus has been on history, how and what is taught.
Of course, there has always been a filter on American history. When I was a kid in elementary and junior high school in the late forties and fifties there was no mention of how we killed all of the indigenous peoples of America. We spoke only of Manifest Destiny. The ante-bellum south was Gone with the Wind, where everyone was happy and gay. “I don’t know nothin about birthin babies!” No mention of immigrants though the class was filled with the sons and daughters of immigrant Italians and Jews.
Today the emphasis is on race; don’t mention it.
So I ask you; how does one approach and teach about slavery? How to teach that many of the founding fathers owned other human beings? That many of our first Presidents owned slaves? That the foundation of the southern United States before 1865 was slavery?
How do you teach that slavery was the original sin of the Land of the Free? Our current band of neo-fascists says you don’t discuss it. Might make children hate their country. Let us continue to portray slaves as ignorant, uneducated sub-humans fit only for picking cotton.
And then comes along a new opera.
“Omar.” It debuted in Charleston, South Carolina and will soon be performed on the west coast.
It is about a slave. Omar ibn Said.
Omar was a Fula Islamic scholar from Futa Toro in West Africa (present-day Senegal), who was enslaved and transported to the United States in 1807 where was enslaved for the remainder of his life.
Did anyone know that 20 – 30% of slaves originally brought here were Muslims? I didn’t. He was sold to a rather cruel owner in Charleston. He obtained some writing materials and began to write manuscripts. Omar was an educated man.
He was a man who spent 25 years of his life studying with prominent Muslim scholars, learning a range of subjects including mathematics, astronomy, business, and theology. Hequickly learned English and not only spoke his native language but was fluent and literate in Arabic.
How many slave owners could speak Latin or Greek?
Omar escaped from his South Carolina plantation and walked 200 miles to Fayetteville, N. C. where he was recaptured and jailed. While imprisoned, he began writing on the walls. Why was that unusual? It was illegal for a slave. Besides, no one knew if he was writing or simpy defacing the walls.
In July 1825, a Philadelphia journal, The Christian Advocate, published a short biographical sketch of a “Prince Moro” by an unnamed “physician at Fayetteville. ” The piece describes a remarkable runaway slave who, after being captured and jailed in Fayetteville, “wrote in a masterly hand, writing from right to left, in what was to [local observers] an unknown language.” The unknown language was Arabic and Omar was writing verses from the Quran.
Said garnered attention by writing on the walls, and he soon became the legal property of General James Owen of Bladen County, who recognized Said to be an educated man and, according to Said’s autobiography, treated him well.
Yes, Said wrote an autobiography.
The autobiography is among 14 manuscripts written in Arabic. The Life of Omar Ibn Said, was written in 1831. It describes some of the events of his life and includes reflections on his steadfast adherence to Islam and his openness towards other “God-fearing” people.
Said begins it with Surat Al-Mulk, a chapter from the Qur’an, which states that only God has sovereignty over human beings. The manuscript is the only known Arabic autobiography by a slave in America. It was sold within a collection of Said’s documents between private collectors prior to its acquisition by the Library of Congress in 2017. It has since been treated for preservation and made viewable online.
“One of the tantalizing mysteries surrounding Said involves his religious faith, or faiths. The anonymous author of The Christian Advocate article proclaims Said’s conversion from “the Mahomedan religion” to Christianity, noting that after receiving an Arabic translation of the Bible, he “now reads the scriptures in his native language, and blesses Him who causes good to come out of evil by making him a slave.”
Said’s own language, however, reflects more ambiguity about his religious beliefs than do the accounts of his Christian admirers and advocates. He never explicitly rejects Islam, the religion of his upbringing, or professes faith in a Christian God.”
Two surviving artifacts of Said’s Arabic writing provide insights into the complicated interplay between Christianity and Islam during his life as an American slave. The first is a transcription of the 23rd Psalm, which Said recorded in Arabic and which was later translated back into English by Professor R.D. Wilson of the Princeton Theological Seminary. The re-translation reveals that the psalm is prefaced with the statement, “In the name of God, the merciful and gracious. May God have mercy on the prophet Mohammed.” In this document, Said had appended a traditional Muslim invocation to a holy text of the Judeo-Christian tradition—in a language which his master(s) could not understand.
The second artifact is a card bearing Said’s Arabic script. Inscribed on the back is the following explanation in English: “The Lord’s Prayer written in Arabic by Omar a native African, now owned by General Owen of Wilmington, N.C. He is 88 years of age & a devoted Christian.”
Problem is the card does not contain the Lord’s Prayer but Surat 110 from the Quran. Of course no one associated with Omar at the time could read it. Omar ibn Said’s situation was fraught with complexity. He was both African and American, a non-native English speaker, a Muslim surrounded by Christians, a slave in the “land of the free.” In order to please a master who was both generous and persuasive, he made certain concessions, representing his life and his beliefs in ways he knew would be well-received.
Omar was offered a chance to emigrate to the new state of Liberia, He thought about it but felt he was too old and infirmed. His former home was long gone and it had been half a century since he last saw his family.
Omar died in 1864 in his early nineties. He passed after the Emancipation Proclamation but before the war ended. He was never free.
Did you know anything about him? Just another something your kids will never hear about in school.
Soon however you will be able to enjoy the opera. In English.