Expanding Student Understanding of Slavery in America by Exploring an Arabic Muslim Slave Narrative

This post is by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.

How much do your students know about American slavery or the individuals who were brought to the United States to be enslaved?

In the January-February 2019 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article discusses the Life of Omar ibn Said, the only known extant narrative written in Arabic by an enslaved person in the United States. Analyzing this unique manuscript provides students with an opportunity to expand their understanding of some of the people who were brought to the United States from Africa to be enslaved. How educated were they? What did they believe?

The life of Omar ben Saeed, image 16

Omar ibn Said was born in West Africa around 1770 to a wealthy family. He was both a practicing Muslim and highly educated. About the time he was 37 years old, Said was captured and brought to the United States, where he spent the rest of his life in captivity. In 1831, at the age of 61, Said composed an autobiography in Arabic describing his experiences. This manuscript was later translated into English and disseminated at the direction of Theodore Dwight. Dwight, who was staunchly opposed to the spread of slavery, was a member of the New York Colonization Society, and a founding member of the American Ethnological Society with an interest in West African culture and slaves. The Library’s Omar ibn Said Collection  contains original Said manuscripts, English-language translations, and correspondence between Dwight and individuals in his network.

The “Sources and Strategies” article includes teaching suggestions to help students reflect upon their preconceptions regarding American slavery and develop new understandings. For example, teachers might give students this Arabic-language page without providing background information regarding the author or his historical context.

Aided by the Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool, ask students to reflect: Who do they think wrote this manuscript? Who was the audience and what was the author’s purpose? Where did it originate? Students may also make observations, such as seeing both Arabic and English, leading to more questions.

The life of Omar ben Saeed, image 1

Next, show students the English language cover page added after the manuscript was translated.

Once again, ask students to reflect: What questions are answered by this new page? What new questions emerge? Is anything surprising? For instance, are students surprised to learn who the author was, why he wrote it, when and where?

It is possible that few students will successfully predict that the Arabic document first examined was written in North Carolina in 1831. Students may be surprised to learn that some people who were enslaved in the United States were highly literate or devout Muslims.

Interested students can also dig deeper into collection items to learn more about Said’s life or the network of individuals such as Theodore Dwight who employed Said’s story for their own purposes. Let us know what your students come up with!

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