The transatlantic slave trade was the largest and one of the most horrifying crimes in human history, between 1525 and 1866, 12 million Africans were taken and transported from Africa to the Americas. The conditions were appalling for the enslaved in the ‘new world’, but for many, slavery was both profitable and a natural part of the moral order. The rise of abolitionism or the movement to end slavery in the 19th century, had many who are pro-slavery scambling to find moral justification for the continuation of the practice. Accounts about how bad slavery was were appearing as both slaves and former slaves published their personal accounts. The pro-slavery crowd seemingly found an African slave who would affirm the moral uprightness and benefits of slavery in Omar Ibn Said. However, as Mbaye Lo and Carl W. Ernst’s new book I Cannot Write My Life: Islam, Arabic, and Slavery in Omar Ibn Said’s America explores, most of the accounts produced about Omar Ibn Said’s life and support for his own enslavement are largely fictional and based on misreadings of his writings.
“Omar Ibn Said is the rare enslaved African who wrote about his life while in bondage. Omar is the only enslaved person in North America known to have written a first-person autobiography account in a non-European language.” This autobiography and other writings by Omar Ibn Said are examined in the book.
Said wrote about his life in Arabic. Although, he says in the biography, “I cannot write my life,” which could mean a number of different things and might be the key thing to understand in order to make sense of Said’s beliefs. Is he saying he cannot write his life because he cannot remember how to write as he once did before enslavement? Is he simply being modest? Or is he aware that because he is writing in Arabic, he will only attract a small audience and his works will be mistranslated? The book suggests the last option is the most plausible and aligns with what did happen.
Pro-slavery audiences marvelled that an African slave could write anything, even in a foreign language, as they tended to think of them as less educated and civilised, thus some of the wonder over Said was rooted in this racist worldview. But for pro-slavery translators of his works, Said was seen as a succcess story of the benevolence of slavery, his conversion from Islam to Christianity was seen as the prime example of this.
But as Lo and Ernst’s translation of Said’s works shows, Said was not a Christian by choice. Said writes: “Indeed, I reside in our country by reason of great harm. The unbelievers seized me unjustly, and sold me to the Christians, who bought me, and we sailed a month and a half on the big sea to the place called Charleston in the Christian language. I suffered in the hands of a small, weak and wicked little man who feared no God at all.”
He went into the church seeking a kind of refuge but all his writings make clear his lifelong attachment to Islam.
Said was a West African Muslim scholar from the Senegambia region, who was trained in the Quran, West African Sufi wisdom literature and Sunni legal texts among other things. His writings are full of references to Islamic texts and he primarily understands the Bible through the Quran, but the pro-slavery translators do not pick up on this in his works and dismiss a lot of it as not making sense. It is hard to argue that Said was happy to be a slave, his writings suggest he rather stoically accepts his fate and there would be divine judgement for his situation. This belief gets misinterpreted and used as him seeing his enslavement as justified.
I Cannot Write My Name concludes: “More than anything else, his writings resemble messages in bottles, cast out to sea in the hope of reaching unknown readers capable of reading and understanding him. His appeal to return to Africa went unheard. But we can hear that appeal today, if we take Omar’s writings seriously, and stop listening to the distorted tales of enslavers and missionaries.”
Mbaye Lo and Carl W Ernst have produced a comprehensive, easy to follow, authoritative and faithful rendition of Omar Ibn Said’s life and plausible analysis of his writings. I Cannot Write My Name is a resource and a tool for trying to understand slavery through the voices of those enslaved and it will enable those not familiar with the topic to develop their own interest in this field. Lo and Ernst’s appeal that Said’s writings should not be only seen through the prism of slavery studies, but should be considered part of world literature and West African literature and should be read as part of the universal human experience and not solely confined to cultural or area studies, is something the reader of this book should consider taking up. Ultimately, we should be seeking wisdom wherever it is found and the book is a small part of that attempt.