“I cannot write my life,” Omar Said says in an extraordinary autobiography written in 19th century Antebellum America. 12 million Africans were enslaved in the Americas and the impact of it is still felt today. Among the 12 million was Omar Said who was taken from West Africa and brought to North Carolina. Said fled his cruel master and was eventually sold to James Owen, a politician and businessman. The Owen’s family were impressed by Said’s education, which would later surprise American society as they tended to view Africans as uneducated. Despite being in servitude in America, Said was an Islamic scholar in Senegal and very highly educated. He converted to Christianity while in enslavement, or at least his owners believed he had, and Said became a spectacle in pre-civil war America.
Pro-slavery factions in the US turned Said into a poster child in support of the so-called benevolence of slavery. He was encouraged to write about his life, which he did in Arabic. However, far from being happy about his enslavement despite accepting his fate, Said showed his resilience and resistance to the experience. Pro-slavery factions began issuing their own translations of Said’s writings, which they distorted to support their cause. In the last 40 years there have been attempts to correct this and in 2023 a book was published which correctly translates Said’s writing and provides much needed historical context for his works. MEMO conversations is joined by the authors of I Cannot Write my Life: Islam, Arabic, and Slavery in Omar ibn Said’s America Mbaye Lo and Carl Ernst.
Mbaye Lo is associate professor of the practice of Asian and Middle Eastern studies and international comparative studies at Duke University. Originally from Senegal, Lo completed his undergraduate and graduate training in classical Arabic language and literature at the International University of Africa, Khartoum, and Khartoum International Institute for Arabic Language, Sudan. He also received an MA in American history from Cleveland State University where he also earned his PhD from from the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs with a dissertation on Re-inventing Civil Society-Based Governance in Africa: Theories and Practices.
Carl W. Ernst is a specialist in Islamic studies, with a focus on West and South Asia. His published research, based on the study of Arabic, Persian and Urdu, has been mainly devoted to the study of three areas: general and critical issues of Islamic studies, premodern and contemporary Sufism and Indo-Muslim culture. He has received research fellowships from the Fulbright programme, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and has been elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His most recent books include Breathtaking Revelations: The Science of Breath, from the Fifty Kamarupa Verses to Hazrat Inayat Khan.