Reflecting an increasingly prevalent approach to early U.S. Literature, Arabic Slave Writings and the American Canon seeks to relocate our national tradition within a global frame, studying texts authored from cultural, linguistic and religious perspectives traditionally understood as beyond the borders of the young republic.
Particularly resistant to curricular integration has been figures such as Ibrahim ‘Abd ar-Rahman (ca. 1762-1829) and ‘Umar ibn Sayyid (ca. 1770-1863) – African Muslims who were enslaved in antebellum America, and who authored their own stories of captivity and liberation, writing in the literary language of their birth culture: Arabic.
Produced during the first half of the 19th century, these early African-American autobiographical writings possess unique value, standing at the intersection of distinct languages, geographies and ethnicities, negotiating a wide diversity of concerns, including literary aesthetics, political rights, and religious difference.
Although largely absent from contemporary curriculum, the exceptional character of such writings has succeeded in attracting significant notice, both within and without the academy. The pioneering scholarship of Allan D. Austin first made available the writings of ‘Abd ar-Rahman and Ibn Sayyid, with his African Muslims in Antebellum America: A Sourcebook (1984) uncovering primary texts and documentary contexts. More recently, Ala Alryyes’ A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011) offers a translation of Ibn Sayyid’s autobiography, accompanied by a series of critical essays.
Arabic Slave Writings and the American Canon seeks to extend these efforts, applying them and adapting them to classroom environments. Now neglected due to their unique language, religion and culture, it is precisely these elements of Muslim Slave texts that hint at their momentous potential to impact readers in the Humanities, granting students the opportunity to:
I invite you to tour this website, make use of its materials, and to participate in the study of America’s rich heritage of Arabic Slave Writings. In addition to curricular resources and reflections, the site features a yet unpublished Arabic manuscript by ‘Umar ibn Sayyid - his 1853 letter to John Taylor - together with my own English translation. This manuscript, segments of which also appear throughout the website, is published with kind permission from the Spartanburg County Historical Association, to which I extend my deepest thanks.
Arabic Slave Writings and the American Canon is made possible by generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (Teaching Development Fellowship, 2011-12). My thanks are due also to the following institutions for their gracious welcome during my initial research in 2011, and their provision of indispensible primary materials: the E.H. Little Library, Davidson College; the Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University.