Omar, who wrote for his life
I’m a white guy born in Raleigh, but I’m not undertaking this blog to pledge my allegiance to basketball and barbecue. The last thing we need is another gray-haired hack waxing poetic about Tobacco Road whilst dribbling Coleslaw down his shirt.
So let’s begin instead with a meditation on one of the most intriguing figures in North Carolina history: an uprooted, brutalized African who never laid eyes on a basketball and refused to eat pork. Omar Ibn Said was a Muslim. He was also a slave. And he wrote his way out of a cage.
In 1810, the people of Fayetteville spread word of a mysterious stranger, a runaway slave worn thin from scant rations and heavy labor. Captured and locked behind bars, he knelt by a hearth, fished out a nugget of coal, and used it to write on the walls of his cell.
People who stopped at the jailhouse to gawk reported that Omar wrote backward, right to left, in weirdly inscrutable symbols. Day after day, Omar wrote verses, in Arabic, and the good folk of Fayetteville marveled. He became their slave savant, a curiosity the locals would claim for their own.
Sixteen days after his arrest, Omar walked out of jail in the custody of a new owner, James Owen, a prominent Bladen County farmer whose circle of influence included Francis Scott Key and other luminaries dabbling in questions of equality and race. Over the years, Omar would tell them his story, and compose it with paper and pen.
Eluding the whip
The Life of Omar Ibn Said, Written by Himself (1831) is the only known autobiography written in Arabic by a slave in America. Born sometime around 1770 to a wealthy family of Fulani Muslims in Futa Toro (now northern Senegal), Omar absorbed twenty-five years of religious education then worked as a teacher and trader. In 1807, a warring African army captured him and sold him to a slaver who shipped him across the Big Sea, as Omar called it, through the Port of Charleston, and into the hands of an evil little infidel named Johnson.
Photo by Craig Mahaffey, Clemson University
Having escaped that sadist, and wandered in the wilderness of an alien land, Omar arrived in North Carolina with a jihad, a calling conceived from travail. He would warn against the corruption of ruthless, Godless men. His eventual conversion to Christianity, real or feigned, probably bought him some tolerance. But conversion seems moot, in his writing. Omar cites both the Qur’an and the Bible to affirm the same universal principle: Only God has the right of dominion.
A slave denouncing slavery was dicey business. How did Omar elude the whip? By Omar’s account, James Owen was a decent, God-fearing man who fed and clothed his slave like family, allowed Omar the leisure to study and write, and spared him heavy labor. But many a slave felt compelled to heap praise on his or her master. Omar wrote to survive, physically and spiritually, which likely obliged him to flatter the white men and further their ambitions. But he also kept faith as a pilgrim devoted to Allah. When he wrote the Lord’s Prayer, he introduced it with a passage from the Qur’an.
Whatever Owen’s motives, his investment in Omar paid off. The slave savant distinguished the Owen household far beyond Bladen County. Abolitionists cited Omar’s example and trumpeted his erudition. “Here was a slave who had a mind and could think,” notes the scholar Akel Kahera, paraphrasing the rhetoric of the time. “So he was a human like us. He was Exhibit A.”
Reeking hog manure
Now here we are, in 2016, when Bladen County’s pigs outnumber its people 25 to one. When black men fill the jails. When a corporate hog industry wields more clout in Raleigh than the universities, the law, or the press. When erudition is ridiculed. When foreigners, especially Muslims, are feared and reviled. When the word jihad in this blog post could snag in a filter and flag me for a watch list.
This is the kind of corruption Omar warned us about. And as the reeking hog manure piles up around us, I pick up a New Yorker—on most days my favorite mag—and find yet another discourse on the merits of North Carolina barbecue (“In Defense of the True ‘Cue”). And once again the pitmaster stokes the coals all night to smoke our juicy pig so that we, the almighty consumers, can ruminate upon its flesh and debate its authenticity. Vinegar-based or tomato-based? Chopped or sliced? Shoulder or whole hog?
The next time Mr. Trillin deigns to visit our barbecue joints, he should first take a stroll through an industrial hog barn. And wear a gas mask. As journalists, let’s not pretend that the pigs, pitmasters, and point guards are honored to serve.
Denying the dominion
We are not slaves, but few of us escape dominion. We serve our employers and various authorities, despotic or benign. We compromise, we flatter, we serve. We do this to survive, to progress where the eating is better and the labor is lighter. But to keep our souls intact, we’ll need to serve a higher calling, a legitimate master. We could call that master Allah or God. But I’ll just call it truth, whose existence is also a matter of faith, and just as hard to prove.
Let’s not deify Omar. It’s hard to really know a man so obscured by the fog of two centuries and the raiment of two religions. But let’s learn from his example. In whatever servitude we find ourselves, let’s come up with a way—a literate, honorable way—to subvert the dominion and denounce the corruption around us. Let’s conduct an insurgence of words, and write our way out of the cage.