Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Prince Among Slaves

By David Luhrssen
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Civilization was built on the backs of slaves. As the documentary “Prince Among Slaves” rightly points out, slavery, serfdom and other forms of involuntary servitude were common the world over, but the slave system established in the New World by European colonizers was among the worst. Conditions were especially brutal and racism allowed owners to dehumanize the men and women they owned to an extent that never occurred in many other forms of slavery. The PBS special, out now on DVD, illuminates some fascinating, little known corners of American and African history through the life of one slave, Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim Sori.

Abdul-Rahman was a 26-year old prince of Futa Jallon, a West African kingdom, when black slave raiders ambushed his party. Along with a batch of other captives, he was traded for tobacco, rum, muskets and gunpowder. Abdul-Rahman was eventually brought to Natchez, Mississippi, a town smaller than the city where he grew up. He was sold to a farmer with a few acres of tobacco under cultivation. Several years later the editor of the local newspaper noticed that the slave was not only articulate in English but also fluent in Arabic.

Afterward, Abdul-Rahman was permitted to embark on a bizarre journey across the U.S. Garbed in Moorish costume, he became a spokesman for emancipation and a back-to-Africa movement sponsored by Northern white philanthropists. He was also a pawn of U.S. efforts to curry favor with the Sultan of Morocco. Although he remained a practicing Muslim, he allowed his audience to assume he was Christian. He was able to free himself and his wife but was unable to purchase freedom for his children. Abdul-Rahman was allowed to return to Africa, to the American protectorate of Liberia, where died only four months later. He never saw his home again.

Narrated by Mos Def and depicted largely through decently staged historical reenactments, “Prince Among Slaves” is an involving history lesson. The persistence of Islam among a minority of African-American slaves remains little understood. The existence of sophisticated West African kingdoms that fostered cities, promoted learning among the upper classes and countenanced a relatively mild form of slavery remains obscure for most Americans. Abdul-Rahman, a celebrity in his time, has been largely forgotten.

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