Resisting Racism and Islamophobia: Lessons from Muslim Slave Narratives

Image source: CBS Boston. Photo: KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images.
Image: CBS Boston. Photo: KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images.

The highly contested executive order that sought to deny citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries entry into the United States has sparked a global debate on citizenship and mobility. Among the different voices that have been raised in protest, Americans who identify as black and Muslim have weighed in on the conversation about the domestic and international implications of a policy of closed borders that targets specific populations based on religion, national origin, and race. Notably, commentators have described the travel ban as anti-black given the inclusion of three African countries—Libya, Sudan, and Somalia—on the list of targeted nations. The debate sparked by this ban rages on in courts of law, at airports, and on social media. Yet this debate, like many of the other controversial campaign promises that the current administration has begun to carry out, is not new.

Between 1734 and 1857, enslaved Muslims in the Americas produced a body of literature that appeared as published texts, newspaper columns, and journal entries. Through these publicly circulated works they contributed to the on-going discourse on race, religion, and belonging in the United States. One of these narratives in particular is striking for the complex story it tells of a transatlantic and even global citizenship of Muslims of African descent whose enslavement and acts of resistance connected places like Sudan and the United States, spaces that the current travel ban now asks us to hold as separate in our collective imaginaries. The 1873 publication of The Autobiography of Nicholas Said: A Native of Bornou, Eastern Soudan, Central Africa, tells the story of a man born Mohammed Ali Ben Said in Bornou, an empire that stretched from present-day Nigeria through Chad and parts of Sudan. Said’s movement included his enslavement in Turkey and Russia, his self-fashioning as a Catholic, re-baptized as Nicholas Said and obliged to learn the French language, his travels in the Caribbean, his work as a teacher in Detroit. and, according to some sources, as a soldier in the Union Army.

Nicholas Said. Source: Massachusetts Historical Society.
Nicholas Said. Source: Massachusetts Historical Society.

Said’s narrative provides a historical perspective on mobility, citizenship, and the intersection of racism and Islamophobia by emphasizing the author’s travels and treatment at the hands of various slave masters. In each of his stories of travel, flight, and self-determination, Said made particular claims to political belonging at a moment when the very definition of citizenship was in flux in the United States. Indeed, the ability to travel and cross borders was a central element in his resistance of the violence, dehumanization, and restraints of slavery.

In the preface to his autobiography, Nicholas Said resisted the stereotypes of black intellectual inferiority by situating himself as a cosmopolitan figure. He opened his narrative by pleading with the reader to forgive the inadequacy of his writing. As he explains: “Pure English can hardly be expected from one who has to choose his words and phrases from a mass of Kanouri (my vernacular), Mandra, Arabic, Turkish, Russian, German, Italian and French, and all of them encumbered with the provincialisms necessarily concomitant upon each.” With this list of languages, Said argues for the possibility of multiple linguistic belongings at once. He also describes monolingualism as provincial and suggests that his acquisition of multiple languages allows him to situate his narrative as both local—a uniquely American story—and international. Said’s mobility was therefore key in this process of self-fashioning that subverted the dominant discourse on enslaved people of African descent as capable only of the back-breaking work that ultimately built the United States.

Toussaint L’Ouverture. Image: New York Public Library, Wikimedia.
Toussaint L’Ouverture. Image: New York Public Library, Wikimedia.

If there is one thing that Nicholas Said’s narrative invites us to take away, it is that the experiences of African-descended peoples subverted the definition of citizenship as exclusionary nationalism. Consequently, in his autobiography, he claimed several spheres of belonging at once, including the United Sates and the African Diaspora writ large. For example, about his time in Haiti, he wrote: “I had always admired the exploits of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Dessalines, Christophe, and the other negro leaders, whose heroism and military talent are an honor to the African race.” Throughout his autobiography, Said occupied an expansive geography that included Africa, the Caribbean, parts of Europe, and the United States. He believed that these multiple belongings were not conflicting claims but rather a coherent vision of himself as being in the world on terms that undermined the physical restrictions of slavery.

Nicholas Said’s autobiography is part of a larger body of works that bears testimony to the long history of Black Muslims in the United States, and their contributions to discourses on race and citizenship. Other such texts include the Autobiography of Omar ibn Said, Slave in North Carolina, 1831 and the writings of Abdul Rahman Ibrahim Sori, a Fulani prince who was enslaved in Mississippi and whose travels through the United States and ultimate return to Liberia were facilitated by a U.S. passport and papers obtained through the intervention of President John Quincy Adams.

Omar ibn Said. Image: National Humanities Center.
Omar ibn Said. Image: National Humanities Center.

In many of these narratives, the authors described their captors as Christians. They revealed the contest over mobility and belonging that characterized black Muslims’ navigation of the violent system of slavery, a system that cannot be decoupled from a U.S. nationalism that defined itself as white and Christian. Among the many acts of resistance found in the more well-known slave narratives, such as Harriet Jacobs’s hiding place or Frederick Douglass’s open confrontation with Covey, the narratives written by enslaved Muslims emphasize mobility as resistance. Their continuous movement away from spaces of oppression through flight, travel, correspondence, and literary production, or what Suzanne Césaire writing about Martinique described as “evasion in all its forms,” reinforces Neil Roberts’s astute theorizing of freedom as marronage, as constant acts of flight.

Their narratives invite us to understand the current travel ban as anti-black for reasons that go beyond the inclusion of African countries on the list of targeted nations. They reveal a long-standing history in which racism and Islamophobia are not separate manifestations of the problem of exclusionary nationalism, but rather intersecting forms of oppression that enact this exclusion along the lines of race and religion.

Of course, it is impossible to draw on the discourse of intersectionality without acknowledging both the work of contemporary black women scholars who make this theorizing possible and the historical erasure of black women’s narratives from the archive. The predominance of male-authored narratives by enslaved Muslims in the Americas therefore opens up avenues for an even more extensive work of recovery that includes the voices and experiences of enslaved black Muslim women and counters the white nationalist fictions of the current administration.

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Annette Joseph-Gabriel

Annette Joseph-Gabriel is a scholar of contemporary Francophone Caribbean and African literature with interdisciplinary specializations in Black transnational feminisms and slavery in the Atlantic world. She is currently an Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Michigan. Her book, Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire, (University of Illinois Press, 2020) mines published writings and untapped archives to reveal the anticolonial activism of Black women in the French empire. Her articles have appeared in Small Axe, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Slavery & Abolition, Nouvelles Études Francophones, and The French Review. She is managing editor of Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International. Follow her on Twitter @AnnetteJosephG.

Comments on “Resisting Racism and Islamophobia: Lessons from Muslim Slave Narratives

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    Just want to note, the travel ban isn’t only anti-black because it targets African countries—Libya, Sudan, and Somalia. The populations of Yemen, Syria, and the other banned nations (and for that matter, non-banned nations: Egypt, Saudi Arabia) includes large numbers of black citizens. They may not be as visible in the general imagery, but they’re there.

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    Thank you for your note Samori. I absolutely agree that the anti-blackness of the ban is linked to several forms of erasure, including the one you mention of black citizens in spaces now coded as Arab. Thanks for engaging.

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    Multiple sources confirm Said’s service in the 55th Mass. Colored Regiment. Check out my Muslim Americans in the Military.

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    Thanks for the reference Edward. I will check it out!

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    Matthew 24:27 (Bible KJV)
    For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

    (NOTE how that light is increasingly beginning to shine in THESE TIMES brighter than ever before AS PROPHESIED SO LONG AGO inasmuch as “Truth crushed to earth shall rise again.”)

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