F20 Black Atlantic: Resources, Pedagogy, and Scholarship on the 18th Century Black Atlantic

[Week 8] Islam and the American Project: The Atlantic and the Mediterranean

Islam and Muslims occupied a significant place in the American cultural imagination and specifically its anxieties surrounding slavery from the beginning of the American project.  Susanna Haswell Rowson wrote her play Slaves in Algiers, or a Struggle for Freedom in 1794:  a comic drama that follows the Barbary captivity crisis of the 1790s, Rowson’s play ironically explores American angst surrounding white enslavement by North African pirates at the same time that African enslavement constituted the engine of the American economy.  As Elizabeth Maddock Dillon notes, the “racializing logic” at play in the text “is related both to concerns within the nation over establishing the coherence and stability of a white citizenship and to concerns with establishing American commercial authority and liberty in the larger world” (417).  Indeed, the Barbary captivity crisis that play emblematizes not only influenced the American imagination but also actual American global power, as the crisis of the 1790s “might be seen as a hawkish dramatic preamble to the Tripolitan War of 1801-05, a war that marked the US’s military debut as a global, naval power” (Dillon 407) while also consolidating federalism in the US by encouraging the nation’s need for “a strong internal union among [its] states” so as to “enabl[e] the US to operate as a sovereign power at the international level” (Dillon 409).

More subterranean, however, is the place of Muslims in the domestic sphere and its imagination.  As Ghada Osman and Camille Forbes note, the “pre-generic myth” of African-America is generally read as “the quest for freedom and literacy” alongside “slaves’ strategies of gaining authorial control over their texts,” but this myth destabilizes upon the consideration of the American enslavement of African Muslims (331).  They cite the 1995 rediscovery of Omar ibn Said’s 1831 narrative as one exemplary intervention in that African-American canon:  as an educated Muslim, Omar’s narrative instead arrives from the perspective of “a slave already literature before coming to America” – and literate in Arabic at that (331).  Omar’s narrative that differs from that of the Christianized African-American, they argue, because it “reveals a differing image of the ‘West’ and the ‘Christian,’ not as that to which the African must aspire and with which he must necessarily affiliate, but rather as ‘Other’ in the realm of this enslaved Muslim’s world” (332).  Osman and Forbes read Omar’s narrative as double-voiced in that he “strategically both identifies and disidentifies with the Christians/Westerners by whom he was surrounded and influenced” (332).

This complexity of voice, which permeates African-American narratives of the era given the political goals and techniques thereof, and its relation to versions of literacy, resonates with Gregg Carr and Dana Williams’s reading of Phillis Wheatley.  They emphasize the importance of “consider[ing] her identity in Africana terms,” whereby “she becomes a young Senegambian, who likely had no less than three tongues, her native Wolof, Arabic, and Fulani” (315) as well as, “consider[ing] the region from which she was likely taken,” probably originally Muslim (316).  In that case, Wheatley’s “seeming religious devotion is not to Christianity exclusively but rather to a broadly informed system of divination” with “accretive” valences across Christianity, Islam, and other African faith systems (Carr and Williams 316).

While Omar’s narrative only recently came to the fore and Wheatley’s Muslim/Christian ventriloquism historically obscured her Muslim influences, Islam nevertheless occupied a significant role in various levels of the American cultural imagination as well as a foundational position in its construction.  An archive in translation studies that collects African Muslim narratives that are contemporaneous with African-American Muslims works like Omar's narrative and Wheatley's poetry might further uncover historical, aesthetic, and political overlaps that fueled the double-voicedness enacted therein.

Works Cited

Carr, Greg, and Dana A. Williams. “Toward the Theoretical Practice of Conceptual Liberation:
     Using an Africana Studies Approach to Reading African American Literary Texts.”
     Contemporary African American Literature: The Living Canon, edited by Lovalerie King and Shirley
     Moody-Turner, Indiana UP, 2012, pp. 302-27.

Dillon, Elizabeth Maddock. “Slaves in Algiers: Race, Republican Genealogies, and the Global
     Stage.” American Literary History, vol. 16, no. 3, 2004, pp. 407-36.
Osman, Ghada, and Camille F. Forbes. “Representing the West in the Arabic Language: The

     Slave Narrative of Omar ibn Said.” Journal of Islamic Studies, vol. 15, no. 3, 2004, pp. 331-43.

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