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

Muslim Slave Narratives

For anyone who has studied slave narratives, the memoirs of Job (1734) and Omar ibn Said (1831) are as interesting as they are unusual within the context of the slave narrative as a discernable literary genre. Some hallmarks of the traditional slave narrative structure are present in both memoirs, which were written by enslaved Muslim authors. Both are filtered through the lens of a white author—Thomas Bluett in Job’s memoirs and John Franklin Jameson, editor of the American Historical Review for Said. This authorial layering recalls the letter and messages of authentication by white parties deemed respectable and credible that begin most published slave narratives. Both texts include heavy Christian overtones, both carefully attempt to trace the origins of the enslaved person, give some detail as to the enslaved person’s life in bondage, and construct the figure of a kind and compassionate white master who seems to temper the inherent brutality of chattel slavery. However, both texts also diverge significantly from the traditional structure and tropes of the slave narrative. In Job’s text, the white author’s voice largely takes over the narrative, and much of the “memoir” reads as Bluett’s patronizing and paternalistic impressions of Senegambian political and cultural traditions and customs. Job purchases his freedom with the help of white friends and benefactors, but neither freedom nor abolition is the ideological thrust of the text. Rather Bluett’s primary concern is with upholding Job as the quintessential noble savage and emphasizing Job’s life as proof of God’s divine providence. Bluett’s project is thus typological rather than humanitarian.

Written 100 years after Job’s memoirs, Said’s narrative is much shorter, follows a similar structural blueprint. Jameson first lays out the provenance of the text before shifting to the translated narrative, which Said originally wrote in Arabic. Although Said’s narrative isn’t as heavy-handed as Job’s in its appeal to Christian religious ideology, Said’s conversion to Christianity does figure prominently in the text. However, this conversion seems to be in name only, as the text indicates that Said likely retained his Islamic faith. Notably, both Job and Said were imprisoned for vagrancy after running away from abusive masters. Also notable is that Said’s narrative, like Job’s, is not a narrative of liberation. Job’s does eventually purchase his freedom, but that feat is hardly the focus of the text. At the end of Said’s narrative, he is still enslaved and remarks upon the kindness and gentleness of his master, Jim Owen, by whom he has been owned for 20 years at the time of his writing. The two Muslim slave narrators thus significantly expand the expected terrain of the slave narrative as a genre, which compels the reader to analyze the text beyond familiar tropes.

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