Omar Said: Artwork Inspired by writings of African Muslims Enslaved in Antebellum America

Have you read the autobiography of Omar Said – the African Muslim who was enslaved in the United States for over 50 years? I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up all of my school teachers told us that Africans couldn’t read or write! They weren’t just talking about slaves either. These teachers, both Black and White said that Africans had an oral tradition so writing was just not their thing.

Well, that’s a lie!

Nsenga Knight 2010, This is the Lord’s Prayer – Take My Word For It, 2 30 x 20 inch Screenprints on Paper (Installed at Project Rowhouses)

Have you heard of Timbuktu? There are literally thousands, maybe even millions of manuscripts written by West Africans in Timbuktu, Mali and other parts of West Africa dating back hundreds of years – many of the most popular from amongst them are from the 14th – 16th century, mostly written by Black African Muslims.

The writings of Omar Ibn Said is the subject of This is the Lord’s Prayer – Take My Word for It, a drawing and printmaking series I began in 2008. He wrote hundreds of pages while enslaved in the United States – in Arabic. Pages from the Quran and even wrote the story of his life. He is now the topic of a touring opera called “Omar.”

There’s so much that has been said about African people who were enslaved in the United States, but learning about the African Muslims who were amongst them opens up an entire new reality to who Black were in the antebellum years.

Both Omar Said and Ibrahim Ibn Sori (another African Muslim enslaved in America whose writing inspired my artwork, A Cross Time for example, could write in Arabic and English, had memorized the entire Quran, and knew the stories of the Abrahamic prophets like Jesus, Moses, and Noah before being abducted from Africa and enslaved in the Americas.

Nsenga Knight 2009, A Cross Time, Screenprint and Ink Wall Drawing with Fabric Adhesive, 9ft x 15t ft (Installed in 2010 at Icebox in Philadelphia PA)