On May 22, 2020, Spoleto Festival USA’s 44th season will open with a world premiere, a newly commissioned opera by Rhiannon Giddens, a Grammy winning singer, songwriter, and banjoist known for exploring the legacy of African-American folk traditions. Giddens has been tapped to mold the opera—creating the libretto and writing the music—and Michael Abels, an American composer who wrote the music for Jordan Peele’s acclaimed films Get Out and Us, is working closely with Giddens to develop the score. The opera, currently untitled, is based on the life and autobiography of Omar Ibn Said.
Who was Omar Ibn Said?
Omar Ibn Said was an enslaved Muslim-African man who was brought to Charleston’s Gadsden’s Wharf in 1807. The opera’s story traces his spiritual journey from Africa to his capture and enslavement in the Carolinas. Much of what we know about Ibn Said comes from his autobiography, which he penned in Arabic in 1831. To create the opera, Giddens has also conducted extensive research and studied with numerous religious leaders and scholars to create a work that is historically and religiously informed and to augment parts of Ibn Said’s narrative that are unknown.
The opera opens in what would today be considered Senegal, where Omar Ibn Said was a member of the Fula ethnic group of West Africa (a region extending between Senegal and Nigeria). Born around 1770 and a scholar in his homeland, Ibn Said was captured at age 37 and transported to Charleston’s Gadsden’s Wharf in 1807—a point of entry for nearly half of all Africans forced to North America. Ibn Said arrived in 1807; by 1808—when the importation of slaves was banned—more than 100,000 West Africans had been brought through Gadsden’s Wharf. Today, as many as 60 percent of African-Americans are able to trace their roots to Charleston.
Upon arrival in the United States, Ibn Said was sold to a Charlestonian, a man called “Johnson” who he described as particularly cruel. A month later, Ibn Said escaped and fled to North Carolina, where he subsequently was recaptured and sent to jail in Fayetteville. He spent 16 days in jail, where he was discovered writing in Arabic on the walls of his jail cell. Eventually, he was purchased and taken into the household of Jim Owen and his brother John Owen, the Governor of North Carolina (1828-1830) with whom Ibn Said remained until his death in his late 80s.
The autobiography’s significance:
Ibn Said penned his autobiography in Arabic in 1831, about the time he was 61 years old. It is considered the only surviving, unedited autobiography of a Muslim slave written in Arabic in the United States. In 2017, Ibn Said’s work was acquired by the Library of Congress, which translated it into English and later digitized the original as part of a 42-piece collection of documents, letters, and newspaper clippings. The Library of Congress notes several reasons for the collection’s historical magnitude:
Omar Ibn Said’s autobiography is the only known extant autobiography of a slave written in Arabic in America. The importance of this lies in the fact that such a biography was not edited by Omar Ibn Said’s owner, as those of other slaves written in English were, and is therefore surmised to be more authentic. Second, it is an important document that attests to the high level of education, and the long tradition of a written culture that existed in Africa at the time. It also reveals that many Africans who were brought to the United States as slaves were followers of Islam, an Abrahamic and monotheistic faith. Such documentation counteracts prior assumptions of African life and culture.
Why an opera?
Spoleto Festival USA is deeply committed to telling Ibn Said’s story. “According to some scholars, as many as 30 percent of the enslaved Africans who arrived in the colonies and subsequently in the United States were Muslim, which is a largely unexplored truth in the modern discussions of slavery in the South,” says Spoleto’s General Director Nigel Redden. “But Ibn Said is not a number—he’s a man who had feelings, a history, and a right to life that was taken from him.” Exploring Ibn Said’s story allows viewers to see the life of an enslaved man in the 19th century as an individual rather than one of an undifferentiated group of people.
Watch this student-produced documentary, “The Life of Omar Ibn Said,” created by students of Richard Wright Public Charter School for Journalism and Media Arts surrounding the digitization and preservation of the autobiography.
Check out this visual Library of Congress exhibit, Educated and Enslaved, including an interactive map, photographs, and more.
Listen to this Library of Congress podcast, “The Long Journey of Omar Ibn Said.”
View the Library of Congress’s Omar Ibn Said collection.
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Photo at top: Omar Ibn Said; Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University