The dreamy quality of the production of award-winning film Prince Among Slaves: The Cultural Legacy of Enslaved Africans transports the audience away from the Capitol View Library in Ward 7, D.C. to the early years of U.S. history. On February 6, 2013, the US Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia, masjid Muḥammad, Unity Productions Foundation (UPF) and the library hosted a screening of this documentary about the life of an African Prince captured and sold into slavery for 40 years. The movie was first released in 2007, but this showing was held to commemorate Black History month. Let's take a look:
The hall is packed, every seat taken, with people even sitting on the carpet. Several children are still in their school uniforms; this is a neighborhood event to help build relationships across communities and faiths. Ward 7 is the poorest neighborhood in DC, minutes from Capitol Hill. Youth are coming to Islam in droves here.
Muslims have been a part of the American fabric since the beginning, captured and sold as slaves. “There were lots of Muslims who were brought to America through enslavement and contributed to this society in an unrecognized way, not just through brute labor. Their familiarity with crops, their brain power contributed to the making of America,” says Alex Kronemer, the executive producer as he introduces the documentary to the audience.
26-year-old Abdul Rahman Sori, the heir to the throne of one of the largest kingdoms in Africa was studying in Timbuktu when captured in an ambush and sold to English slave traders for a few muskets and a couple of bottles of rum.
Abdul Rahman is the prince of Fuuta Jalon [Fouta Djallon]. At its peak, Fuuta Jalon was “the magnet of learning, attracting students from Kankan to the Gambia.” It acted as the epicenter for trading caravans branching in every direction. Fulani Muslim scholars developed an indigenous literature using the Arabic alphabet, known as Ajamiyya. The elite from the region sent their sons to schools there to learn Islamic Studies, sciences and languages.
It is poignant to watch this documentary in a library while libraries and sacred texts are pillaged and saved in Mali. Several scenes in the documentary highlight the level of intellectual development in West Africa in the 1700s. According to Dr. Abdul Hakim Quick, a noted Islamic scholar, “Timbuktu with its thousands of manuscripts and its deep legacy destroys racist notions of Black inferiority and educational backwardness. Timbuktu gives solid proof of a powerful African past and an unbroken chain of African scholarship. Timbuktu also brings out Islam's great legacy of development in Africa and its proper place in the annals of African achievement.”
“These manuscripts are our identity,” said Abdoulaye Cisse, the acting director of the largest library in Mali to Associated Press. “It's through these manuscripts that we have been able to reconstruct our own history, the history of Africa. People think that our history is only oral, not written. What proves that we had a written history are these documents.”
Alex Kronemer developed the idea for the film as the co-director of UPF. “Movies like Roots reinforce this notion of an uncivilized Africa. What slavery did to West Africa is tantamount to a 9/11 every week for a hundred years,” he says. At this, the audience let out a sharp collective exhale.
The well-written and powerful narration by actor Mos Def, seamlessly carries the story: “My men dropped like rain…. The Africans were on the way to America, to feed the new world's hunger for the slave trade.”
The global slave trade was fueled by the cycle of war, where humans were currency. ”We too live in a global economy of oil and war. How will the future judge us?” Kronemer questions the audience.
The African notion of slavery was vastly different from what was being practiced in the new world. “Slaves did not have their customs and languages stripped from them, weren't beaten with whips, and could stay with their families. Most were like indentured servants and only had a slave for a certain amount of time, and usually, the slaves were criminals seeking redemption.”
The prince, caught in the largest forced migration of human beings, lands in Mississippi in 1788. The scene when Abdul Rahman reaches the outpost in Natchez, MS and compares the collection of hovels to the developed cities that he comes from cracks the myth of slaves coming from primitive jungles into civilization. “They had constitution, laws, saw themselves as above Europeans,” says imām Zaid Shakir in the documentary.
Bought by a cotton farmer named Colonel Thomas Foster, Abdul Rahman tries to tell him that his father, Ibrahim Sori, would pay Foster his investment many times over, but this message is lost in translation. Unable to come to terms with his enslavement Abdul Rahman, whom Foster calls Prince, runs away into the wilderness. The period of solitude that follows makes him come to terms with his predicament: ripped from family, fortune and faith and removed from any access to religion or religious objects. A Muslim has no master but the Lord, and the whole world is a masjid, so Abdul Rahman gives in to the Divine plan, resigns to the will of Allāh and returns to Foster's farm.
A scene that pulls at the heartstrings is when Abdul Rahman's hair, a sign of nobility, great beauty, and his manhood is shorn off by his 'owner'. Foster capitalizes on Abdul Rahman's expertise, natural leadership skills, and knowledge to build his cotton crop and empire. The producers had spent a large amount of time sifting fact from exaggerations by one of the key historical figures in the movie, John Marschalk, the printer who befriends Sori and later turns his back on him.
Abdul Rahman is fluent in several languages; he can read and write Arabic. He is an entrepreneur, a scholar, a leader, a captain, and a warrior. Abdul Rahman is disciplined and despite enslavement he masters his negative situation; a lesson that the panelists echo to the audience after the screening, in their discussion. Many slaves were not afforded the privilege of marriage but Prince, the unannounced overseer, is allowed to marry Isabella.
20 years after he is enslaved he reunites with John Cox, the first white man to have reached Timbuktu; a man rescued by the Sori family decades earlier. Cox takes up the cause to free Abdul Rahman.
His story, spread by Marschalk's press, attracts the attention of President John Quincy Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay. In a diplomatic effort aimed at freeing captured American sailors in Morocco, Abdul Rahman is released to return to Africa. However, the rest of his family is not.
Sponsored by freed black men associations and the American Colonization Society, Abdul Rahman and his wife Isabella travel around the US, speaking to paid audiences and trying to buy their clan's freedom.
In one meeting he is requested by a Christian missionary group to write the Lord's Prayer in Arabic so they can use it to teach Christianity; a year later they discovered that he had written Surah Al-Fatihah.
Partially successful, they leave the country after the election of President Andrew Jackson (a supporter of slavery), purchasing two of their sons and their families' freedom. Upon reaching Liberia, he freely bows down in ṣalāh at the age of 67. He continues to work to free the rest of his children, but dies a few months after his return to Africa, before he ever reaches home.
Sr. Carole Munim a playwright, community activist, and the first Muslim in the White House (she worked under the Carter and Nixon administration) is also on the panel. As is the Asst. US Attorney Wendy Polhaus, who grew up in the area and Amir Muḥammad, the curator of the Islamic History Museum. The panel reflects on the lessons that the audience could glean from Abdul Rahman's life; the role of marriage under slavery and the issue of identity.
Sherry, a local resident, expects the documentary to connect to the present. “This is very similar to something I have seen earlier,” she says. Maran Cole, a library regular, enjoys the film. She had read a book on Abdul Rahman's life and is very familiar with the history. The history of American Muslims is intertwined with the history of African Americans. “Why do many African Americans embrace Islam? It is in our genetic memory, the souls of slaves,” says imām Shareef.
As the evening ends, Kronemer tells the audience how the two branches of Abdul Rahman Sori's family met on the grounds of the Foster farms during the filming. Many generations of African Americans with the surnames Foster and Collins tracing their lineage back to the “prince among slaves” come to meet their African cousins.
“When they took them, our ancestors say the first thing they stripped were the shoes. Here are yours back,” said the eldest progeny from the African branch to the eldest from the American branch of the family, as he held up a pair of traditional African sandals in a ceremony similar to those held in the fields their past relatives tilled. Reunited, they still keep in touch today.