Owning Omar

After buying the long-lost life story of a Muslim slave, collector Derrick Beard turns publicist, detective, and missionary

by Ellen Barry

On a blustery day in May, Harvard's Houghton Library threw a party to welcome Omar ibn Said back into the historical record. Ever since 1995, when Omar's 167-year-old autobiography resurfaced in an old trunk in Virginia, momentum had been building toward this moment, when the six professors who have invested the most time in studying this long-dead slave gathered around one table to determine where, precisely, Omar ibn Said should fit in the popular imagination.

Six professors, and one amateur: the collector Derrick Beard.

When Beard bought Omar ibn Said's 16-page narrative at auction in 1995, he expected to be bidding against a phalanx of Ivy League archivists. They didn't show up then, but judging from the atmosphere in Houghton Library, the manuscript has their attention now. The book, which had been missing since the 1920s, is the autobiography of a devout, educated Muslim scholar from West Africa who became a slave on a North Carolina plantation. In his Life, Said tells of the Islamic faith and culture he brought with him from Africa -- and apparently retained, to a great extent, until his death in 1864.

People who come in contact with Omar's story have a tendency to fixate on him, but for widely varying reasons. The whites who wrote about Omar during his lifetime regarded him as a fabulous anomaly, a learned nobleman accidentally lumped together with savages. For historians today, the question is how large a class he represents. Did many slaves, like Omar, write fluent Arabic? Were many, like Omar, practicing Islam in secret for years after they reached America?

This much is clear: with Omar's manuscript back in circulation, says historian Allan Austin, "there's no way to avoid the fact that some Africans, like this man -- both Muslim and non-Muslim -- were probably more educated and intellectually sophisticated than a lot of the people who became their owners." Austin, who teaches at Springfield College and has written extensively on Arabic-language slave documents, holds out the haunting possibility that many slaves were literate, and no one ever knew.

In two years, when the new translation of Omar's manuscript is published by Johns Hopkins University Press, this story will begin edging its way into syllabuses and, perhaps, into history books. And if kids 10 years from now learn about Omar ibn Said in school, it will be thanks in part to Derrick Beard, who is stage-managing its gradual emergence -- in Senegal, where Omar is supposed to have come from; in North Carolina, where he lived as a slave; in Harlem; and here at Harvard, to which Beard has lent the document for the summer.

Lent is the operative word here, because part of Beard's mission is to save Omar's Life from the Rare Book Room. After the tenured experts have weighed in from campuses all over the country, he will turn to West African storytellers, or griots, and Islamic scholars in an effort to spread the excitement he feels. He says the governments of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have shown interest in researching the document. You get the sense from Derrick Beard that he sees himself as more than a librarian.

"I had no idea it was going to lead to this," Beard says. "I'm just kind of a conduit or a messenger. It's almost as if I was drafted by God almighty."


Over the years, the story of Omar's discovery reached tall-tale status. But press accounts written during his lifetime seem to agree that his literacy saved him from hard labor. It was probably 1811 when Omar was in jail, having run away from his second master, and his captors first noticed that he was writing on the walls of his cell "from right to left, in what was to them an unknown language," according to one account excerpted in Austin's African Muslims in Antebellum America.

His writing, which was unreadable to the whites around him, continued to make his reputation -- he was known later for writing "quaint sentences in Arabic on paper" and "[nailing] the messages to pine trees on the plantation," then explaining that they contained compliments to his owner. Omar's third owner was James Owen, a brother of the governor of North Carolina who singled the slave out for his literacy and made him something of a celebrity.

Omar lived with Owen for 50 years, until his death in 1864 at the age of 94. Scholars know of 13 different manuscripts still in existence, but the 1831 Life is the longest. From its first sentences, the document is haunting -- the voice of a 61-year-old man who studied the Koran for almost half his life and was enslaved for just as long: "You asked me to write my life. I cannot write my life, for I have forgotten much of my talk as well as the talk of the Arabs. Also I know little grammar and little vocabulary. O my brothers, I ask you in the name of Allah, not to blame me for my eye is weak and so is my body." This is not -- as many scholars have pointed out -- the traditional language of the slave narrative.

Omar secured a special status based, in part, on the idea that he had turned his back on Islam and was prepared to convert other Muslims to Christianity. But new assessments of his writing -- especially a brand-new translation by Harvard lecturer Ala Alryyes -- detect coded messages of resistance in the writings and conclude that he retained elements of his faith while outwardly professing a belief in Christianity. He never fathered children in the New World and apparently declined offers from missionary groups to return to Africa.

Owen and other whites were entranced by Omar -- they gave him the keys to the family safe, according to one historian -- and they proceeded to issue wildly inaccurate accounts about him. Physical descriptions suggested that he was not African at all but an Arabian prince, and gave him straight hair, light skin, and in one case the "features and the form . . . of an Apollo Belvidere," according to Austin's book. Instead of being a native West African, he was supposed to have wandered in from the Muslim nations to the north and been taken prisoner by warring African tribes, whom he was supposed to despise (both theories have been dismissed by contemporary historians). Every aspect of the legend made him out to be wholly distinct from the slaves around him.

The truth may be that he was quite a common type. American popular history has traditionally shut out the possibility that Islam was brought over from West Africa. But some historians now speculate that as much as 10 percent of the slave population may have been Muslim (see "How Many Slaves Were Muslim?," right). There is a small handful of Arabic-language slave narratives scattered in archives across the country -- and some professors suspect that more may be out there.

What's odd about this present revisionist gesture is that, strictly speaking, none of this is new information.

"All these documents were available," says John Hunwick, a historian at Northwestern University who has done extensive studies of Islam in West Africa. "We have neglected to take them seriously, and what's shocking is almost not the discovery of that but the discovery of how willfully blind our historians have been about this possibility."

Robert Allison, who teaches history at Suffolk University, says the cultural holdovers from Muslim West Africa have been denied for several hundred years -- not through an organized campaign, but because no one was looking for them.

How many slaves were Muslim?

To generations of American historians, the idea that a significant population of slaves were Muslim was not unprovable -- it was unthinkable. In his 1977 review of Alex Haley's Roots, the novelist James Michener wrote derisively that "to have Kunta Kinte, or one of his fellows, praying to Allah while chained in the bottom of a Christian ship is an unjustified sop to contemporary events rather than a true reflection of the past."

But recent scholars are reconsidering. Muslim invaders had fanned out across West Africa several hundred years before any Christians arrived, and converted Africans between the Senegal and Gambia Rivers, an area from which vast quantities of slaves were taken. In his 1984 study, African Muslims in Antebellum America: A Sourcebook, Allan Austin estimates that of the 180,000 slaves brought to America during the period between 1711 and 1775, 10 percent were Muslim, which yields a figure of 18,000 Muslim slaves. Of those, Austin has 75 names.

Several stand out because they left evidence behind them. On Sapelo Island, in Georgia, a devout Muslim slave by the name of Bilali, who had been purchased in the West Indies, gave Muslim names to his 19 children and was buried with a Quran and prayer rug. Omar ibn Said left 13 manuscripts that still exist, including the newly rediscovered Life of Omar ibn Said.

In his book, Austin speculates that the cultural denial of the existence of Muslim slaves began because "few Europeans or Americans could look into such contradictions as the enslavement of literate men who were familiar with biblical figures."


"It's so far outside our conception of what slavery was, and our understanding of what American society was. That's one reason," says Allison. "It flies in the face of what we thought we knew."

While most academics would agree with Allison's statement, the existence of Muslim slaves has for years been an article of faith among African-American Muslims. Imam Taalib Mahdee, of Dorchester's Al-Quran Mosque, is quick to make that point. "Even if they didn't say [that the slaves brought Islam over with them], we knew," he says. Acceptance by the white academy is no special victory. Acceptance by the world at large, however, might mean something.

Which sheds some light on the particular mission of Derrick Beard.


The best way to reach Derrick Beard is by beeper, because he seems to live in many cities at the same time. When he is mentioned in articles on African-American decorative art, he is described, variously, as a "New York collector," an "Atlanta collector," or a "Chicago collector."

In truth, he's spending most of his time in Los Angeles these days, returning to his earlier career as an engineer and contractor, but he also appears to be devoting a good deal of the next year to chaperoning the life story of Omar ibn Said. To the academics who have linked up with him through Omar's manuscript, the 39-year-old Beard is a somewhat mysterious figure. "He is a man who does a lot of things," says one professor.

In the world of African-American art collecting, however, Beard is a well-known quantity; he has been active as a dealer and collector for the past 15 years. In the early days, Beard acquired art and furniture without any assurance that there would be buyers down the road. His speculation paid off over the course of time, and he began to regularly sell his purchases to museums and institutions.

Today, the value of African-American art and furniture has doubled and tripled many times over, and Beard is a strong enough player that he can't always bid for himself at an auction. He acquires less and less these days and says he is planning to pull out of the art business entirely. But when Omar's manuscript went up for sale at a New York art gallery in 1995, he took a seat at the very back of the room, behind the single counterbidder -- a specialist in Semitic manuscripts -- and bought the document for $21,000.

All collectors feel some personal link with their acquisitions, but there's a certain moral weight to collecting artifacts from the age of slavery. Late in 1997, the auction house Christie's canceled a sale of papers from slave transactions because it received so many calls in protest of what critics saw as a white institution profiting off the painful legacy of slavery.

Not surprisingly, major African-American collectors see their stewardship of historical artifacts as part of an educational mission.

"It's a ministry to me," says collector Philip Merrill. "I aim to educate."

In the case of Omar, Beard's interest is even more personal. Beard listened to Malcolm X speeches on eight-track tapes when he was in high school, and he joined the Nation of Islam as a teenager. Now he belongs to the mainstream Muslim faith, where Omar's story has a deep religious and political, as well as academic, importance -- proof that African-American Islam can be traced in a nearly unbroken line back to Africa. Suddenly, Beard sounds less like a dealer and more like a trustee; he says even if institutions such as Harvard decide they do want to acquire the manuscript, "it's not for sale. They can forget it. That document stays with my kids, and my kids' kids, and my kids' kids' kids."

It's a personal identification that separates him from the professors at the table with him at the Houghton Library.

"He's not an academic. He's a romantic," says Werner Sollors, a professor of comparative literature at Harvard who organized last month's Harvard panel on Omar. "He sees whole things coming together perhaps more than an academic would."


And now that he has the document in hand -- or rather, in a padlocked carrying case -- Beard is proceeding in a fashion that could fairly be described as romantic. Rather than handing the document over to the tender mercies of preservationists, Beard has lined up a tour worthy of a rock band and has appointed himself manager.

It's not just style: the substance of his stewardship is markedly un-academic. Where academics would likely place more emphasis on issues of authenticity and physical preservation, Beard's first priority is to identify Omar as a person -- who his family was, for instance, and where precisely he grew up. Beard traveled to Senegal earlier this year in an attempt to trace Omar's origins, and he came back with a number of stories he says are clues.

One tale came from a griot from Omar's region, who, when he heard Beard's description of Omar, responded with a legend: a man from the region used magical powers to prevent a flood from overtaking his village, but there was a condition to using this power -- the man had to leave the region for good. Beard and the griot saw a link -- one of the lasting paradoxes of Omar's story is that he declined missionaries' offers to return him to Africa later in life. "So our griot," Beard says, "thought that Omar might have been this person."

Another idea that came out of Beard's trip, he says, is that the North Carolina Omar might be some kind of double to a famous local figure also named Omar ibn Said, who was born 27 years after the one who ended up in America. The two died the same year, which, Beard says, "was kind of a mystical thing." Despite the historical discrepancies, Beard holds out the possibility of an indirect link: "Maybe he concocted this or created an identity through it," he says. "I'm not entirely ruling it out."

One certainty, for Beard, is that Omar was of noble origin. Beard says he has matched Omar's father's description with a man by the name of Suleiman Bal, a famous historical figure who spread Islam through West Africa.

To the academics who study Omar, this kind of bloodline speculation is unnerving; they argue that Omar's importance is precisely that he was no one special, but instead the tip of a demographic iceberg.

"I have professional doubts about [tracing his genealogy] despite the optimism of Mr. Beard," says Northwestern University's John Hunwick. "I'm not sure it's possible to, and I'm not sure it's important to. I think the importance of the man lies in what he does, not in what his genealogy was."

Still, some of the same observers watch Beard's efforts with a slightly wistful admiration. With no institutional consensus to await, Beard can spread the story of Omar to the public in the most direct way possible. Sulayman Nyang, a historian of African religions from Howard University in Washington, DC, brings up the example of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were held hostage by squabbling scholars for 44 years after their discovery 50 years ago in the caves at Qumran; only recently were they displayed to the public. Real documents can set off a certain kind of electricity when they are circulated among regular people -- and Omar's life still has the potential to excite people if it's given enough exposure. Allan Austin is on the side of raw electricity.

"I worry a little bit about what Harvard will do with it. I worry that a linguistic, scholarly air of superiority will take over and make these just interesting documents" rather than important cultural news, he says. "There's a bit of a tendency to want to play and squeeze out meanings and forget the political side."

"I think in some ways what we academic people do is important and necessary, but sometimes what the non-academic people do is at least as important," Austin adds. "Maybe what he will do is use it in a more political way."

Certainly that's what Beard intends, and he's picked a good time for it. Islam is one of the fastest-growing faiths in America, which means people are listening carefully for a voice like Omar ibn Said's. This is a moment when, as Sulayman Nyang puts it, "what was once a footnote could become part of the text."

Between the historians and Derrick Beard, the next few years should determine whether Omar ibn Said goes on a postage stamp or into the dustbin of history. And if any one person in or out of the academy has the power to shift the balance, it is the man with the padlocked carrying case. Ownership has its privileges.

Ellen Barry can be reached at ebarry[a]phx.com.