Revolutionizing Literacy: The Life of Omar ibn Said, Written by Himself

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Abstract

The Library of Congress has acquired the Omar ibn Said Collection, including an exceptional artifact, the autobiography of Omar ibn Said, written in ancient Arabic by an African enslaved man. In this article, I analytically examine the role of literacy in Omar ibn Said's life as informed by African cultures, ethnicities, histories, languages, and literacies in the Senegambia region, and the history of Black literacy access in the United States. In Arabic, Omar ibn Said stealthily applied sophisticated literacy skills to contest living under anti-Black racism and chattel enslavement through his rhetorical and strategic use of Qur’anic surahs and verses. Early translations and interpretations of his autobiography, filtered through Eurocentrism and White supremacy, failed to discern Omar ibn Said's proclamation of his humanity and bold condemnation of chattel enslavement. Africanist, Islamist, and Muslim scholars valorize his resilience as an African Muslim man who remained faithful to Islam under anti-Black racism, the horrors of chattel enslavement, and attempts at Christian conversion. They also provide knowledge about centuries of literacy among people of African descent; expose the pervasiveness of White supremacy; and unveil the roots of deliberate anti-Black literacy laws, policies, and practices, historically and contemporaneously. Omar ibn Said's autobiography dismantles prevailing assumptions about people of African descent as sub-human, without culture, history, intellect, language, or literacy. To create an equitable and ethical approach to literacy: We must transcend the past and present, respect humanity, acknowledge literacy as a global construct, understand literacy as a human right, cultivate a critical consciousness, and require authenticated knowledge.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number238133772311685
JournalLiteracy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice
DOIs
StateE-pub ahead of print - Apr 25 2023

Keywords

  • authenticated knowledge
  • transcendent approach to literacy

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