- African Muslims in African American Literature
In 1984, Allan D. Austin published African Muslims in Antebellum America: A Sourcebook, a compilation of writings by and about African-born Muslims who were enslaved in the Americas. Austin’s book testifies to the early presence of African Muslims in the Americas, but Austin claims that commentators on African American literature have excluded the literary contributions of Muslims from their discussions. In this essay I examine the characteristics of some of the excluded early texts published in narrative form by Black Americans in the United States, in an effort to explain the neglect.1 At a glance, Austin’s claim is one that appears validated by a sampling of anthologies of African American literature (The Prentice Hall Anthology of African American Literature, My Soul Has Grown Deep: Classics of Early African-American Literature, and The Norton Anthology of African American Literature). Because the narratives in Austin’s Sourcebook span more than a hundred years, the aim of my essay is less to discuss their characteristics as a comprehensive group, than to throw light on the legitimacy (or otherwise) of their being excluded and thus ignored in favor of other contemporary narratives that are now familiar to readers of African American literature. I am particularly interested in Some Memoirs of the Life of Job (1734), “Autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, Slave in North Carolina” (1831), An Interesting Narrative: Biography of Mahommah G. Baquaqua (1854), and The Autobiography of Nicholas Said (1873), and I analyze both what is gained and what is lost by Austin’s classification of them as works by African Muslims.2 I also explore the extent to which these African Muslim narratives pertain to the slave narrative genre as defined by Frances Smith Foster in Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-Bellum Slave Narratives.
Although Austin describes Some Memoirs of the Life of Job as “the oldest text in African American literature” (5), the first problem that we encounter in our consideration of this particular text as African American is that of authorship. Some Memoirs was penned by Thomas Bluett, an English minister, as the biography of Hyuba, who became known as Job during his life in the West. Although Some Memoirs, as the first account of the life of a black slave written by another person, is considered a seminal text in American literature, its authorship is one of the impediments to its inclusion in the genre of African American slave literature, a genre more commonly exemplified by the author’s contemporaries Olaudah Equiano (the first self-authored black narrator) and Phillis Wheatley (the first black writer to publish a literary text). However, while the question of literacy is fundamental to issues that will be discussed later, it is no less true that the act of narration itself contributed to the development of the Black slave narrative genre. Gates reminds us that the second and subsequent editions of Ukawsaw Gronniosaw’s Narrative modify the original subtitle, “related by himself,” to “written by himself” (132–33). Although he [End Page 1213] discusses the importance of self-authorship, Gates’s description of Gronniosaw’s narrative as inaugural to “the genre of the slave narrative, from its ‘I was born’ opening sentence to the use of literacy training as a repeated figure that functions to unify the structure of his tale” underlies the primacy of documentation in early individual slave experiences, independently of the slave’s literacy (133). While the inscription of a black voice in American letters (Gates 130–31) is understood primarily in relation to literacy and black people’s becoming agents in establishing this presence, the documentation of black lives from black narrations—although attenuated by white amanuenses—also constitutes a fundamental step in this progression.
Admittedly, therefore, Job’s narration through a second person fails to fully challenge the Hegelian use of the apparent “absence of writing of Africans as the sign of their innate inferiority” (Gates 129). What it does undermine, however, is the assumption of a correlation between this absence and a noteworthy individual or group history. Without understating the importance of black self-authored narratives, it is nonetheless important to emphasize that the...