- Out of Place: The Travels of Nicholas Said
The story of African Muslims remains an often-neglected aspect of American cultural history of the nineteenth century. One reason has been that scholars have not considered Islamic contributions as sufficient to merit study. For instance, Caesar E. Farah believes that “what Muslim faith they [the African slaves] brought with them was quickly absorbed into their new Christian milieu and disappeared.”1 Critical works by Philip Curtin, Allan D. Austin, Sylviane Diouf, and Michael Gomez problematize the contention that Islamic identity simply vanished and show that Muslims produced innovative slave narratives that made fascinating contributions to the formation of black cultural identity in the United States and throughout Latin America. In many ways, these Muslim slaves not only engaged the stratified Western racial discursive terrain but also managed to partially shape the Western representation of West Africa. This essay focuses on an African Muslim named Nicholas Said, who was a former slave and world traveler, and argues that he sought to inscribe the dynamics and struggles of displacement in the United States.
Written after the abolishment of slavery in the United States, The Autobiography of Nicholas Said (1873) complicates the contemporary historical and cultural scholarship on the period.2 His narrative presents an Islamic identity steeped in the traditions and achievements of his native people and then describes the ordeal of slavery in the Orient. After gaining his freedom, Said travels throughout Europe and to various ports of the black Atlantic to work as a servant, an educator, and a reformer. He combines Western themes from exploration literature and various autobiographical genres to intervene strategically into discourses of education, religion, philanthropy, and history. Throughout the narrative, he constructs a shifting and itinerant subjectivity, negotiating relationships to various institutions, persons, and locations. As will be shown, a desire to travel continues to remove Said from the familiar confines of the um’ma [End Page 59] (Islamic community) and situates him in an emotional, physical, and social position within the Western world that makes him feel out of place. Interestingly, these transnational trajectories enable Said to see himself as a citizen of the world who can advocate a message of social activism. Ultimately, this essay suggests that The Autobiography of Nicholas Said requires readers to consider questions of process, mobility, and performance in order to show that African Muslims managed to inscribe interesting and often inventive responses to the historical condition of displacement and alienation.
Muslims, Transnational Flows, and Displacement
During the nineteenth century, African Muslims came to the United States for various reasons.3 Allan D. Austin claims that about 10 percent of West African slaves sent to North America between 1711 and 1808 were Muslims. Following the ban on the importation of slaves in 1808, approximately 29,695 African Muslims were smuggled into the United States.4 Michael Gomez postulates that out of the 481,000 African who came to North America from West Africa, 230,000 slaves came from regions populated by Muslims. However, these figures are based on reasonable conjecture, and Gomez reminds us that “It is therefore reasonable to conclude that Muslims may have come to America by the thousands, if not tens of thousands. A more precise assessment is difficult to achieve.”5 Clearly, African Muslims reached these shores and attempted to account for their sense of dislocation and anxiety. Responding to the contingencies of displacement and alienation, these African Muslims, who were already literate in Arabic, produced forms of slave narratives in order to document their dislocation and leave behind a physical marker of their faith. Some African Muslim writers wrote assemblage-like narratives in Arabic that hybridized Qur’anic passages with personal testimonies of struggle; others simply discussed matters of ethnology with their eager and sometimes naive amanuenses. Although Said’s narrative, written in English, stands slightly outside this tradition of African Muslim writing, being the longest in length and a hybridization of an African narrative of enslavement and a conventional Western travel narrative, we can link these slave narratives by their shared focus on negotiating the problems of belonging and self-representation. As will be shown, Said writes about a partial assimilation...