“I Cannot Write My Life”: New Perspectives on the Life and Writings of Omar ibn Said


Luce/ACLS Program in Religion, Journalism & International Affairs


Asian & Middle Eastern Studies


This project is about the African Muslim scholar Omar Ibn Said (1770-1863), who wrote an autobiography in Arabic in 1831 while enslaved in Bladen County, North Carolina. Recently, Omar has attracted popular attention as a striking example of the presence of Muslims in the antebellum era. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper declared June 3, 2019 as Omar Ibn Said day. Musician Rhiannon Giddens has been commissioned to write an opera based on this life. And the Library of Congress has created an Omar Ibn Said Collection of documents in English and Arabic. This project offers new perspectives on Omar’s life in North Carolina from 1808 through his death in 1863, and his Arabic writings that encompass 17 documents held in local and national repositories. It also examines Omar’s condensed references, omissions, quotations and Qur’anic verses to reflect a complex background in his West African and Islamicate culture. Over the course of the fellowship term, I will collaborate with journalists in North Carolina, Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, South Africa, and elsewhere, to make Omar ibn Said’s life and works more accessible to both a local and global audience.