In 1721 an ancestor of mine in South Carolina, Elias Ball, bought a Muslim woman named Fatima on the wharf in the port city of Charleston and brought her twenty-five miles inland to his rice plantation on the Cooper River. The Ball family had enslaved West Africans and Native Americans for two decades by then, but no records survive from those years. “Fatima” is the first name of a worker that appears in a pigskin-covered ledger that Elias Ball had started using for cash transactions, such as buying and selling people.
Her name signals her devotion to Islam—the prophet Muhammad had a daughter called Fatima. According to his ledger, Elias Ball bought three people from a slave seller in 1721; he wrote down English names for two, Plymouth and Hampshire. Fatima, the third, seems to have held tight to her birth name. She was probably no older than twenty, and she may have come from the vicinity of the Senegal River, at the westernmost bulge of the African continent, where large numbers of Muslim Mandinka people were taken captive during the slave trade. (Elias Ball later made a list of “his” African men and their homelands, calling several people “Mandigoes.”) I can only guess at Fatima’s life story, because after staggering off a slave ship, she appears nowhere else in plantation records, suggesting that she may have died soon after setting foot in America.
My father’s family enslaved thousands of people over a period of 170 years on more than twenty rice plantations near Charleston. Most became Christians. Followers of Islam resisted conversion to Jesus-worship, to judge from the life of Nero, another Muslim my ancestors enslaved. Elias Ball’s great-grandson held 250 workers captive on a plantation known as Limerick. Account books from the 1830s at Limerick include notes about Nero, a “Mohammedan” who had demanded a separate diet. The plantation overseer distributed cheap, fatty pork to the village of enslaved Blacks; beef and poultry were reserved for whites in the big house. The Quran regards pork as unclean, and Nero made it clear that he would not be forced to eat swine. Ball agreed, and for a number of years Nero took his rations from the plantation smokehouse in beef.1
At the same time, two hundred miles north, near Fayetteville, North Carolina, lived another enslaved Muslim, Omar ibn Said. Unlike nearly all enslaved people, he was a writer. In 1831 Omar, aged sixty-one and long held captive on a cotton farm, wrote a fifteen-page memoir in Arabic. His manuscript is now in the Library of Congress, along with letters that he wrote and suras—chapters of the Quran—that he transcribed from memory.
Omar was born in 1770 into a prosperous family in Futa Toro, an enclave of the Fulani people on the Senegal River, about two hundred miles northeast of present-day Dakar. “My birthplace is…between the two rivers,” he wrote in his memoir. The Senegal River, on its path to the Atlantic, divides into two currents for a distance of one hundred miles before the streams rejoin, creating a long island of land “between the two rivers.”2
Islam had predominated along the Senegal River for centuries, but during the late 1700s there were wars in the region between Muslims and mushrikun (polytheists), with land in Futa Toro passing back and forth between rival armies. Fighting often ended with one side taking prisoners, whom the victors marched to the ocean and sold to slave-ship captains going to the Americas. Around 1775, when Omar was five, his father was killed in one such tribal war, and as a child Omar would have known about the roundups and deportations and possibly seen the slave trade in operation.
Most enslaved Africans came from societies without written records. Muslims, however, were a people of the book. As a male member of an elite family, Omar was educated in Islamic academies, studied the laws of the Prophet, and memorized long tracts of the Quran. He used a recondite cursive in Arabic, Maghribi, which by then was considered antiquarian, a bit like writing German in Fraktur today. Omar may have become a teacher and missionary of Islam in Futa Toro, but later he made a living as a trader in salt and cotton.
In 1807, when he was thirty-seven, it appears that Omar was caught in a tribal war near the mouth of the Senegal River. A disproportionate number of Muslims captured into slavery were educated men from prosperous families, because war against non-Muslims—jihad—attracted the most devout, the graduates of religious academies.3 “There came to our country a big army,” Omar remembered.
It killed many people. It took me, and walked me to the big Sea, and sold me into the hand of a Christian man who bought me and walked me to the big Ship in the big Sea. We sailed in the big Sea for a month and a half until we came to a place called Charleston in a Christian language. And there they sold me. A weak, small, evil man called Johnson, an infidel (Kafir) who did not fear Allah at all, bought me.4
Possibly 10 percent of the West Africans captured and brought to the Americas were Muslim. (No good estimate of the numbers of Muslims enslaved can be made, because the 12.5 million West Africans sent to the New World came from many places over four centuries, and in changing ethnic proportions.) The number was likely higher in South America and the Caribbean and lower in North America, with the exception of Louisiana, where thousands of people landed after being taken from Senegal. Omar came to the US a year before Congress banned the sale of transported Africans and the British navy began intercepting ships in an effort to slow the transatlantic slave trade. He was one of the last West Africans legally brought to the US.
Omar endured one month on the South Carolina plantation of Johnson, the “infidel.” Then he fled. He walked two hundred miles north before being trapped again and jailed in Fayetteville. Using charcoal found on the floor of his cell, Omar wrote on the wall in Arabic—suras from the Quran, pleas of one kind or another. His jailers, possibly semiliterate whites, were stunned. Their bewilderment about the slave with his own language attracted the attention of James Owen, a military officer, cotton farmer, slaveholder of forty-three people, and brother of a future governor of North Carolina. Owen somehow communicated to Omar that as a runaway, he was to be sent back to South Carolina. “No, no, no, no, no, no,” Omar quotes himself saying in his memoir. Owen felt some sympathy and fascination. He paid off the jailhouse, as well as a man sent by Johnson to retrieve his missing property, then he brought Omar to his cotton plantation, called Milton, in nearby Bladen County.
Omar lived at Milton as an upper-caste slave, his bondage easier than that of field hands. He had his own separate cabin near the big house, whose enslaved cooks served him meals. He sometimes worked as a carriage driver for the Owen family. Omar wrote prayers in Arabic and was said by whites to have posted them on trees around the district. He wrote occasional letters, sometimes at the behest of Owen, who regarded him as a personal indulgence and proof of his family’s kindness. (In one letter, Omar wrote, “Indeed I wish to be seen in our land called Africa, in a place by the river called Kaba, in Bewir.”5)He received journalists, who published newspaper articles about him. In 1831, prompted by Owen, Omar wrote his memoir, fifteen pages in lavishly beautiful script.6 During the 1850s he sat for a pair of ambrotype portraits. Whites around him thought of Omar as a kind of exotic pet and gave him the belittling nickname Uncle Moro, “uncle” being a general white derision and “Moro” a mangling of “Omar.”
He remained with the Owen family until his death in 1863, eighteen months before the Civil War ended, when he was ninety-three—just before Emancipation would have freed him.
Charleston, where Omar ibn Said was first enslaved, is the city through which some 200,000 West Africans entered America, about 40 percent of the total number dragged across the Atlantic as captive laborers. It is also the city where in 2015 a white supremacist massacred nine Black people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Not long afterward, programmers at Charleston’s Spoleto Festival, at which music, dance, opera, and theater are performed for almost three weeks each year in May and June, encountered Omar’s memoir and wondered what might be done with it. Nicole Taney, a producer at the festival, had the idea of commissioning a musician from North Carolina, where Omar spent most of his life enslaved, to write an opera based on the memoir.
In 2017 Taney and her colleagues approached Rhiannon Giddens, a folk musician, mezzo-soprano, banjo player, fiddle artist, and folk musicologist. Giddens, then forty years old, had sung opera but never written it. “I am a banjo player who can barely read music,” she said. But she had spent twenty years excavating and recording Black sounds from the American South, much of that time as part of the old-time string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Giddens is a one-person platform for “roots music”—a name for the Black-plus-white musical traditions of enslaved people, subsistence farmers, mountain dwellers, and Delta sharecroppers—from Piedmont ballads to Gullah spirituals, work hollers, and twelve-bar blues laments.
Giddens started writing material for Omar in 2018. The commission included hiring someone to write the libretto, but she decided that she wanted to write it. The producers agreed, then set about raising money from foundations, corporations, and rich patrons.
Giddens admitted that she did not have the skills to orchestrate a work for the fifteen or twenty different instruments and fifty musicians of a typical opera orchestra. So on a trip to Los Angeles, she reached out to a composer she’d never met, Michael Abels. He had written choral, orchestral, and concert pieces that shift among genres, some recalling the minimalism of Steve Reich, others bringing to mind the spare spiritualism of Arvo Pärt. For the last several years, Abels has written soundtracks for film and television, including the antiracist comedy-horror movie Get Out (2017) by the director Jordan Peele. Giddens wanted a collaborator; Abels joined Omar as co-composer. “The voice was to be my palette,” said Giddens, “the orchestra was to be Michael’s palette.”
Omar was in rehearsals for a spring 2020 premiere, but the Covid pandemic led to the cancellation of that year’s Spoleto Festival. It finally debuted on May 27, 2022, and ran for six performances. Omar the memoirist would have appreciated the attention.
As the orchestra tuned up at the premiere, I walked to the pit and looked in. I saw no banjo among the black-clad musicians, although Giddens said she wrote much of the music on her own banjo, a replica of a nineteenth-century instrument. I saw violas and violins, woodwinds, timpani, a harp, French horns, a double bass, and most other conservatory staples, but no electronics, synthesizers, or amps. And no West African instruments—no kora (a twenty-one-string lute from Gambia), no calinda (a thumb harp), no quill flute (a kind of panpipe). Just two African drums were on hand—a frame drum (like a large tambourine, common in North Africa) and a djembe (a kettle drum, played between the knees). “We wanted people to hear familiar instruments,” said Abels. “We wanted it to be heard and recognized as opera.”
On a screen over the curtain flickered a giant projection of the ambrotype depicting the real Omar, and as the lights went down, the huge eyes of the old man blinked slowly. The overture began with an eight-note descending riff, played on the viola, and a propulsive beat. This melody, Giddens told me, is the first music by enslaved people transcribed in the Americas. It comes from a travelogue by Hans Sloane, a London physician who went to Jamaica in 1688 and wrote down a tune he heard among West African slaves playing the banza, a stringed instrument with a fingerboard and a calabash for a body.7 (The banza, somewhat altered, entered American music as the banjo.)
The music dropped into a clave rhythm, an Afro-Caribbean beat that underlies many spirituals and much gospel, drives a lot of Cuban-influenced music, and is a foundational beat in rap and hip-hop. Clave clashes two rhythms against each other to make a layered sound. The Omar groove is a rumba clave, which takes a four-beat measure and breaks it into a three-beat phrase, with two long pulses and one short.
A chorus of seventeen singers entered and stood in a line, motionless and silent, facing the audience. The men wore kaftans and loose linen trousers, the women blouses and ankle-length wrap skirts, with colors and patterns on everyone. Giddens described the chorus as a visual carrier in the opera of “the community,” the ensemble of Black life during slavery. “The chorus kept coming back to me as I wrote,” she said, “until I made it a character.”
The trance opening ended, the orchestra was silent, and the character of Omar, performed in Charleston by the tenor Jamez McCorkle, sang in Arabic, praising his God:
Bismillāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm
Al ḥamdu lillāhi rabbi l-’ālamīn
Ar raḥmāni r-raḥīm
Māliki yawmi d-dīn
Iyyāka na’budu wa iyyāka nasta’īn…
The libretto then shifted to English. The opera has two acts of five scenes each. In scene 1, set in Futa Toro, Senegal, a crowd prays. Omar and his mother, Fatima, lead the group in song. Omar’s brother, Abdul, enters and sings that the community needs to protect itself against outsiders who have arrived and threaten plunder. Soon raiders storm the scene and seize captives, including Omar. As he is dragged away, he sees his mother Fatima cornered and killed.
Scene 2 takes place in the hold of a ship, as Omar and other men, shackled and tormented, lament their fate as captives. One man sings:
i am- i am-
I cannot see i cannot hear i cannot feel i cannot SEE
the smell the smell i cannot stand the smell
who am i who was i – i – can’t remember
i had a mother once
It is a shocking and painful sequence. Very little art anywhere—in performance, fiction, painting, film—tries to represent the Middle Passage, the disaster that struck the millions caught in the transatlantic slave trade, whose descendants today number more than 100 million in North and South America. In this and many other sequences Giddens’s spare verses cut a fine and deep emotional path, floating clear metaphors, flexing internal rhymes, delineating a dozen characters, and over a long performance developing a theme about the mingling of Islam with Christian worship.
In scene 3, at the Charleston slave market, in another stomach-turning passage, Omar is put on sale. As he watches, a family is broken apart, with two parents sold away from their ten-year-old son. A character named Julie is dragged into the room. She tries to tell Omar, who does not understand her, about a plantation in North Carolina from which she was kidnapped and to which she wants to return. But Omar is soon sold to a cruel cotton planter named Johnson. Julie is an invented character. “The Omar I wrote is a made-up Omar, not a real Omar,” said Giddens.
We cannot know the real Omar. Changing timelines, conflating people, and invention—all of that is to be expected when you’re making a dramatic line out of history. But I felt there was some spirit moving into the work.
As a Fulani, Omar cannot communicate either with his captors or with slaves speaking English. Giddens captures the language barrier with a clever device: sometimes characters sing in gibberish, their scat vocals and echolalia signifying incomprehension. When Omar leaves the slave market as the property of Johnson, neither knows what the other is saying. Johnson sings:
I saw you up there
and I knew I had to have you
I knew I had to break you
Johnson then sings the babble Omar is hearing:
aykat iden raykit nownuh
nutenok at bahbo entu
aiyul puchu ina fees
das wuhtail duail
puchu ina fees
Johnson was sung by the baritone Malcolm MacKenzie, whose strong, resonant voice possesses many overtones. (In act 2, he sang a different role, Omar’s “benign” slaveholder, James Owen.)
Tunes in the score sometimes sound as though they are built with the so-called Persian scale, which starts at the root with a semitone and follows with a minor third, the most “Islamic” progression in melody-making. There is a lot of melisma—singing above and below the note—which recalls West Africa and the Sahel. Some melodies in act 1 show folkish elements. You can hear the five- or ten-note motives and the modal scales that began on Giddens’s banjo, melodies that she shared with Abels, who distributed them among ten or twelve instruments. But some songs have complex tunes. They follow long, meandering melodic lines, sometimes recalling an opera by Benjamin Britten. Both the folkish cadences and the longer lines in act 1 sound troubled. They range up and down the staff, refusing to resolve, rarely giving a consoling refrain. Many songs avoid a return to the tonic, with passages that are neither soothing nor romantic but restless.
The atmosphere in act 1 is one of sorrow and endurance. Long sections are both beautiful and hard to watch and hear. (Abels, describing the effects of act 1, said, “If a slave auction doesn’t make you uncomfortable, please seek help.”) In act 2, as Omar accommodates himself to enslavement and even begins to thrive, the music becomes more traditionally chromatic. Chord progressions resolve; songs have refrains. In some places, Omar has the sound of a Protestant hymn, and in other places, up-tempo blues. There are work songs. A duet between the characters of James Owen and his daughter, Eliza, becomes a take on a nineteenth-century waltz.
Act 2 begins as the chorus sings a slow, mourning song without words, a sequence of Ohhs, with all staying on the melody, and no harmonizing voices. It is a scene that evokes “Va, pensiero,” the so-called chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco. In Verdi, the Jews are enslaved by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar; in Omar, the chorus is made up of African American slaves feeling the heel of a cotton master.
The best song in the opera, one that will be performed separately, is “Julie’s Aria.” Omar’s admirer, Julie, sings to him about her father, who, as a Muslim, wore a skullcap. The aria is a folk ballad in slow 4/4 time that shows off a simple melody as well as Giddens’s grip on roots music. It could have come out of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
Sometimes the opera draws directly from the repertoire of sharecroppers. For the scene of a Black country dance, or “frolic,” Giddens and Abels take a folk song, “Ol’ Corn Likker,” and plug it into the score. “Ol’ Corn Likker” may be two hundred years old. It’s neither Black nor white, but a tune sent back and forth across the color line. The nineteenth-century jig turns into a pleasure anthem, smuggling Black joy onto the stage in the form of a square dance, with a caller shouting steps and a drone on a single chord (held by the orchestra, not by the banjo and cow bones, as it was played by generations of southerners):
I got drunk
Fell off the wagon
Ol’ corn likker was still on draggin’
Ol’ corn likker was the cause of it all
Ol’ corn likker was the cause of it all
In another nod to folk repertoire, enslaved workers weave baskets and make furniture while singing lines that recall the Gullah lament “Oh, Death”:
Before this time another year
I may be gone
In some lonesome graveyard
O Lord, how long?
The sets and the costumes in Omar evolved and changed alongside the music. Scenes within Africa were represented with a backdrop of billowing white curtains. When the action moved to the plantation, scenes took place against a rough wooden wall. The set designer Amy Rubin produced one showstopper, a giant tree, about thirty feet tall and just as wide, made from knotted rope. It dropped onto the stage near the beginning of the opera, and a second time near the end. The knotted tree is itself a storyteller, presenting a metaphor about family rootedness. In one late scene, Omar sings, “Take care of the root of your tree/and its far flung branches/will bear everlasting fruit/This is the greatest truth.”
The costume designer April Hickman placed the cast in gorgeous colorful robes and long skirts with vivid prints. After Omar is enslaved and the story moves to America, they remained in West African dress, though it acquired Euro-American add-ons—jackets, headscarves, and vests. Omar kept his kaftan but wore a blue waistcoat that marked him as a household servant. As Omar began to write, Arabic script appeared, first projected on walls, then printed on the clothes of everyone in the cast. In act 2, a few other languages appeared on the clothes, including an Ethiopian script, Amharic.
At the Beinecke Library at Yale, I looked at the originals of several of the letters that Omar wrote. His calligraphy is luscious, and I realized that the production had made the superb decision to simply transfer Omar’s actual handwriting onto the costumes and sets, until the written texts spread like an imprint over nearly everything onstage.
Omar is in some ways a throwback to nineteenth-century “grand opera,” works by composers such as Verdi and Giacomo Meyerbeer that take a tragic tale from history as their subject, use a big chorus, and include a major dance sequence—all conventions followed by Omar. It is opera as history, which remains a strong audience magnet. Think of Hamilton. Enslavement is a large part of world history, but opera has spent little time with enslaved people until Omar. The nearly three-hour spectacle ends that neglect. Since the premiere at the Spoleto Festival it has been performed by the Los Angeles Opera, Carolina Performing Arts, and the Boston Lyric Opera, with performances planned by the San Francisco Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
It’s fitting and ironic that Omar debuted in Charleston. The city is both the birthplace and the setting of Porgy and Bess (1936), the single “Black opera” in the canon. But Porgy and Bess is full of Jim Crow imagery and lyrics that show African Americans as ignorant, promiscuous, childlike, and criminal. The white jazz-classicist George Gershwin developed Porgy and Bess from source material in the novel Porgy (1925), by the white Charleston writer DuBose Heyward. It tells a story about Black folks, including a disabled beggar, Porgy, and his girlfriend, Bess, who share messy lives and crushing poverty in a tenement called Catfish Row.
If Omar enters the repertoire as another Black opera from the Carolinas, it’s likely to help sever the rope of white supremacy that runs through it. Omar is a pained blast of beauty, a story about an enslaved man, with an orchestra that plays on conservatory instruments the music of people at the bottom of the social pyramid, songs once sung in cabins and played on rickety instruments. With its nearly all-Black company and mostly Black contributors—the costumes, sets, lighting, and direction of the Spoleto production were in the hands of people of color—Omar disrupts the most exclusive, self-serious, and expensive of the performing arts.
And it contains a roll call about its own role. At the end of the opera, the chorus walks offstage, down the aisles, and throughout the theater, singing:
Tell your story, Omar, you must
Or they will never know
And we will fade into dust.
Rhiannon Giddens is mixed-race, the daughter of a Black mother and white father. She told me she finds it “tiresome” to live and work as a go-between, continually explaining, with her music, Black culture to white people. Michael Abels is also mixed-race, the son of a Black father and white mother. He describes “having to work” to absorb the culture of Black America in his youth and during his education, because he was raised within white culture. He calls Omar “one part recovered Black history” and “one part storytelling about the diaspora using a Germanic art form.” Neither Abels nor Giddens carries much in the way of family history from the generations of enslavement, except for one story Giddens told me:
My grandmother in North Carolina, who raised me till I was eight—she was Black—used to talk about her Grandma Savory. She’d say something like this. “Grandma Savory used to throw her kids up in the attic when the slave-catchers would come around, to keep ’em out of sight. Because for a long time they were selling people down the river, and she was afraid it could happen to them any time.” I wish I’d asked my grandmother more when she was alive.
I think sometimes about Fatima, the woman captured in 1721, brought to Charleston, and bought by my ancestor Elias Ball. Fatima, one among the millions, flashes up in the historical record, then vanishes. Omar is about a lot of people like Fatima, and the opera, in part, is for them.
“Fatima”: Account and Blanket Book, 1720–1778, Ball family papers, South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston; “Nero”: Plantation Record Book #3, William J. Ball Books, 1804–1890, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. ↩
A newspaper reporter at the Charleston Post and Courier, Jennifer Berry Hawes, traveled to West Africa to look for Omar’s roots and makes a convincing case that his birthplace was a village in Senegal called Coppe. See Jennifer Berry Hawes, “‘I Am Omar’: A Quest for the True Identity of Omar ibn Said, a Muslim Man Enslaved in the Carolinas,” Post and Courier, May 27, 2021. ↩
Sylviane A. Diouf, a leading scholar of Islam in the Americas during the slave period, traces the changing politics of Islam and the slave trade in Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (New York University Press, 1998), chapter 1. Diouf speculates that Omar was captured in the Senegalese kingdom of Kayor. An early study of Omar is George H. Callcott, “Omar ibn Seid, a Slave Who Wrote an Autobiography in Arabic,” Journal of Negro History, Vol. 39, No. 1 (January 1954). ↩
Omar’s manuscript has been translated into English several times, most recently and artfully by Ala Alryyes, who annotates the text and adds a good collection of essays. See “The Life of Omar ibn Said, Written by Himself,” in A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar ibn Said (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011). ↩
See John Hunwick, “‘I Wish to Be Seen in Our Land Called Africa’: Omar ibn Said’s Appeal to Be Released from Slavery, 1819,” Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Vol. 5 (2003–2004). ↩
Writings in Arabic by enslaved workers have survived in many parts of the Americas, from Trinidad to Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and especially Brazil. For literary traces within a slave revolt, see João José Reis, Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia, translated by Arthur Brakel (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993). Omar was not the only literate and well-known Muslim enslaved in the US South. A number of “Mohammedans” lived for generations on the Gullah islands of South Carolina and Georgia. On St. Simons Island, Georgia, a devout man named Salih Bilali, captured in the early 1800s in present-day Mali, worked as a plantation foreman, directing hundreds of workers on a tract called Cannon’s Point. Ten miles north of St. Simons lies Sapelo Island. There, in the 1820s, Bilali Muhammad, enslaved to a Georgia cotton planter named Thomas Spaulding, acted as imam to the island’s Muslim community. Bilali wrote a thirteen-page primer on Islamic law in elementary Arabic. The text ended up in the papers of his master, who called it “Ben Ali’s diary” and gave it to missionaries promoting colonization, the deportation of Black Americans to West Africa. Bilali Muhammad’s text is now in the Francis R. Goulding papers, Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia. See Ray Crook, “Bilali—The Old Man of Sapelo Island: Between Africa and Georgia,” in Wadabagei Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Spring–Summer 2007). ↩
Sloane titled the melody he transcribed “Koromanti,” which is what English sugar planters called captives from the vicinity of present-day Ghana. See Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers, and Jamaica, volume 1, p. li (London, 1707). Sloane, through his wife’s inheritance, controlled a sugar plantation and its enslaved workers in Jamaica. He is well known in the UK as a founder of the British Museum. ↩