Tuesday, February 5, 2008


(Drawing of Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori)

Several years ago I had the opportunity to compile a genealogy for a friend who is a nationally-respected African-American writer. This led me inevitably to slave genealogy, primarily in the Mississippi Delta region, and it was during the course of reading everything I could on the subject that I can across the story of Abdul Rahman: The only African stolen from that continent, made a slave here, who was able to return to Africa and write about the experience of slavery. A singular voice.

I was so rocked by Abdul Rahman's story that I wrote a poem about it. I later learned about the book Prince Among Slaves by history professor Terry Alford, chronicling his life. Now Unity Productions Foundation has created an award-winning documentary based on Alford's book (and narrated by Mos Def) which was aired on PBS last night. Check your local PBS listings; since this is Black History Month, you may well have a chance to see it in your area, and you should make every effort to watch it if you can.

Here's the (sketchy) Wikipedia entry on Abdul Rahman. A much better biography is available at the Slavery in America site. The Unity Productions Foundation about the film is here. (I was particularly interested in the genealogy leads at the latter site.)

My poem is after the fold.


He was a Fulbe prince. He could read and write
With these in hand we sketch the arc, the why:
Of all those who made the Middle Passage
And survived -- already select, hardy, smart, lucky --
He alone found the way back home
And then, o bless you Ibrahim
Set ink on paper to tell us
What he felt

The brutality, we've learned
The mechanics of it, the rot
We have imagined
But here is his voice, clearer than god
Saying it was the unimaginable
That threatened him most

He, like his folk, knew slavery
as stolen labor -- Crime enough
yet a crime with exit hatches
But these new ones, some kind of maybe-people
They stole entire humanity
He, like his folk, believed these thieves
must be cannibals -- how else to explain
the absence of return, ever
They must consume the stolen
down to marrow cracked from bones

So when he was in the wrong place,
At the only time he had -- his own --
And fell into the hands of such savages
He prepared for death
Waited for the knife
Waited while chained in dark sewers
Taken to a place not on any map
His offers of ransom were not honored
Or even comprehended.

He was set to hoeing cotton.
Not to die -- at least not die
Direct. But the work, hunger, beatings
Were not what kept him from
The living. It was the
Not Knowing
Not knowing where he was or any route
Back to his kind of people
Not knowing how it was he could fail
To be seen as likewise human

One day he reached decision
Set down his hoe and walked steady
Toward the woman of the two
Who believed they owned him
She faltered at his approach, turned
For weapon or flight. But he
Knelt before her, pressed his forehead
Into Mississippi dirt, and
Gently lifted her foot
To place it on his neck
In his true language, he swore fealty
Swore his honor

She didn't understand, not the real of it
But he did. And this settled his torture

Later, incredibly,
He was recognized by a traveler
Bought free his wife
And sailed back home
The only one of his kind

If you still cling to your confusion
Find a greater comfort there
Cannot hear all of what our people did
Cannot accept it without excuse
Or even refuge of guilt
If you want to believe it is over, now --
Your own preferences are accidental, innocent --
I will not wrangle
But I do hector you with this:
Understand his honor His choice
Understand how he clenched his power
By saying it was his to give
Understand that
And your road opens

Copyright 2008 Maggie Jochild, written 2 October 2003, 5:05 p.m.

1 comment:

letsdance said...

Thank you, Maggie. Again you enlighten me as to people of meaning. You are a great teacher.