‘Unintelligible Babel’: How Enslaved Muslims Used Arabic to Pursue Freedom in Early America

‘Unintelligible Babel’: How Enslaved Muslims Used Arabic to Pursue Freedom in Early America

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September 10, 2019 | 5:30pm - 6:30pm | EUC Auditorium

A lecture by Ayla Amon, Smithsonian Institution

Of the more than 12.5 million enslaved Africans transported to the New World during the transatlantic slave trade, estimates suggest that at least 25% were Muslim. They brought with them their culture, their faith, and most importantly their language. Arabic, a language minimally studied, spoken, or understood in America, provided an outlet and resource for these men and women. They used Arabic to reaffirm their faith; to plead to be returned to Africa; to condemn slavery and their slave owners; to generate rebellion; and in a few cases, to gain their freedom. This lecture will examine some of the Arabic documents they wrote in order to shed light on the lives of these remarkable people and the role that Islam played in shaping the antebellum American landscape.

Ayla Amon is a Curatorial Assistant at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture who studies enslaved African Muslims in North America. She holds degrees in Islamic Art and Architecture, Middle Eastern Studies, and Museum Studies from the University of Chicago and George Washington University, and has worked at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Walters Art Museum, and the Tangier American Legation Museum in Morocco.

Co-sponsored by Lloyd International Honors College, the African American and African Diaspora Studies Program, the Department of History, and the Muslim Student Association.