PRINCE AMONG SLAVES comes to NPT on Monday, February 4, 2008 at 9:00 p.m. Narrated by Mos Def, it tells the forgotten true story of an African prince who was enslaved in Mississippi for 40 years before finally achieving freedom and becoming one of the most famous men in America. Co-Executive Producer Michael Wolfe offers these thoughts on his film.
Four years in the making, PRINCE AMONG SLAVES explores the dramatic story of a young African general slated to rule a nation larger than the Thirteen Colonies, who instead was captured during battle in 1788 and sold into slavery in Mississippi.
He served on a single plantation in Natchez for almost 40 years, before negotiating his freedom with the U.S. State Department and the White House in 1828.
This amazing piece of American history is perhaps the best detailed biography of an enslaved African in our annals, yet it has fallen out of the history books, until now.
The dignity and inner strength of its central character is matched by turns of providence and fate that are all the more amazing for being documented in letters, diaries, and newspapers.
We learn a lot about America from this film. We learn about traditional Africa, too.
In the early days of the European slave trade, West Africa was home to numerous well established states, some like the Prince’s with a constitution and elected leaders governing societies rich in trade, with educational systems and with cities larger than early Manhattan, protected by militaries better organized and better armed than George Washington’s Continental Army.
Through the story of this man, who happened also to be a devout Muslim, American viewers have a chance to move beyond the stereotypes of our day concerning Islam, to learn something more about Muslims in Early America.
The presence of Muslims in large numbers in colonial America challenges the mistaken notion that Muslims only arrived in the USA and represent an inimical influence on the country.
Scholars like Michael Gomez of New York University and Sylviane Diouf at the Schaumberg Center estimate that as many as 25% of the Africans enslaved in North America were practicing Muslims. This fact alone shatters many stereotypes.
Like most religions brought here by captured Africans, Islam was not passed down over generations in significant numbers. Nonetheless, Muslim contributions to early America– agricultural, technological, musical, culinary, and social– are traceable and real. Moreover, this history provides many African American Muslims with a general touch stone for the practice of their faith here. Around 35% of American Muslims today are indigenous African Americans, many with roots in the 18th century African Diaspora.
This film tells a larger historical story too, including a present day legacy of surprising proportions. The film ends with a family reunion of several dozen descendants of the Prince, from Africa as well as Mississippi, gathering, on the grounds of the plantation where he once served to tick off their genealogy.
Almost 200 years ago, a single man who fell into miserable circumstances conducted him with grace and courage, and we are still affected and deeply touched by that.