Documentary to air Monday night

Published 12:01 am Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The one-hour documentary “Prince Among Slaves,” which will air on PBS at 9 Monday night, tells the story of Prince Abdul Rahman (Prince Ibrahima), who was enslaved here in Adams County for 40 years during the terms of our first six presidents of the United States.

It is altogether fitting that this film, with its riveting portrayal of the Atlantic crossing in a slave ship, should be shown on Mississippi Public Television to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the official end of the international slave trade by the United States on Jan. 1, 1808.

Abdul Rahman was brought to Natchez from his homeland in the Kingdom of Futa Jallon in western Africa 20 years before the official end of that trade. He remained enslaved here for another 20 years after that before obtaining his freedom to return to Africa in the last year of his life.

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However the slave trade within this country continued from the East Coast and border states to this region for another 50-plus years until the Civil War. During that time, the Forks of the Road in Natchez became a major center of that trade within the United States.

Abdul Rahman’s enslavement began during Spanish rule of Natchez and continued into American territorial times and Mississippi statehood. His life epitomizes the character of thousands of Africans who ended up here in the Natchez vicinity, endured extreme hardships, and made Natchez what it is today.

Abdul Rahman never stopped thinking about his homeland, and he was able to secure his own freedom and that of some of his family to return to Africa, but he had to leave other members of his family behind.

His descendants are still among us, as are the descendants of many of those thousands of other Africans who were brought her from Africa on slaving ships. They have lived among the rest of us for more than 200 years.

Abdul Rahman was singled out by historians as a “prince” among slaves because that one characteristic meant that of all the anonymous enslaved people in this area, his story would be recorded and preserved. His humanity was recognized because he did not remain anonymous.

Yet Abdul Rahman was very typical of enslaved people who had their own culture, faith and education before ever being brought to this country. They were not ignorant. Africa lost many of its most capable young people to the slave trade and the wars it created.

It would become the task of later African-American historians such as William Leo Hansberry of nearby Gloster to uncover the cultures and history of Africa which had been ignored or covered up by nearly all academic historians of the early 20th century.

That battle over the interpretation of African history is still being fought today because, as Randall Robinson says regarding Haiti, the worst thing you can do to a people is deprive them of their history.

This documentary plays a small role in unveiling that epic African past by treating Prince Abdul Rahman, not simply as a prince, nor merely as a slave, but as a human being whose life story overcomes the anonymity of enslavement. His story also informs us about our African past and who we are as a nation.

David Dreyer is a local historian who appears in the PBS documentary.