PBS' Prince Among Slaves Proves an Inspiration
The man of the hour was Artemus Gaye, a refugee from Liberia now living in Chicago who is the descendant of Abdul Rahman -- an African prince enslaved in the late 1700s, whose story is told in the powerful PBS documentary, Prince Among Slaves.
I was lucky enough to be invited to a unique event sponsored by the Hillsborough NAACP, WMNF-FM and Tampa's chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations -- an evening-long gathering at the Tampa Theater which featured a screening of the documentary, performances by African dancers and musicians and a panel discussion featuring me, the prince's descendant, Dr. Cheryl Rodriguez from USF's Institute on Black Life and a local imam.
Gaye provided a compelling start to the evening by noting that "we are all royalty," in that, nobility these days comes from your deeds, not your lineage. The film's message of inclusion and inspiration seemed reflected in the crowd assembled, a group of more than 900 people which ranged from Arab Muslims to Africans to Christian African Americans and a sprinkling of garden variety white folks.
It was inspiring to see so many folks -- so many of them students and young people -- gathered to see the film, narrated by rapper/actor Mos Def and featuring re-enactments directed by Bill Duke. Hear from them here.
Rahman''s story is a typically bruising one: captured by enemies of his kingdom in Africa, he was shipped to Natchez, Mississippi where he wound up serving a plantation owner for 40 years -- managing his field operations. It eventually took the intercession of Secretary of State Henry Clay and President John Quincy Adams to secure his freedom, as a means of making nice with Morocco.
As Rahman's story is told, we learn how his devotion to his faith and his schooling -- reading a version of the Koran in Arabic convinces a local newspaper publisher to take up his cause -- helped him keep going. See some behind the scenes footage here.
Unfortunately, his story has the kind of ending we've come to expect from slave narratives. Rahman traveled America to raise money in hopes of buying his nine children from his former owner, becoming a symbol for the abolitionist movement and angering slavery advocates. After pro-slavery president Andrew Jackson was elected, Rahman was forced to leave the country with just half the funds needed to purchase his family, dying months later in Africa.
Producers of the film say they hope to get it shown in classrooms across the county. Revenues from last night's event, for example, are targeted to fund placing copies of the films in Tampa schools.
I was just honored to be witness to such an impressive gathering of people dedicated to little besides celebrating each others history and finding common ground. With so many power brokers seeking influence by keeping us apart, it was a distinct pleasure of bask in the glow of togetherness across racial, ethnic, religious and historical lines.
Here's a sample of the film, which airs at 10 p.m. Monday on WEDU-Ch. 3