"It's so far outside our conception of what slavery was, and our understanding
of what American society was. That's one reason," says Allison. "It flies in
the face of what we thought we knew."
While most academics would agree with Allison's statement, the existence of
Muslim slaves has for years been an article of faith among African-American
Muslims. Imam Taalib Mahdee, of Dorchester's Al-Quran Mosque, is quick to make
that point. "Even if they didn't say [that the slaves brought Islam over with
them], we knew," he says. Acceptance by the white academy is no special
victory. Acceptance by the world at large, however, might mean something.
Which sheds some light on the particular mission of Derrick Beard.
The best way to reach Derrick Beard is by beeper, because he seems to live in
many cities at the same time. When he is mentioned in articles on
African-American decorative art, he is described, variously, as a "New York
collector," an "Atlanta collector," or a "Chicago collector."
In truth, he's spending most of his time in Los Angeles these days, returning
to his earlier career as an engineer and contractor, but he also appears to be
devoting a good deal of the next year to chaperoning the life story of
Omar ibn Said. To the academics who have linked up with him through Omar's
manuscript, the 39-year-old Beard is a somewhat mysterious figure. "He is a man
who does a lot of things," says one professor.
In the world of African-American art collecting, however, Beard is a
well-known quantity; he has been active as a dealer and collector for the past
15 years. In the early days, Beard acquired art and furniture without any
assurance that there would be buyers down the road. His speculation paid off
over the course of time, and he began to regularly sell his purchases to
museums and institutions.
Today, the value of African-American art and furniture has doubled and tripled
many times over, and Beard is a strong enough player that he can't always bid
for himself at an auction. He acquires less and less these days and says he is
planning to pull out of the art business entirely. But when Omar's manuscript
went up for sale at a New York art gallery in 1995, he took a seat at the very
back of the room, behind the single counterbidder -- a specialist in Semitic
manuscripts -- and bought the document for $21,000.
All collectors feel some personal link with their acquisitions, but there's a
certain moral weight to collecting artifacts from the age of slavery. Late in
1997, the auction house Christie's canceled a sale of papers from slave
transactions because it received so many calls in protest of what critics saw
as a white institution profiting off the painful legacy of slavery.
Not surprisingly, major African-American collectors see their stewardship of
historical artifacts as part of an educational mission.
"It's a ministry to me," says collector Philip Merrill. "I aim to educate."
In the case of Omar, Beard's interest is even more personal. Beard listened to
Malcolm X speeches on eight-track tapes when he was in high school, and he
joined the Nation of Islam as a teenager. Now he belongs to the mainstream
Muslim faith, where Omar's story has a deep religious and political, as well as
academic, importance -- proof that African-American Islam can be traced in a
nearly unbroken line back to Africa. Suddenly, Beard sounds less like a dealer
and more like a trustee; he says even if institutions such as Harvard decide
they do want to acquire the manuscript, "it's not for sale. They can forget it.
That document stays with my kids, and my kids' kids, and my kids' kids'
It's a personal identification that separates him from the professors at the
table with him at the Houghton Library.
"He's not an academic. He's a romantic," says Werner Sollors, a professor of
comparative literature at Harvard who organized last month's Harvard panel on
Omar. "He sees whole things coming together perhaps more than an academic
And now that he has the document in hand -- or rather, in a padlocked carrying
case -- Beard is proceeding in a fashion that could fairly be described as
romantic. Rather than handing the document over to the tender mercies of
preservationists, Beard has lined up a tour worthy of a rock band and has
appointed himself manager.
It's not just style: the substance of his stewardship is markedly un-academic.
Where academics would likely place more emphasis on issues of authenticity and
physical preservation, Beard's first priority is to identify Omar as a person
-- who his family was, for instance, and where precisely he grew up. Beard
traveled to Senegal earlier this year in an attempt to trace Omar's origins,
and he came back with a number of stories he says are clues.
One tale came from a griot from Omar's region, who, when he heard Beard's
description of Omar, responded with a legend: a man from the region used
magical powers to prevent a flood from overtaking his village, but there was a
condition to using this power -- the man had to leave the region for good.
Beard and the griot saw a link -- one of the lasting paradoxes of Omar's story
is that he declined missionaries' offers to return him to Africa later in life.
"So our griot," Beard says, "thought that Omar might have been this person."
Another idea that came out of Beard's trip, he says, is that the North
Carolina Omar might be some kind of double to a famous local figure also named
Omar ibn Said, who was born 27 years after the one who ended up in America. The
two died the same year, which, Beard says, "was kind of a mystical thing."
Despite the historical discrepancies, Beard holds out the possibility of an
indirect link: "Maybe he concocted this or created an identity through it," he
says. "I'm not entirely ruling it out."
One certainty, for Beard, is that Omar was of noble origin. Beard says he has
matched Omar's father's description with a man by the name of Suleiman Bal, a
famous historical figure who spread Islam through West Africa.
To the academics who study Omar, this kind of bloodline speculation is
unnerving; they argue that Omar's importance is precisely that he was no one
special, but instead the tip of a demographic iceberg.
"I have professional doubts about [tracing his genealogy] despite the optimism
of Mr. Beard," says Northwestern University's John Hunwick. "I'm not sure it's
possible to, and I'm not sure it's important to. I think the importance of the
man lies in what he does, not in what his genealogy was."
Still, some of the same observers watch Beard's efforts with a slightly
wistful admiration. With no institutional consensus to await, Beard can spread
the story of Omar to the public in the most direct way possible. Sulayman
Nyang, a historian of African religions from Howard University in Washington,
DC, brings up the example of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were held hostage by
squabbling scholars for 44 years after their discovery 50 years ago in the
caves at Qumran; only recently were they displayed to the public. Real
documents can set off a certain kind of electricity when they are circulated
among regular people -- and Omar's life still has the potential to excite
people if it's given enough exposure. Allan Austin is on the side of raw
"I worry a little bit about what Harvard will do with it. I worry that a
linguistic, scholarly air of superiority will take over and make these just
interesting documents" rather than important cultural news, he says. "There's a
bit of a tendency to want to play and squeeze out meanings and forget the
"I think in some ways what we academic people do is important and necessary,
but sometimes what the non-academic people do is at least as important," Austin
adds. "Maybe what he will do is use it in a more political way."
Certainly that's what Beard intends, and he's picked a good time for it. Islam
is one of the fastest-growing faiths in America, which means people are
listening carefully for a voice like Omar ibn Said's. This is a moment when, as
Sulayman Nyang puts it, "what was once a footnote could become part of the
Between the historians and Derrick Beard, the next few years should determine
whether Omar ibn Said goes on a postage stamp or into the dustbin of history.
And if any one person in or out of the academy has the power to shift the
balance, it is the man with the padlocked carrying case. Ownership has its
Ellen Barry can be reached at email@example.com.