FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Few people have known the true story of Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim lbn Sori, but a new PBS documentary called "Prince Among Slaves" could change that. Abdul-Rahman was an African prince sold into slavery and brought to America. The documentary chronicles his life and journey back to freedom.
Alex Kronemer is executive producer of the film. And thank you for coming on.
Mr. ALEX KRONEMER (Executive Producer, "Prince Among Slaves"): Thanks for having me.
CHIDEYA: So I just want to learn a little bit more about this man. He's recognized as an African prince. Tell us how he first was enslaved.
Mr. KRONEMER: Well, he was from a country that was larger than United States of American at the time - and along with other West African countries, was engaged in warfare that led to his capture, and he was then sold to English slavers that sold him on to slavers in the Caribbean and eventually to those folks who were purchasing slaves in Mississippi. And he became enslaved then in Mississippi for 40 years.
CHIDEYA: How did you find out about this story?
Mr. KRONEMER: Well, we were exploring the idea of, trying to do some documentary on the spiritual life of the enslaved Africans. There's not very much information about what that was all about because in addition to the trauma of losing their life, their liberty, their homes, they also lost their religions. So we wanted to understand that better. And in just the course of research, we came across this book, written 30 years ago, called "Prince Among Slaves," and that merely captivated us and sort of screamed out to be turned into a documentary film.
CHIDEYA: Now, Abdul-Rahman is Muslim. He read Arabic, which he learned studying in Timbuktu, Mali. Here's a dramatization of him reading.
(Soundbite of documentary, "Prince Among Slaves")
Unidentified Man: Show me what you just read.
Mr. IAN COBLYN (Actor): (As Abdul-Rahman) (Reading in foreign language).
Unidentified Man: And where did you learn to read Arabic?
Mr. COBLYN: (As Abdul-Rahman): I learned as a boy in Timbuktu.
CHIDEYA: Alex, how did his faith help navigate him to the life in America?
Mr. KRONEMER: Well, we kind of like speculate in part because he kept his faith pretty much to himself, in part because in the latter part of his period of enslavement, he was making progress in getting himself and his nine children who have been born - enslaved in America, getting them free. And he was getting a lot of help from a number of Christian missionaries who saw him as a way of evangelizing Africa; that they would send this Christian prince as they what saw him back to Africa, and he would bring the Evans(ph) as it were to the true faith.
So when he was asked many times about his religion, he sort of kept that quiet because he knew that to publicly proclaim too much that he was Muslim would maybe and hinder his chances of getting his family and himself free.
CHIDEYA: You have a lot of different talented people who've worked on the film, rapper and actor Mos Def, who is Muslim, does the voice over narration. How did you reach out to him?
Mr. KRONEMER: Well, in some ways, he reached out to us. He learned about the project through our - one of our directors, Bill Duke who did the directing of the reenactments with the program. That's how we came into acquaintance with him.
CHIDEYA: So you do have Bill Duke, well-known director, bringing his talents to these lush reenactment sequences. And then you have someone else, Andrea Kalin. Looking at the documentary side of things, was it hard to marry those two talents and those two approaches together?
Mr. KRONEMER: Bill and Andrea worked together on a few other projects. And these two perspectives coming together, I think, made a very dynamic documentary.
CHIDEYA: Let's go back into Abdul-Rahman's story. So he has been brought to America. He has connected with missionaries, but he also attracted the attention of people at the highest echelons of American society.
Mr. KRONEMER: He became essentially, extraordinarily valuable person to the man who had purchased him. One of the things this story really points out is that we, sometimes, talk about the, you know, the unacknowledged debt that America owes enslaved Africans and enslaved African-Americans for helping to build America - and that's true. But I think sometimes, we put more attention on the physical contributions, you know, the muscle contributions - the sweat contributions.
And what this story helps shed light on this, there was an extraordinary amount of intellectual capital that was brought to America from Africa - that was - it was crucial - and the economic development of the United States. And his story in a microcosm shows it because the person who purchased him was as very poor farmer, and it was (unintelligible) knowledge of how to cultivate cot on a large scale that actually allow this man to escape his own poverty and become one of the wealthiest people in Mississippi at the time.
So he wasn't - he was extraordinarily valuable to this man who would never part with him for any reason. As time went forward, there's sort of extraordinary event occurred where a - he met up with a - by accident, with a former Irish ship sergeant who had been shipwrecked in Africa and had been saved by Abdul-Rahman's father. So the one white man in America owed him an enormous debt suddenly was in town.
And through a long intervention, his story began to be known at a very national level. And the president of United States, eventually, himself hoping to carry favor with the emperor of Morocco. Because he spoke Arabic, Abdul-Rahman was mistaken to be Arab and Moroccan rather an African. And so was the idea that, oh, if we get this guy free and back to Morocco, maybe the emperor will do us a few favors as well.
So he was allowed free passage back to Africa but his wife and children remain enslaved. And that became - that become sort of the dramatic third act because he travelled around America telling his story, and as one observer eventually said, became the most famous African in America at that time.
CHIDEYA: What do you want to be the footprint of this documentary? How do you want it to echo in the world?
Mr. KRONEMER: I think most importantly, this is a man who lost everything. And all of us, at any time, could lose everything. And he, in some way, charts the notion of what it is to be able to hold on to your dignity, to hold on to your hope for the future in spite of great losses and to be able to remain intact because after 40 years on enslavement, he's still was completely intact, incompletely himself and able to act on his own behalf in very complicated situations to achieve many of his goals. So it's a story of inspiration, I think, for everyone.
CHIDEYA: Alex, thank you so much.
Mr. KRONEMER: Thanks for having me.
CHIDEYA: Alex Kronemer is executive produce of the new PBS documentary "Prince Among Slaves." He joined us from NPR's New York bureau.
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CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.