When West African prince Abdul Rahman was sold into slavery and forced to work a Mississippi farmer’s tobacco fields in 1788, his owner had little idea of his new possession’s royal lineage. More than 200 years later, even Abdul Rahman’s descendants know few details about the life of one of African-American history’s most extraordinary figures.
“We knew that time had scattered [Abdul Rahman’s descendants] far and wide, so it was really meaningful for us to be able to bring them together,” says director Andrea Kalin of the real-life coda to her docudrama, Prince Among Slaves, in which Abdul Rahman’s progeny are reunited at the site of the Mississippi plantation where he was enslaved. “But the reunion was also bittersweet because I realized that I knew more about their own story than they did.”
Based on a biography by Northern Virginia Community College history professor Terry Alford, Prince Among Slaves chronicles Abdul Rahman’s capture at the hands of a warring tribe, sale to English slave traders, transport to America, and 40 years of enslavement; Abdul Rahman’s plight, as Mos Def’s narration explains, would eventually gain the attention of Secretary of State Henry Clay and President John Quincy Adams, who ordered his freedom. If Abdul Rahman’s life has fallen from view, it isn’t due to lack of archival materials.
“When I did some independent research…I was shocked,” says Kalin, a Mount Pleasant resident. “There were the documents that were used to purchase the prince.…There were journal entries by John Quincy Adams. There is extensive newspaper coverage at the Library of Congress of the prince’s campaign through the North. I was just completely taken—not just with the story itself but also with the materials that were available with which to tell the story.”
Prince Among Slaves was filmed in St. Mary’s City, Md., and along the Chesapeake Bay, and shooting wrapped in the spring; it premieres in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Dec. 1, and is scheduled to air on PBS stations on Feb. 4. That’s not to say, however, that Kalin has finished the film. “As long as you keep the film alive and on your edit bay, you continue to go back and make refinements,” Kalin says. “You just can’t help yourself…so I’m really looking forward to getting it off the systems so I can say ‘That’s it, you know, that was my last edit.’”
Prince Among Slaves shows at 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1, at Howard University’s Cramton Auditorium, 2455 6th St. NW. $15. (202) 262-1304.