Talismans and Fragments of Enslaved African Muslim Women in the Americas
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Between 1809 and 1835 approximately twenty slave revolts took place in Bahia, Brazil; the most substantial uprising was known as the Malê revolt of 1835, or the Muslim revolt, where as many as 500 rebels were involved (Gomez 103). Although women were involved in the rebellion, their role remains largely indiscernible in historical documents since, as historian João José Reis contends, “[w]omen were conspicuously absent from Malê rituals” (1993, 107). Despite the underrepresentation of the black female Muslim slave in the archives, her presence can still be illuminated through traces and fragments. This paper takes as its site of inquiry a few of those fragments found in runaway slave notices (compiled by Lathan A. Windley) and transcripts of the trials of Conceição da Praia, Brazil (cited in Reis’s Slave Rebellion in Brazil). I will focus on the complex and fraught roles of black female Muslims in the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade and in the wider Islamic community. Indeed, in the face of violence, exploitation, dispersal, and separation, enslaved African Muslim women turned to their faith to contest the risk of erasure. More specifically, I suggest that these remarkable women deployed an Islamic epistemology—evident in their dress and distribution of Islamic talismans—to retain a sense of identity and to counter a system that negated their personhood.