By Martha Quillin and Jessica Banov for The Raleigh News & Observer
Singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens, who grew up in North Carolina, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music Monday for co-writing “Omar,” an opera about the journey of an enslaved man in the South.
The prizes, awarded in a range of journalism categories, arts and literature, were presented Monday.
Giddens won the award with her co-writer Michael Abels.
“OMG!!! Screaming!!! THANK YOU,” she posted on Facebook and Twitter shortly after the announcement.
Later, Giddens expounded on receiving the award and the process of creating the opera.
“Now that the shock has worn off (just kidding, it probably never will) — I just have to say a humongous thank you to the Pulitzer Prizes committee for recognizing this piece — and for giving the remarkable story of Omar ibn Said more light,” Giddens wrote on Facebook.
“This is cultural work, it’s heavy work, it energizing work, its spirit work. It’s an honor and a privilege to be a part of it. This is what art is for — to make emotional connections to stories other than our own, and I am grateful to have been given these words and this music to shepherd, and to have had as wonderful of a collaborator as Michael Abels.”
ABOUT THE OPERA ‘OMAR’
The opera was first staged last year at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., an annual event held less than a mile from where Omar was first sold into slavery at the age of 37 after being captured during fighting in his homeland, modern-day Senegal, around 1807.
Spoleto, along with Carolina Performing Arts at UNC Chapel Hill, commissioned Giddens to write the opera.
The opera was presented in February on the UNC Chapel Hill campus, bringing its mixture of African and American musical styles to sold-out audiences. The vocals and orchestration were sometimes defiant, occasionally celebratory and often plaintive as they followed Omar’s story.
Giddens, a Greensboro native, graduated in 1995 from the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics and studied opera in college. She received Grammy awards in 2011 and 2022 and was named and received a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2017.
THE STORY OF OMAR IBN SAID
Omar ibn Said has long been used to propagate the Lost Cause myth of the happy slave whose life was made better by his forced relocation to America and the captivity of a benevolent master.
In his lifetime, during which he was never freed from slavery, his owners made him into a celebrity by adding an almost irresistible layer to the myth, claiming that Omar, who had studied Islam in West Africa before his captivity, had converted to Christianity and could write Bible verses in Arabic.
Three years after his original enslavement in South Carolina, Omar escaped and made his way to North Carolina, where he was recaptured and jailed in Fayetteville.
He was held there for 16 days, during which time he used a piece of charcoal to write on the walls in Arabic. His literacy — and the strange characters he etched — made him a curiosity to the local sheriff, who sold Omar to James Owen, a Bladen County planter, state legislator and older brother to a future North Carolina governor, John Owen.
During his captivity, Omar, called Moro by the Owens, appears not to have been forced to do field labor. Instead, he was given a Bible written in Arabic and made to write out verses from it which were shown to visitors and bestowed as gifts to people the Owens wanted to impress.
Eventually, James Owen told Omar to write an autobiography, which he did, creating what is believed to be the only autobiography written in Arabic by an enslaved Muslim person in America while they were still in captivity.
The document, about 15 pages, begins with a Muslim blessing and with Omar’s apology to whomever might be able to read it. He says he has forgotten much of his native language and says his skills with the written word have diminished.
“I cannot write my life,” he says. That line became the title for an upcoming book by North Carolina scholars Mbaye Lo and Carl W. Ernst.
The story the autobiography tells, with a few embellishments, became “Omar,” the opera, which opens to a scene in Africa with Omar and others singing praises to Allah before warriors rush in, killing some and taking others to an overcrowded slave ship for the journey to Charleston.
Giddens has said she was powerfully drawn to Omar’s story, which, because it was written in Arabic, was not edited by the person who held him in bondage. It has served as evidence that many people taken from Africa and brought to America as slaves were followers of Islam, counter to previous assumptions.