Dean Calbreath would like to suggest some vacation reading for Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Perhaps “The Sergeant,” Calbreath’s sprawling biography of an African-born figure of the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction?
That might resonate with Miranda, whose summer reading of Ron Chernow’s history of Alexander Hamilton inspired the iconic hip-hop Broadway show.
Ten years after Calbreath shared a 2006 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting for his work on bribe-taking congressman Randall “Duke” Cunningham, Miranda won the prize for the play “Hamilton.”
“I’d love it if Miranda took a look at it,” Calbreath told Times of San Diego. “But if I were the King of Hollywood, the treatment I’d give it would be a miniseries.”
Exploring every facet of a nearly forgotten 19th-century wunderkind, “The Sergeant” is subtitled “The Incredible Life of Nicholas Said: Son of an African General, Slave of the Ottomans, Free Man Under the Tsars, Hero of the Union Army.”
Though not a Founding Father, Said’s life could as well have been the origin story for fictional Wakanda. Speaker of upwards of 10 languages, Said was a Forrest Gump-like figure [but on the genius side] whose biggest mystery is his death.
No one knows when or where.
If anyone could have nailed it down further than around 1882, it would have been Calbreath, 67, who spent two decades researching the life of the man born Mohammed Ali ben Said, son of [prolific] father Barca Gana, “one of the greatest generals the kingdom of Borno ever knew,” writes Calbreath.
“The idea for the book first germinated during a reporting trip to the Middle East after 9/11,” he says. “At that time, I had a great discussion with Palestinian students at Bethlehem University, asking their opinions about 9/11 and the United States in general, after which they started popping questions about the status and history of Muslims in the United States.”
He answered some questions, but not all, he said, so when he returned home to Kensington, he began studying the lives of Muslims in America and found many interesting people, dating almost to the Mayflower.
Evolution of a Book
Still a full-time reporter at The San Diego Union-Tribune, Calbreath toyed for six years with the idea of writing a book about Muslims he had discovered, ranging from Anthony van Salee, a Moroccan living in Manhattan in the 1630s, to a dozen or so soldiers in the Civil War, including Said, “who actually wasn’t a Muslim when he arrived in this country, but had been raised as one.”
After releasing “The Wrong Stuff” — co-written with Copley Press reporters Marcus Stern, Jerry Kammer and editor George Condon about the Cunningham corruption case — Calbreath says he felt like he had enough to seek a publisher.
“But my agent at the time encouraged me to focus on a single individual rather than a group of individuals, so the person I picked was Nicholas Said, partly because he had written so much about himself that it could serve as a structure for the book,” he says.
He says he tried a fictionalized biography at first, because Said left big gaps in his memoirs —including his service in the Union Army.
“I thought I could paper things over by using fictional techniques,” Calbreath says. “But the reaction I got from my book agent – among others – was that the events of his life seemed pretty unbelievable when told as fiction, so about 10 years ago I adopted a nonfiction approach instead, which required a lot more research.”
Among those he contacted was Paul E. Lovejoy, founding director of the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and its Diasporas at York University in Toronto.
Mohammed Bashir Salau, a history professor at the University of Mississippi, says Lovejoy told him about the Calbreath project.
Scholars Aided Author
“Paul presented Dean to me as a hardworking, extremely disciplined individual who was committed to completing a book on Nicholas Said,” Salau says. “Given that the former had a high opinion of the latter and given my interest in knowing more about Said, I accepted to assist Dean with this research.”
Salau says working with Calbreath meant never being allowed to forget Nicholas Said.
“He had relevant questions that he wanted Paul, me and others to address almost every week,” he said via email. “In assisting Dean with research on Nicholas Said, Paul and I obtained relevant materials from archives or repositories … in Mississippi and Tennessee.”
Salau says he also worked independently and uncovered some useful information about the subject, which he forwarded to Lovejoy.
The history prof recalls how, in November 2018, he uncovered some information about one Reverend Shotwell.
After Lovejoy passed on this news to Calbreath, the San Diegan copied Salau on an email.
“In that email, which is probably the only email I got directly from Dean, he thanked me for my footwork on Reverend Shotwell and shared some information regarding Said’s religious kinship to the Presbyterians,” Salau said.
“This email made me realize that Dean has the ability to give sincere compliments and a genuine interest in sharing information about Said, and this endeared him to me.”
Another source of scholarship was Daniel Waterman, editor in chief at the University of Alabama Press, who aided his research in that state.
“I will say that I admire Dean immensely for both his distinguished career as a mission-driven, justice-minded journalist and for his passion and diligence in pursuing [Said’s] story as thoroughly as he did,” Waterman told Times of San Diego.
“It is a remarkable story. I don’t know of any historical figure quite like Nicholas Said. In addition to Said being a remarkable figure in his own right, it’s fascinating to me how Dean discovered his existence and the details of his story when many other researchers or historians seem to have missed it entirely.”
From Acting to Journalism
Calbreath’s own life has an international traveling-man flavor as well.
Born in Hollywood, he says he was “raised all over the state, from Anaheim to Ukiah” — and by the time he was 16 had lived in 16 different houses.
“And no, my dad wasn’t in the military,” he says. “He just had wanderlust.”
When he first got out of Piedmont High School near Oakland, he had dreams of being an actor.
“I did get a handful of roles in community theater and even a TV commercial,” he says. “But there was no money in it, so I needed a side income, ranging from gas station attendant to busboy to theater usher.”
One day he spotted an ad at UC Berkeley — a student magazine looking for a writer. He thought: “maybe I could do that.”
Partially bluffing his way through the interview — “I wouldn’t call it lying, but it definitely involved a lot of exaggeration” — he got the gig and ended up loving it.
“The acting soon fell by the wayside,” he says. “I was still in college at the time and my major soon changed from drama to journalism, although it ultimately shifted to social science, with an emphasis on cultural anthropology, because the things that I was encountering in journalism (ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to the Rev. Jim Jones and Peoples Temple) made me interested in what cultural influences motivate people to do the things they do.”
Also like Said, Calbreath is multilingual, saying he has elementary proficiency in Czech, Spanish and German.
“The Spanish and German I learned in school, starting with fourth grade for Spanish and continuing through early high school and German later in high school, prompted by my interest in the Holocaust, where my grandmother lost a lot of relatives.”
His interest in Slavic languages came from his grandmother, who spoke some Russian, although mostly German-based Yiddish.
“In my early 20s,” he says, “I spent some time in Yugoslavia – among other things, reporting on the last days of President Tito – where my elementary Russian shifted to elementary Croatian (all the Slavic languages are pretty close to each other). And then for a while in the 1990s, I was based in Prague, covering the transition of the Eastern Bloc from Communism to democracy, so the Croatian shifted to Czech.”
(He confesses his proficiency has fallen into disrepair, saying it can be embarrassing because “sometimes I’ll shift from one language to another without thinking. I was in a bar once in Argentina when the bartender (in Spanish) asked if I wanted another beer, and I answered ‘ano,’ which means ‘yes’ in Czech, but ‘anus’ in Spanish.”
He’s also studied Hebrew (with his grandmother’s help) and Japanese (in preparation for a Fulbright fellowship there), “but they never really stuck, although the Hebrew did help me several times when reporting in Israel.”
As a reporter, out of courtesy, he says he’s tried to speak the language of the country he’s in, which included Arabic, Italian, French, Dutch and Chinese, among others.
“This was actually one of the things that attracted me to Nicholas Said, who could speak at least nine languages fluently and was always experimenting with new ones, including Hebrew, Greek and Armenian,” Calbreath says.
“The Sergeant” isn’t available until Feb. 7, but Calbreath shared a copy, and answered other questions.
TIMES OF SAN DIEGO: What would you have done had you not heard of Nicholas Said?
DEAN CALBREATH: Probably concentrated on one of the other people I’d run across, such as Anthony van Salee, who begat a large family which – after assimilating into the Dutch/English culture around them – became very influential in New York society, to the extent that his descendants ranged from Humphrey Bogart to Jackie Kennedy.
Academics and historians have written about Said. What led you to think you could finish the job they started?
I came at this as a reporter, not an academic, and frankly I came away with some disappointment about the way some academics who have written about Said conducted their research. I have found a lot of factual errors in their scholarly papers, including getting historical dates wrong, misidentifying some of the people he knew, and making mistaken suppositions about his political or religious beliefs.
As an example, one academic even decided to misspell his name as Mohammad Ali Sa’id, even though Said spelled it as Mohammed Ali ben Said, spelling Mohammed with an “e” and using “ben” to show that he was the “son of” Said, which he spelled with no apostrophe. This was a purposeful decision by the academic, not a mere accident, based on his views about how Said should have written his name, rather than the way he actually wrote it.
But this is emblematic of the way some academics have treated Said, reshaping him to their own image and ignoring the facts. As a reporter, I tried to base my book solely on the facts, largely by relying on as many contemporary sources as I could, including newspaper articles about his travels as well as the diaries and letters of people who knew him. Many of the sources that I used have never seen the light of day in the academic articles.
To be honest, I also came to the story with some preconceived notions. For example, when I first started studying him, I was expecting to find a devout Muslim – which is how some academics portray him – rather than a guy who had more mystical “Swedenborgian” beliefs, which is how he portrayed himself. But I let Said’s writings and the writings of people who knew him reshape my notions, rather than trying to mold him into my own preconceived image.
What were the most interesting or startling things you learned about Said that his memoir and biographers didn’t know?
One of the things that I was surprised by was how conservative he was.
When I first started investigating Said, I was hoping for a strident revolutionary like Frederick Douglass, but what I found — after a close reading of his memoirs as well as news coverage of his lecture tour — is that he was much more conservative, more in the mold of Booker T. Washington.
Like Washington, Said thought that freed slaves should concentrate more on educational and entrepreneurial achievements rather than fighting for more political rights and freedoms. He and Washington both thought that achievements in the schoolroom and business would by themselves bring greater rights and freedoms, which in retrospect was a naïve point of view.
Perhaps half the book is devoted to describing the times and cultures of the 19th century in places Said lived. Why did you spend so much time on these tangents?
I think any time you’re dealing with a historical figure, it’s important to describe the context of the times, which played a role in the actions and motivations not only of themselves, but also those around them.
The culture that I focused on for the first several chapters was his homeland of Borno, an African kingdom that most Americans have never heard of. So I thought that context was necessary, compared to, say, describing the cultures of the European countries that he traveled through, which are more familiar to us.
No doubt you aimed to call out the lies of Said’s contemporaries, such as “swashbuckling journalist” James Evans Jr., but how did you decide when to fact-check Said’s own writings? How reliable were Dixon Denham’s accounts?
Dixon Denham — a British army lieutenant — appears to have been a remarkably accurate writer about African cultures in the 1820s, approaching his time in Africa almost as a reporter, dedicated to presenting factual information to the British public.
Like most travelers of the 1800s, he definitely came to Africa with his own prejudices, but he was able to set them aside in his reporting and concentrate on accurate descriptions of the people, places and events that he encountered.
Nicholas Said was also — for the most part — a very accurate writer. Although there are numerous small discrepancies in his writings, most of them are understandable glitches where he’s trying to describe events that happened several decades before, which he’s recounting without the ability to rely on notes or make Google searches to check on the accuracy.
I only found one thing that he actually lied about. During his stay in the South during Reconstruction, he repeatedly lied to say that he came to the United States after the Civil War was over, when the truth is that he first stepped foot here more than a year before the war began.
The reason for his lie is simple: He was in the South and didn’t want to offend or anger white Southerners by saying that he spent two years shooting at them, a lie that was especially important at a time when the Ku Klux Klan and other nightriders were terrorizing and killing Blacks who challenged traditional Southern views. So it’s hard to fault him for that.
One thing I was surprised to find is that in his biography, he was a pretty major plagiarist, borrowing descriptions of the cities he visited from a popular geographical reference work: Lippincott’s Gazetteer.
One day when I was trying to search online for his experiences in a certain city (I forget which one), I Googled a phrase that he used to describe that city, and I got two references, one for his autobiography and one for Lippincott’s.
I then started searching through Lippincott’s for its descriptions of other cities and found lots of material that Said “borrowed” word-for-word.
It should be noted that in the 1800s, this type of plagiarism was far more common and accepted than it is today, especially borrowing from a reference work like Lippincott’s. And Said was a first-time writer who may not have known all the rules.
This didn’t mean he was lying — he actually visited those places — but he was looking for a pithy way to describe places that he had visited as a teenager a couple of decades before, when he wasn’t taking notes about his surroundings.
Why Pegasus Books? Did you (or an agent) shop the book to other publishers? Did you choose the book’s title or negotiate with Pegasus?
My agent took the book to a number of publishers, and Pegasus was the one we chose. My original title was going to be “Journey to Folly Island” — the name of the coastal island in South Carolina where [Said] was stationed during the Civil War, but they thought “The Sergeant” would sound better, and I agreed.
Plan a book tour?
In February through April, I’ll be doing book-signings throughout California. In May, I’ll do a string of signings in Michigan, which was the first place that Said lived when arriving in the United States, and later in the year I’ll do Boston, where he joined the Union Army, and then the Carolinas, Georgia and Alabama, where he served in the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Has anyone traced Said’s lineage beyond his daughter, Nancy? Any DNA evidence of other descendants?
Not so far. I was the first to find any mention of Nancy, as a 9-year-old in the 1880 census, but unfortunately the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire (a tragedy for all genealogists), and unless somebody recovers a marriage certificate for her, she’ll be impossible to track, since — as with nearly all women of her time — her name would have changed with her marriage.
In the meantime, DNA ties would be hard to prove, since we have no DNA for Nicholas Said.
Which Said mysteries would you most like solved? His marriages? His death? His descendants?
All three, but mostly his death. After August 6, 1882, when he was briefly mentioned in a notation in his regiment’s military records in Boston, he totally disappeared from the scene, to the extent that some academics say (mistakenly, I believe) that he died on that date. But there’s no proof, one way or the other.
Said was said to be the 13th of 19 children. Did you look for descendants of Said’s siblings?
The descendants of most of his siblings are probably still in northwestern Nigeria, but unfortunately that region is very dangerous these days because of terror attacks conducted by Boko Haram.
An academic I talked to says that he knows of some descendants of Said’s father, Barca Gana. But remember, Barca Gana had four wives and numerous concubines, and those 19 children came from only one of his wives.
Polygamy wasn’t as common as one might think in Muslim countries. Some historians estimate that as few as 5-10% of Muslims practiced it, similar to some estimates of Mormons in the U.S. … even during the time of Joseph Smith.
It was generally something that you did only if you were rich enough to support a lot of children. But if you were a rich guy like Barca Gana, you could end up with dozens of children, or even more if you count the children of concubines.
Is it possible, or your hope, that your book may spur further research and lead to learning how, when and where Said died?
Were you a Civil War buff before undertaking this project? What were the biggest revelations of your research? The Black pay protests during the Civil War? Said’s lack of involvement in Reconstruction politics?
Yes, I was a Civil War buff, dating back to when I was a kid, visiting Civil War battlefields during vacations on the East Coast. The Black pay protests weren’t really a big revelation to me, since I was already pretty familiar with the way Black soldiers were treated during the war, and they had been covered pretty well (despite some minor inaccuracies) in the 1989 movie “Glory!” with Denzel Washington, probably my favorite Civil War film.
But even after that film, I think the way Black soldiers were treated could come as a surprise to some readers.
As far as Said’s lack of involvement in politics, it goes along with what I said about his underlying conservatism, which I did find quite surprising.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. blurbs your book. Would you like to see “The Sergeant” adopted in Black studies programs?
It’s easy to see Hollywood option the book for a movie or series. Have you thought of sending the book to Lin-Manuel Miranda for “Hamilton” treatment?
I’d LOVE it if Miranda took a look at it. But if I were the King of Hollywood, the treatment I’d give it would be a miniseries. To me, each major aspect of his life — his childhood in Borno, his enslavement in the Ottoman Empire, his travels through Europe, his soldiery in the Civil War, his actions in Reconstruction — could fill a movie of their own or make up one or two episodes in a miniseries.
There’s plenty of action, including battle scenes, and a bit of romance, which unfortunately he didn’t write much about himself, but which can be at least partially reconstructed, based on historical records.
Would you pitch your book to Stephen Colbert, who grew up in the Charleston, South Carolina, suburb of James Island (mentioned in the book)?
Sure. And Charleston itself does play a major role in the book. Not only did Said fight in a couple battles on James Island, but he — and his fellow soldiers of the 55th Massachusetts — were among the first to occupy it after it was taken by the Union Army, and he ended up teaching freedmen there after the Civil War.
If “The Sergeant” became a movie or series, how would you resist the story ending with a made-up happy ending — like Said returning to Africa? What actors could you see playing Said?
The actor I would have loved to see as Said was the late Chadwick Boseman. It would be great to see him played by someone of that ilk, maybe with Idris Elba or Denzel Washington in the role of his father Barca Gana.
You take pains to contrast slavery in Africa (of Blacks and Whites) to the racist slavery in the Americas, writing: “Many entered into slavery willingly or were consigned to it by their parents in hopes it would lead to a life of prestige and honor — a major difference between how slavery was practiced in the Muslim world and the Americas.” Are you concerned white supremacists might exploit your description of African slavery?
That is a concern. But the fact is that — as I repeatedly point out in the book — slavery in the Muslim world, including Africa, had a lot of major differences from the way slavery was practiced in the South, including more rights for the slaves and more paths to freedom.
As I mentioned in the book, slaves in the Muslim world could have tremendous riches and power. Nicholas Said’s father — leading commander of the Borno army and one of the richest men in his nation — was a slave, as were many of the top military and governmental officials.
The sultans who led the Ottoman Empire when Nicholas Said was alive were both sons of slaves, since the child of a freeman and a slave was born free and could inherit his father’s wealth and status, which was impossible in the South.
Only a small minority of slaves held such power, but many were put on paths to freedom, including being given allowances that they could one day use to buy their freedom. But the most important difference is that “race” played no role in determining who was a slave and who was free.
As a result, the type of institutionalized racism that was invented in the United States and elsewhere in the Americas did not exist. The very concept of “race” was invented to justify slavery in the Americas. That concept did not exist before slavery, and it has no scientific justification.
Stories about Said’s intellectual and language prowess brought this reaction from someone in the book you quote: “If this ‘native African’ had a single grain of common sense, he could lease himself to … Barnum for an annual sum.” How did Said regard such put-downs?
Unfortunately, he left no record about that, but all indications are that he would have taken such comments in stride, because he didn’t want to rock the boat.
The fact is that most Southerners who met Said (unlike the writer of the “Barnum” article, who didn’t) acknowledged that he was a very intelligent multilinguist, which they apparently thought made him anomaly. Despite their acknowledgments, however, it’s doubtful that any of them viewed him as an equal.
Would you like high schools to use your book as part of ethnic studies?
Sure. Actually, the first place I heard about Said’s birthplace, the kingdom of Borno, and his father, Barca Gana, was in high school, where a very progressive teacher (who was white, by the way) devoted an entire quarter of her World History class to teaching this history of Africa, including such ancient kingdoms as Borno, Mali, Ghana and Zimbabwe.
Personally, while I acknowledge the necessity of “ethnic studies,” I’d really prefer it if we did a much better job of incorporating Black, Hispanic and Asian histories into our World and U.S. history classes, which too often end up seeming like “European ethnic studies.”
How will “The Sergeant” be marketed? What kind of reader is sought?
I think it would be enjoyed by anyone who has an interest in history. I’m very happy that the book has gotten such a positive response from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a personal hero of mine, who calls the book “essential reading,” as well as from other Civil War authors like Douglas Egerton and David Dixon.
Did anyone question why you spent more than a decade on a relatively obscure historical person? How did you defend this project?
Since most of it was done in my spare time, I didn’t have anyone to defend it to except my wife, who was fully supportive, even as I flew off to places like Detroit, Boston, Alabama and Washington, D.C., to do research. For Christmas this year, she got me a T-shirt and mug with the book’s cover on them as well.
Given his dedication to education, would you like to see a public school named for Said?
That would be terrific, especially in Detroit, where his teaching career began, or in a Southern city like Charleston, where he taught freedmen.
Unfortunately, most of the towns in the South where he taught are pretty small and some barely exist, like Grooverville, Georgia, or Bladon Springs, Alabama, but during my research I did provide information to help a team in Tennessee erect a marker to commemorate the probable site of a school that he taught in the rural town of Haywood, which is the last place there’s a record for him.
Do you have another book project in mind — or in the works?
I have a couple projects that I’m dreaming about, but for the next year or two, my main goal is to get people to read this book.