Book review: “Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War” by Howard W. French

I just finished Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War by Howard W. French. This is an ambitious work, as it seeks to retell world history from the perspective of Africa and Africans, effectively re-centering the narrative commonly encountered by the average American. In this way, it is similar to two other books I read recently, Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary from the perspective of Islam and China: A History by John Keay from the perspective of China. The book doesn’t just tell the history of Africa. In fact, a large portion of the book doesn’t take place in Africa at all, taking us to South America, the Caribbean and the U.S. Instead, the book tries to re-tell the narrative of progress and march to modernity told in the West. Africa is strangely absent, only appearing as an aside. A few examples I recall from my high school history classes are the founding of Liberia by the American Colonization Society and the African front in World War II.

French’s thesis is that the story of modernity cannot be fully told without Africa front and center. For example, French’s first contention is that Africa has been excluded from the era of discovery initiated by the Portuguese and Spanish. In American history classes, the tale centers around finding a route to India. But French says that was only a secondary objective; first came African gold. He goes on to narrate the story of how the crazy-rich African king Mansa Musa visited Cairo in the 1324 to gain the favor of the Egyptian sultan. When the rumors of this vast wealth reached the ears of Europeans, they had to find its source, initiating the voyages down the African coast.

French continues to turn the narrative on its head. A few other strands that he touches on are:

  • Africa was never a primitive backwater compared to Europe. To the contrary, in terms of wealth and trade, Africa was more much dominant than Europe during these early global encounters.
  • Africa had large empires such as Mali, Ghana, and the Songhai that interacted with European kingdoms on equal footing.
  • Europeans defined slavery along racial lines effectively inventing what we know as racism today. Africans didn’t have a unified concept of “African” until they perceived this movement by Europeans to define an entire continent as lesser.
  • European-style chattel slavery was pioneered on colonial island acquisitions such as the Canary Islands, Madeira, and Sao Tome.
  • European nations including Spain, Portugal, Britain, France, and Holland made their fortunes off of enslaved black labor in the American colonies. It was cash crops including sugar and cotton that jump-started these economies making possible the industrial revolution. The story of modernity starts at black labor, not western ingenuity.
  • Caribbean slavery was horrible. It was cheaper to work slaves into the ground (a slave’s average lifespan after enslavement was 7 years) rather than trying to keep them healthy and fit. Workdays for slaves could be as long as 20 hours a day.
  • Blacks in the Americas fought for their freedom. This is best exhibited by the fight for independence in French Saint-Domingue, which became the Republic of Haiti. This island of slaves fought off their European masters defying them for 12 years until gaining independence in 1804. A free black Republic was a huge threat to American slaveowners, and American founders including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were very much against a free and independent Haiti.

This perspective is so important. We actively try to hide the history that we are ashamed of. When others point out these other facts of history that have been hidden away, they are accused of revisionist history. They are there in the historical record, but they conflict with the schemas we have told ourselves of the West. One Anglo-Jamaican recalled, “It is no exaggeration to say that the only thing I learned about slavery during my British education was that we ‘ended’ it.”

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