How to Tell Africa’s History?
By Randal Maurice JelksJanuary 29, 2022
Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War by Howard W. French
In my hometown of New Orleans, Africa’s presence went largely unexplained. There was a gathering site named Congo Square, a community within Orleans Parish known as Algiers, and the Louisiana state penitentiary named Angola. West African words like banjo and gumbo were interspersed in everyday English. New Orleans is still one of the most explicitly African cities in North America, present in Louis Armstrong’s face, Mahalia Jackson’s timbre, the percussive piano of Fat Domino, the vaudevillian pageantry of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade, the ceremonial spirit possession in holiness churches, the ritual of vodun, and the Second Line Funeral Parades.
But few among my childhood friends viewed the continent with a sense of pride. In our young minds, it was associated solely with defeat, bitterness, and white supremacy. My neighborhood was once a plantation, Faubourg Livaudais. The only way we seemed to fit in was as physically stigmatized laborers — chauffeurs, maids, porters, roustabouts, and wet nurses, which is the gist of Armstrong’s song “Black and Blue”:
Cause I can’t hide what is in my face
How would it end? Ain’t got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?
Yet Africa has played a role in the imagination, greed, and histories of Europe and Asia since the ancient Greeks and Romans tried to figure out how to traverse down the Nile through the river’s various cataracts to overtake the rising kingdoms of Nubia and Ethiopia. French knows this territory well — he covered hundreds of stories there for The New York Times: the decline of Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997; the 1990 release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa; the Rwandan genocide in 1994; the military rule of Sani Abacha in Nigeria; the 1995 execution of Nigerian author and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Second Congo War; and the shameful response to HIV/AIDS in countries like Zimbabwe. French covered these stories as though he were giving a firsthand account of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War. He attempted to bring dispassion and humanize the factions, politicians, and people whose burden it was to endure chaos around postcolonial and post–Cold War Africa.
In Born in Blackness, French offers readers a broad historical context of modern cotemporary African society in order to consider why we do not account for the significance of Africa and Africans in contemporary society. French, in a similar vein to the anthropologist Eric R. Wolf’s 1982 book, Europe and the People Without History, demonstrates how Anglo-Europeans’ relationship with Africa and Africans reconstituted Africa’s history for its own imperialistic devices, thus, rendering Africa and Africans without cultural or political histories. This is why, in the early 1970s, students like me gravitated to reading Cheikh Anta Diop’s The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality and the bevy of books by so-called Afrocentric scholars, including Alex Haley’s fictional Roots. These works sought to reclaim an Africa to be proud of. Here, French sets out to undo what the late Haitian-born anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot calls “the production of silence.” Like W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1915 explanation of the First World’s African origins, French coolly explains why Africa is historically absent from the global imagination.
French begins by offering readers a panoramic view of the shifts in African history, beginning with the Middle Ages. Nothing caught the world’s attention like the Malian king Mansa Musa’s 1324 voyage to Egypt, then controlled by Mamluk Sultanate. The gold his entourage carried and spread around shook up the global economy, setting off a frenzy to find his mines. Europeans fostered the legend of Prester John, the mythical Christian king in Africa who sat atop a pile of gold and fought Muslims. The Portuguese set sail to find gold but could not conquer the African chieftains, so they traded in ports with the beneficence of the African royals who controlled sources of gold, peppers, and other spices. Soon they would discover that these royals would trade their enemies as part of the exchange. Once sugar reached the Madeira Islands, not only was gold imported but also the cheap laborers who could be exploited. With the sugar boom, the Portuguese began conquering islands off the coast — Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe. These islands would become the petri dishes of transatlantic bondage. The demand for sugar and its need for constant cultivation created the demand for laborers, and these laborers could be identified physically by skin color and other features.
African states always had systems of slavery, as did much of the premodern world. But whether it was large-scale agriculture or enslaved domestic workers, enslavement was not a racial status. As in the biblical story of Joseph, certain enslaved people could move up the social ladder. The opening of the Americas changed all that; the commodification became permanently racialized. Those progenitors born throughout the Americas would have blackness permanently affixed to them. Blackness as a signifier of debased labor and political status became a ritualized fact throughout the Americas in Haiti, Jamaica, El Salvador, and the United States — and eventually Africa itself.
The Kingdom of Kongo (today’s Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola) would become depopulated by Portuguese slave raiding and warfare between rivals who captured and enslaved people to ship to Brazil. Soon the Spanish, Dutch, French, English, and even Norwegians fiercely competed to identify African peoples with agricultural knowledge that would benefit their imperial hungers. Not until the end of the 19th century, with the evolution of the repeating rifles and Maxim gun, did European states complete their colonization of Africa, even as Western nations gave up legal chattel slavery. By 1900, African blackness came to be viewed as a condition worthy of pity and charity.
French brilliantly employs his experiences traveling in Africa and the Americas as he researched this 500-year history. Through his travels, we see spaces most readers will never be able to traverse. His journalistic skill makes this narrative highly readable for generalists and specialists alike. This alone is an important contribution.
My primary critique is that French tends to rely too heavily on archival sources dominated by Europeans to tell an African history. There are plenty of other sources, including artistic renderings, rituals that anthropologists have discerned, and oral stories that tell us a great deal about the competing ideas between Africans themselves and with their European rivals. Though French counterfactually speculates about what might have taken place if the Portuguese, Dutch, and English had been deterred from entering Africa, we do not see the world more clearly through the lenses of African peoples and monarchs. Why did they send their children to be educated by the Dutch and the English? Must we leave it to novelists like Arthur Japin, the Dutch writer, who wrote The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi about Asante princes tragically being sent to Holland to be educated? Or Yaa Gyasi’s vivid novel Homegoing about life surrounding Elmina? And what of persons like Philip Quaque, the Fante-born Anglican missionary who, from 1765 to 1811, served inside of Cape Coast Castle, the British slave warehouse that destined so many enslaved persons to the Caribbean and the United States?
Africans and African Americans have always had a porous relationship, according to Nemata Amelia Ibitayo Blyden’s 2019 book, African Americans and Africa: A New History. And this is also true of French’s own personal sojourn as he warmly observes an ongoing admixture of America and Africa in his family. This is also true of the first black president of the United States, who, though his father was a Kenyan, enacted foreign policy toward Africa that did little more than duplicate a preexisting Eurocentrism.
At no time did Africans or their descendants ever completely surrender to the dictates of Anglo-European beliefs regarding their own “enlightenment.” It is well documented that the late president of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe was responsible for the massacre of the Ndebele people, an atrocity and human rights violation still deserving accountability. I found a bit of tragic irony as he metaphorically stuck his black middle finger up to Anglo-Europeans, defying their sanctimony. The enslavement of nearly 12 million Africans and the loss of countless others being brought to port was more atrocious. The nation formerly known as Rhodesia, led by British settlers, was as brutally segregated and murderous as any state in the 20th-century Jim Crow South. “Modernity,” whatever it means, was just as vicious as so-called “premodernity” in its uses of power and conquest.
French’s Born in Blackness is nevertheless a powerful offering, adding to a pantheon of important scholarship that black people have written regarding Africa’s history. French joins the ranks of journalists-turned-historians, like the British historian of Africa Basil Davidson. Both he and Davidson have spent careers making the African continent and its people legible to Africans themselves and the world at large. As a prominent global journalist, French is able to provide perspective for Americans who have ignored the African continent to our country’s peril.
Randal Maurice Jelks is professor of African and African American Studies and American Studies at the University of Kansas. He is the author of Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans: Ethel Waters, Mary Lou Williams, Eldridge Cleaver and Muhammad Ali and Letters to Martin: Meditations on Democracy in Black America. His website is https://randalmauricejelks.com/.
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