‘Born in Blackness’ is an engrossing and unforgettable read

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Let me start with the takeaway: “Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War” is a tour de force, so much so that it’s nearly impossible to write about it without stopping in hyperbole.

At the beginning of the book, author Howard W. French tells the story of Mansa Musa, depicted on the cover of the book. At the start of the 14th century, Musa was the high king of the Mali Empire – and supposedly the richest man who ever lived. His 1324 pilgrimage to Mecca is famous, among other things, for his entourage and him spending so much gold while passing through Cairo that they caused a massive inflation of the local economy, a crisis which took years to recover.

This story, according to French, “set in motion the creation of an Atlantic world.” European explorers were intrigued by tales of an African king whose wealth exceeded that of all their monarchs. Thus, according to French, began the Age of Discovery, a period of searching for mythological cities of gold that would lead Europeans to seek world domination – not just in Africa, but across the Atlantic. in the “New World”.

He then spends over 400 captivating pages explaining everything that happened next: the European encounter with the Americas; the consequences of this meeting for the indigenous populations; the creation of lifelong slavery of African peoples as a mechanism by Europeans to replace the exploited and unpaid labor of indigenous peoples that their weapons and diseases destroyed; capitalism and the industrial revolution, and the growth of countless other modern institutions, from the insurance industry to the prison-industrial complex.

French brings writing skills and a journalist’s eye to his subject, building a comprehensive and compelling argument that Africa and Africans have been at the heart of modern world-building. Drawing on both primary archival sources and the research of hundreds of scholars and thinkers, French draws on this earlier scholarship to insist that this history cannot be ignored. Of early 20th century historian and later Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago Eric Williams, he writes:

In their traditional account of modern world history, scholarly institutions in Western countries rarely paid serious attention to the role of Africa or Africans, until a young doctoral student [Williams] of Trinidad had the temerity to assert that without Africa, and the slave-owning plantation agriculture of the Caribbean that flowed from it, there would never have been the kind of wealth explosion enjoyed by the West in the 19th century. century, nor such early or rapid industrialization.

Along with meticulous research into primary and secondary sources, French constructs the narrative with accounts (and footage from!) of his travels to many important sites. His exploration of São Tomé, an island off the African coast on which Europeans first established the complex of plantations – the forced labor prison camps that would come to dominate the agriculture of the Caribbean, Brazil and South America – is particularly compelling. Likewise, French’s vivid description of the ruins of a former sugar cane plantation complex in Barbados brings to life his descriptions of what the kidnapped and enslaved Africans endured who were forced to work there. .

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A potential criticism of “Born in Blackness” is that, aside from the travelogues, there’s nothing new here. French acknowledges his debt to scholars — especially black scholars from Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States — throughout the text. And certainly, there is little in the book that is not already well known to scholars of the Atlantic world.

But making such an argument misses the point. Most people are not specialists in the Atlantic world. Because it approaches history with a journalist’s eye – and, equally important, with a journalist’s ability to write in clear, compelling language that anyone can understand – French’s book is invaluable. “Born in Blackness” takes these narratives that have been mostly limited to academics and graduate students and makes them accessible to a wide audience, from undergraduates assigned a few chapters for a class to people who will pick up a book of popular story that sounds interesting at their local bookstore.

“Born in Blackness” is an engrossing and impossible to forget read. This is the book for those who say they “know nothing about Africa” and who want to know more. But those readers will quickly learn that they know a lot of these things from the start. The gift of French is to show us how.

See all the books from our ninth African Politics Summer Reading Show here.

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