Revealing the central yet intentionally obliterated role of Africa in the creation of modernity, Born in Blackness vitally reframes our understanding of world history.
Traditional accounts of the making of the modern world afford a place of primacy to European history. Some credit the fifteenth-century Age of Discovery and the maritime connection it established between West and East; others the accidental unearthing of the “New World.” Still others point to the development of the scientific method, or the spread of Judeo-Christian beliefs; and so on, ad infinitum. The history of Africa, by contrast, has long been relegated to the remote outskirts of our global story. What if, instead, we put Africa and Africans at the very center of our thinking about the origins of modernity?
In a sweeping narrative spanning more than six centuries, Howard W. French does just that, for Born in Blackness vitally reframes the story of medieval and emerging Africa, demonstrating how the economic ascendancy of Europe, the anchoring of democracy in the West, and the fulfillment of so-called Enlightenment ideals all grew out of Europe’s dehumanizing engagement with the “dark” continent. In fact, French reveals, the first impetus for the Age of Discovery was not—as we are so often told, even today—Europe’s yearning for ties with Asia, but rather its centuries-old desire to forge a trade in gold with legendarily rich Black societies sequestered away in the heart of West Africa.
Creating a historical narrative that begins with the commencement of commercial relations between Portugal and Africa in the fifteenth century and ends with the onset of World War II, Born in Blackness interweaves precise historical detail with poignant, personal reportage. In so doing, it dramatically retrieves the lives of major African historical figures, from the unimaginably rich medieval emperors who traded with the Near East and beyond, to the Kongo sovereigns who heroically battled seventeenth-century European powers, to the ex-slaves who liberated Haitians from bondage and profoundly altered the course of American history.
While French cogently demonstrates the centrality of Africa to the rise of the modern world, Born in Blackness becomes, at the same time, a far more significant narrative, one that reveals a long-concealed history of trivialization and, more often, elision in depictions of African history throughout the last five hundred years. As French shows, the achievements of sovereign African nations and their now-far-flung peoples have time and again been etiolated and deliberately erased from modern history. As the West ascended, their stories—siloed and piecemeal—were swept into secluded corners, thus setting the stage for the hagiographic “rise of the West” theories that have endured to this day.
“Capacious and compelling” (Laurent Dubois), Born in Blackness is epic history on the grand scale. In the lofty tradition of bold, revisionist narratives, it reframes the story of gold and tobacco, sugar and cotton—and of the greatest “commodity” of them all, the twelve million people who were brought in chains from Africa to the “New World,” whose reclaimed lives shed a harsh light on our present world.
About the Author
Howard W. French is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and a former New York Times bureau chief for the Caribbean and Central America, West and Central Africa, Tokyo, and Shanghai. The author of five books, French lives in New York City.
A tour de force, so much so that it’s almost impossible to write about it without lapsing into hyperbole.... French brings a journalist’s writing skills and eye to his subject, building a comprehensive and compelling argument that Africa and Africans were central to the construction of the modern world.... On top of meticulous research into primary and secondary sources, French builds the narrative with accounts of (and pictures from!) his travels to many important sites.... Because he comes to the story with a journalist’s eye — and, just as 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 mostly been limited to scholars and graduate students and makes them accessible to a broad audience, from undergraduates assigned a few chapters for a class to people who will pick up a popular history book that looks interesting at their local bookstore.
“Born in Blackness” is a compelling, impossible-to-forget read. This is the book for those who say they “don’t know anything about Africa” and want to learn more. But those readers will quickly learn they have known many of these things all along. French’s gift is to show us how.
— Laura Seay - Washington Post
This book is filled with countless eyeopeners… All history is, by definition, revisionist. In connecting the various dots, French is inviting us to reconsider what we understand about how we got here.... Painful and necessary… [an] infuriating and hugely enlightening book.
— Dele Olojede - Financial Times
The way we think about history is entirely wrong, says Howard W French at the start of this magnificent, powerful and absorbing book.... This is not a comfortable or comforting read, but it is beautifully done; a masterpiece even.... French writes with the elegance you would expect from a distinguished foreign correspondent, and with the passion of someone deeply committed to providing a corrective.
— Peter Frankopan - The Observer
Born in Blackness is laced with arresting nuggets... Filled with pain, but also with pride: pride at the endurance of oppressed millions, at the many slave uprisings and rebellions culminating in the Haitian revolution, which defeated ‘the idea of Black slavery itself,’ and in the cultural riches of the African diaspora... Searing, humbling and essential reading.
— Nigel Cliff - New York Times Book Review
There are few words that can express the resounding impact of French’s breathtaking work on the known historiography of African and African American history . . . Highly recommended for any audience.
— Monique Martinez - Library Journal
A Black journalist reframes modern history by restoring Africa to its rightful place at the center of the story . . . This meticulously researched book eloquently debunks conventional understanding of European conquest . . . A fascinating retelling of modern history that restores Africa to its rightful place.
— Kirkus Reviews