How to tell the story of Africa?
AFRICA IS THE second largest continent in the world, yet often ignored except for crises and disease. European cartographers reduced the physical size of the continent on their maps; the residents were of interest primarily because of their extractive value as labor. Howard French’s latest book, Born in Darkness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to World War II, says that there have always been stories of Africa, just ignored. I couldn’t agree more.
In my hometown of New Orleans, the presence of Africa has remained largely unexplained. There was a gathering site named Congo Squarea community within Parish of Orleans called Algiersand the Louisiana State Penitentiary named Angola. West African words like banjo and Okra were interspersed with fluent English. New Orleans is still one of the most explicitly African cities in North America, present in the face of Louis Armstrong, the timbre of Mahalia Jackson, the percussive piano of Fat Domino, the vaudevillian pageantry of Zulu Welfare and Pleasure Club parade, ceremonial possession of the spirit in Holiness churches, the ritual of vodun and second-line funeral parades.
But few of my childhood friends viewed the continent with any sense of pride. In our young minds, it was only associated 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 – drivers, maids, porters, roustabouts and nannies, which is the gist of Armstrong’s song “Black and Blue”:
‘Cause I can’t hide what’s on my face
How would this end? I have no friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?
Yet Africa has played a part in the imagination, greed and history of Europe and Asia ever since the ancient Greeks and Romans tried to figure out how to cross the Nile through the various cataracts of the river to pass the nascent kingdoms of Nubia and Ethiopia. French knows this territory well — he’s covered hundreds of stories there during 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 regime 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 if giving a first-hand account of the Thirty Years’ War in Europe. He attempted to bring calm and humanize the factions, politicians and people whose burden it was to endure the chaos around post-colonial and post-Cold War Africa.
In Born in the dark, French offers readers a broad historical context of modern contemporary African society to examine why we fail to report on the importance of Africa and Africans in contemporary society. French, in line with the 1982 book by anthropologist Eric R. Wolf, Europe and peoples without history, demonstrates how the relationship of Anglo-Europeans with Africa and Africans reconstituted the history of Africa for its own imperialist devices, thus rendering Africa and Africans without cultural or political history. This is why, in the early 1970s, students like me turned to reading Cheikh Anta Diop The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality and the multitude of books by so-called Afrocentric scholars, including the fiction of Alex Haley Roots. These works sought to reclaim an Africa of which we could be proud. Here, French sets out to undo what the late Haitian-born anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot called “the production of silence.” Like W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1915 explanation of African First World originsthe French coldly explains why Africa is historically absent from the global imagination.
The French begins by offering readers a panoramic view of the shifts in African history, starting with the Middle Ages. Nothing caught the world’s attention like Malian King Mansa Musa’s trip to Egypt in 1324, then controlled by the Mamluk Sultanate. The gold his entourage carried and spread rocked the global economy, setting off a frenzy to find his mines. Europeans nurtured the legend of Priest John, the mythical Christian king of Africa who sat on a pile of gold and fought the Muslims. The Portuguese set sail to find gold but could not conquer the African chiefs, so they traded in the ports with the benevolence of the African royal family who controlled the sources of gold, peppers and other spices. Soon they would find out that these royals would trade their enemies as part of the exchange. Once the sugar reached the islands of Madeira, not only was the gold imported, but also the cheap labor that could be exploited. With the sugar boom, the Portuguese began to conquer islands off the coast – Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe. These islands would become Petri dishes of transatlantic servitude. The demand for sugar and its need for constant cultivation created the demand for workers, and these workers could be physically identified by skin color and other characteristics.
African states have always had systems of slavery, like much of the pre-modern world. But whether it was large-scale agriculture or enslaved domestic workers, slavery was not a racial status. As in the biblical story of Joseph, some slaves could climb the social ladder. The opening of the Americas changed all that; commodification has become permanently racialized. These ancestors born across the Americas would have blackness permanently fixed upon them. Blackness as a signifier of degraded work and political status became a ritualized fact across the Americas in Haiti, Jamaica, El Salvador, and the United States – and eventually in Africa itself.
The Kingdom of Kongo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola) would be depopulated by Portuguese slave raids and warfare between rivals who captured and enslaved people to ship to Brazil. Soon the Spanish, Dutch, French, English, and even Norwegians competed to identify African peoples with agricultural knowledge that would benefit their imperial hungers. It was not until the late 19th century, with the development of repeating rifles and the Maxim rifle, that European states completed their colonization of Africa, even as Western nations abandoned slavery. law of movable property. By 1900, African blackness came to be seen as a condition worthy of pity and charity.
French brilliantly uses his travel experiences in Africa and the Americas to research this 500-year history. Through her travels, we see spaces that most readers will never be able to cross. His journalistic talent makes this story very readable for generalists and specialists alike. That alone is an important contribution.
My main criticism is that French tends to rely too heavily on European-dominated archival sources to tell an African story. There are many other sources, including artistic renderings, rituals that anthropologists have discerned, and oral histories that tell us much about competing ideas between Africans themselves and with their European rivals. Although the French counterfactually speculates on what might have happened if the Portuguese, Dutch and English had been deterred from entering Africa, we do not see the world more clearly through the prism of peoples and monarchs. Africans. Why did they send their children to be educated by the Dutch and the English? Should we rely on novelists like Arthur Japin, the Dutch writer, who wrote The two hearts of Kwasi Boachi about the Asante princes tragically sent to Holland to be educated? Or Yaa Gyasi’s Living Novel Back home about life around Elmina? And what of people like Philip Quaque, the Fante-born Anglican missionary who from 1765 to 1811 served inside Cape Coast Castle, the British slave warehouse that destined so many Slaves in 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 personal stay, as he warmly observes a continued mixture of America and Africa in his family. This is also true of the first black president of the United States, who, despite his father being a Kenyan, adopted a foreign policy towards Africa that only reproduced a pre-existing Eurocentrism.
At no time did Africans or their descendants completely submit 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 that still deserves accountability. I found a bit of tragic irony as he metaphorically stuck his black middle finger to Anglo-Europeans, challenging their morality. More excruciating was the enslavement of almost 12 million Africans and the loss of countless others brought to port. The nation formerly known as Rhodesia, ruled by British settlers, was as brutally segregated and murderous as any 20th century Jim Crow South state. ‘Modernity’, whatever it means, was just as vicious as so-called ‘pre-modernity’ in its uses of power and conquest.
French Born in the dark is nevertheless a powerful offering, adding to a pantheon of important studies that black people have written about African history. The Frenchman joins the ranks of journalists turned historians, like the British historian of Africa Basil Davidson. He and Davidson have spent careers making the African continent and its people legible to Africans themselves and the world at large. As a leading global journalist, French is able to provide perspective to Americans who have ignored the African continent at the peril of our country.
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/.