Book Review: Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World
French, Howard W. Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. New York, Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2021.
By John W. Mackey, Boston University
“Students of Heart of Darkness will often tell you,” the late Nigerian novelist and critic Chinua Achebe once explained, “that Conrad is concerned not so much with Africa as with the deterioration of one European mind caused by solitude and sickness.” Achebe found such defenses of Joseph Conrad’s iconic 1899 novella, a tale of barbaric European colonialism in Africa, wholly inadequate. In understandable frustration, Achebe asked, “Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?” (Achebe, 257). This sharp critique of a canonical work, especially one that was widely considered to be a literary reproach of the colonizer, was met with a variety of reactions, many of them defensive. But Achebe’s central point is difficult to deny. Conrad’s Congo was a place outside history, never fully human; it was a dark stage to be acted upon by Europeans at their peril. It is fair to say that Achebe’s criticism significantly changed the way Heart of Darkness is read.
What Achebe did for our understanding of Conrad, Howard French’s latest book can do for our understanding of modern history. Modernity has been almost solely written about, taught, and celebrated as a singularly western affair. Africa, when not ignored, appears as an afterthought, an obstacle, or at most a passive arena for European conquest. Like Heart of Darkness, such narratives present an Africa that lies outside the dynamism of history and the richness of human experience and agency. Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War, the fifth book from historian and Columbia Journalism Professor Howard French, is a welcome and thoroughly engaging corrective to this misreading of modernity. French’s book argues that the historical moment when Europe began to surpass in wealth and power the civilizations of Asia and the Islamic world was “not founded upon any innate or permanent European characteristics,” but rather “to a degree that remains unrecognized, it was built on the foundation of Europe’s economic and political relations with Africa” (3–4). It is a substantial claim, to say the least, but one that French demonstrates convincingly in this brilliantly researched and written work. Africa and Africans, French argues, not only played a role in the making of the modern world, but an indispensable role at that.
French makes his case perhaps most compellingly in his chapters devoted to a thorough reframing of the Age of Discovery. In Chapter 5, “Rethinking Exploration,” French explains the ways in which standard accounts of the period present Africa as merely a geographic obstacle to be overcome by Europeans en route to Asian spice markets farther east. Thus, as French puts it, “once the Cape of Good Hope is reached by Bartolomeu Dias, in 1488, Africa drastically recedes from the narrative or disappears altogether” (39). This story, as French forcefully points out, is all horribly mistold. The most important spark that lit the fire of exploration and discovery, which led to the creation of the modern Atlantic world, French argues, was Mansā Mūsā’s journey across North Africa during his pilgrimage to Mecca. The Emperor of Mali and quite possibly the richest person who ever lived, Mansā Mūsā made major international news when he entered Cairo with an entourage of sixty thousand people, countless horses and camels, royal banners, and more gold than the world had ever seen (some estimates, French reports, suggest as much as eighteen tons). Indeed, he passed out so much gold in the form of gifts and patronage on his tour that he caused the price of the precious metal to plummet (The events of the pilgrimage are detailed Chapter 2, “Black King, Golden Scepter.”).
Word of Mansā Mūsā’s extravagant wealth reached Europe, and thus the motives for the European Age of Discovery were in place. Over the ensuing decades, Europeans correctly assumed that a land of vast riches in the form of gold lay somewhere in Africa. A series of broadly circulated maps were then produced that tempted would-be explorers with depictions of an African King who ruled over a spectacular kingdom of gold. The most famous of these, the 1375 mappa mundi known as the Catalan Atlas, depicts a crowned Mansā Mūsā seated on a throne, holding a golden orb and scepter. And in the early fifteenth century, the Europeans came. French points out that nearly the entire first century of Portuguese exploration was focused almost solely on Africa. This story, along with much else contained in the first six chapters of French’s book (Part I), provide a much-needed corrective to familiar, dominant narratives of exploration and discovery.
Born in Blackness is much more than a revision of exploration narratives, however. Contained within its thirty-eight chapters is a wide range of subjects relating to the role of Africa and Africans in the creation of what we know as the modern world. Among those subjects is the crucial role of the Caribbean in the development of both Europe and North America. The rise of sugar plantations made profitable by slave labor in Barbados is not exactly an untold story, nor is the Haitian Revolution. But French makes a convincing case that each was much more important and influential than standard narratives of modern history suggest. The labor, the ideas, and the politics of African peoples deserve, but seldom receive, the kind of historical recognition that French’s book provides. In impressive fashion, French chronicles the varied and crucial historical contributions of Africans without avoiding or obscuring the brutality of slavery, the slave trade, and European colonialism.
Reading Howard French’s Born in Blackness is a rewarding experience on many levels. His eloquent writing style somehow manages to convey both mastery and humility at the same time. He fills gaps in our understanding of familiar narratives. He invites us, with good reason, to rethink our entire understanding of modernity. And, like Achebe before him, he insists that we see Africa in its fullness, Africans as fully human actors who make history and who significantly shaped the modern world. And lest we think such contributions are no longer necessary, that our understanding of history is no longer misleadingly Eurocentric: as of the writing of this review, the online Encyclopedia Britannica entry for the nineteenth-century Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone contains a section heading titled “Opening the interior.” It is as if central Africa were “closed” until a European came to open it, as if the massive waterfall Mosi-oa-Tunya did not exist until Livingstone, as Britannica unironically puts it, “with typical patriotism named Victoria Falls after his queen.” And toward the end of the entry, we are told that, “in spite of his paternalism and Victorian prejudices,” Livingstone “believed wholeheartedly in the African’s ability to advance into the modern world.” I strongly suggest that the editors of Britannica read Born in Blackness.
Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, edited by Robert Kimbrough, Third Edition, Norton Critical Edition, W.W. Norton, 1988, pp. 251–262.
Shepperson, George Albert. “David Livingstone.” Britannica, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/biography/David-Livingstone. Accessed 24 May, 2022.