With her book African Europeans: An Untold History, Olivette Otele fills a gap by investigating the history of Black Europeans before the two world wars. The historian looks back as far as the 3rd century to explore questions about identity, citizenship, resilience and human rights, and considers how this legacy is important for Black European activism and alliances today.
African Europeans is an academic book that builds on existing research. Otele does not proceed chronologically, but jumps through time and to different places to examine how people lived together in Europe. She looks, among other things, at early encounters in the Mediterranean and dividing lines of religious difference, as well as the impact on African Europeans of the scientific racism that emerged with colonialism and the trade in enslaved humans. She takes Germany/Brandenburg as an example of colonial amnesia. She then goes on to explore hyphenated identities and belonging.
Each of the many themes is accompanied by stories about historical figures. Many extraordinary Black Europeans are presented, such as the Florentine Duke Alessandro di Medici, the composer Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the boxer “Battling Siki” Amadou M’Barik Fall and the poet Alexander Pushkin. But Otele also strives to trace the stories of lesser-known African Europeans. In the Intelligence Squared podcast, Otele explains that she originally wanted to write a book about African women in Europe, but could find hardly any sources about them. In this way, the Queen of Sheba, Sarah Baartman and Jeanne Duval, for example, occupy rather marginal spaces. In all the stories of these African Europeans, similar elements appear: Journeys, encounters, struggles for a place in society, and a necessary resilience.
Oteles’ book is multi-layered and dense, which can be quite demanding to read. But it’s worth taking the time. I found the historically accurate use of terminology particularly fascinating – Otele explains that changes in language use also refer to changing positions within society. I highly recommend African Europeans to those who share my enthusiasm for Bernardine Evaristo’s ghost stories in Soul Tourists and Johny Pitt’s journalistic research on Afropeans and are now interested in a scholarly buttressing.
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