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Revealing the central yet intentionally obliterated role of Africa in the creation of modernity, Professor Howard French’s most recent book Born in Blackness 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. 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.

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.

Born in Blackness 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.

About the speakers

Professor Howard W. French is Professor of Journalism at Columbia University in New York City, global affairs writer, and the author of five books, including three works of non-fiction, and a work of documentary photography.

French worked as a French-English translator in Abidjan, Ivory Coast in the early 1980s, and taught English literature for several years at the University of Abidjan. His career in journalism began as a freelance reporter for The Washington Post and other publications in West Africa. He started working for The New York Times in 1986 and reported on Central America and the Caribbean, West and Central Africa, Japan and the Koreas, and China. During this time, he was twice the recipient of an Overseas Press Club Award, and his work has received numerous other awards. His most recent non-fiction book, titled Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War was published by Norton/Liveright in October 2021.

Dr. Toby Green is Professor of Precolonial and Lusophone African History and Culture at King's College, London. Toby is a historian of West Africa, and his work seeks to contribute towards a refocusing of the understanding of modern history by grasping the roles of West Africans in shaping world history. As the influence of peoples from West Africa in developing new ideas in the early modern period has often been passed over by historians, one of his main aims is to re-balance this approach. His research interests are broadly structured around West African engagement with the early Atlantic world through a number of themes, including economic change, cultural transformations, and slavery.

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Toby Green 2020

Professor of Precolonial and Lusophone African History and Culture

Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven

Lecturer in International Development