African Europeans: An Untold History by Olivette Otele; Basic Books, 304 pp., $30
Olivette Otele’s African Europeans: An Untold History calls to mind an African proverb: “The true story of the hunt will not be told until the lion learns to write.” Otele, a professor of history at the University of Bristol, offers a rich tapestry drawn from secondary sources, which suggests that much of this “untold history” has been told, albeit without the attention it deserves. Her book’s main strength resides in how it reminds of us of this highly consequential neglect. Early on, she cites political scientist Cedric Robinson on the importance of naming: how the deliberate application of the term negro to all enslaved Africans obscured connections to their cultural roots, leaving their histories to be written by their enslavers or, as was more often the case, simply ignored. Otele’s remedy is to help fill these gaps by exploring how Africans experienced life in Europe, from the third century to the present.
This is, to be sure, a laudable undertaking, even if Otele is not the first to pursue it. She provides, in the book’s first footnote, an expansive list of existing works dealing with the African experience in various European geographical areas, but says that “a relatively low number deal specifically with the experiences of people of African descent in Europe before the world wars.” However, this is contradicted by the content of the books listed and the works she cites in her notes. Also, readers of her book may find it useful, for additional depth, to refer to two books she omits: anthropologist Stefan Goodwin’s two-volume Africa in Europe: Antiquity into the Age of Global Exploration; and Interdependencies, Relocations and Globalization (2009), and historian Eric Martone’s two-volume Encyclopedia of Blacks in European History and Culture (2008), which features over 350 entries on history, literature, and popular culture.
The looming question of how Otele manages to cover 1,700 years in just 300 pages is answered, in part, by the scant attention she pays to the centuries leading up to the Renaissance. In a mere two dozen pages, she focuses her attention more on biblical themes, Black saints, and pertinent works of art than on human encounters. Her discussion here (and especially in the book’s third chapter) of how these things influenced European thought on concepts of otherness, ideas concerning the human body, and attitudes toward gender would have been greatly enhanced by visual illustrations, or at least by directing readers to collections such as the splendid, multivolume Image of the Black in Western Art (2010). The only image in this book appears on its inviting cover.
Furthermore, Otele’s definition of “African European” lacks clarity, particularly when her narrative reaches the late-20th century, amid the arrival in Europe of a fast-growing population of new African immigrants. Although North Africans feature early in the book, as well as later in passing, Otele focuses primarily on people of Sub-Saharan, Black-African descent, including those from the Americas. She does demonstrate, however, her awareness of the complexity of identity, noting, for example, that French society sees Sub-Saharans as separate from North Africans and refers to the latter pejoratively as “Arabs,” whereas North Africans self-identify with the word “French“ preceding their parental country of origin (e.g., French Algerian). She contrasts this with the United Kingdom, where Africans self-identify by their Black ethnicity first (e.g., Kenyan British). “African European” shares with “African American” a chronologically and geographically muddled meaning. Such variance suggests the shortcomings of using words that are better suited to designating continents than people.
Otele’s book broadens out as it reaches the Renaissance, offering commentary on racism, social mobility, and assimilation during the period. She highlights the stories of such figures as Alessandro di Medici, the first Duke of the Florentine Republic, known as “the Moor” for his dark complexion, and Juan Latino, a 16th-century, North-African-born slave who became a Latin scholar, poet, and a professor at the University of Grenada in Spain.
In a chapter titled, “The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Invention of Race,” Otele’s treatment of the subject, while engaging and relevant, is somewhat sketchy for readers not already well versed in it. Here one finds interesting vignettes from the lives of individuals shaped by the trade but no coherent sketch of its main features and the roles of the countries involved. For reasons not stated, she focuses on the Dutch role, which accounted for only five-to-seven percent of the trade. Also, with regard to the invention of race, she is unfair to Dutch anthropologist Petrus Camper and German anthropologist Johann Blumenbach when she writes that their systems for categorizing human physical traits render them complicit in the misuse of their systems by latter-day racists. Although Otele’s view is predominant among scholars today, it suggests either a lack of knowledge or uncritical dismissal of the explicitly stated views of Camper and Blumenbach in their writings concerning people of Black-African descent. See Camper’s Address on the Origin and Color of Blacks (1772) and Blumenbach’s Observations on the Bodily Conformation and Mental Capacity of the Negroes (1799). Furthermore, later in this chapter, when Otele attempts to tie historical events, polemics, and racial terminology of the early modern period to those of the present, including references to the comedian Trevor Noah and Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, she does so without attention to how racial terminology has evolved during the intervening centuries.
Otele’s distinguishing contribution to the existing scholarship comes in her focus on gender. In particular, she points to the lamentable omission of the important role that Black women played in the history of Africans in Europe. She does so early on in a brief reference to the tradition of the Black Madonna, as well as later in the book when she invokes the ideas of feminism in several of her discussions. Otele also raises the subject of masculinity with regard to the slave trade, but does not pursue the topic very far.
She concludes African Europeans by calling for an end to the silence in European societies about the connection between their colonial pasts and the present and makes an impassioned plea for concerted effort in advancing social and economic justice for African Europeans. Overall, the book does not measure up to its ambitious chapter titles, offering insufficient elaboration on complex topics it raises. Nevertheless, through it all, Otele amplifies a growing number of other voices that are fulfilling an urgent need to continue highlighting this group of Europeans whose plight is in danger of increased invisibility in the face of an overshadowing, larger influx of new immigrants from Asia.
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