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Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War

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Revealing the central yet intentionally obliterated role of Africa in the creation of modernity, Born in Blackness vitally 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, ad infinitum. 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, for 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.

Creating a historical narrative that begins with the commencement of commercial relations between Portugal and Africa in the fifteenth century and ends with the onset of World War II, Born in Blackness interweaves precise historical detail with poignant, personal reportage. In so doing, it dramatically 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.

“Capacious and compelling” (Laurent Dubois), Born in Blackness is epic history on the grand scale. In the lofty tradition of bold, revisionist narratives, it reframes the story of gold and tobacco, sugar and cotton—and of the greatest “commodity” of them all, the twelve million people who were brought in chains from Africa to the “New World,” whose reclaimed lives shed a harsh light on our present world.

ISBN-13: 9781631495823

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation

Publication Date: 10-12-2021

Pages: 512

Product Dimensions: 9.20(w) x 6.40(h) x 1.40(d)

Howard W. French is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and a former New York Times bureau chief for the Caribbean and Central America, West and Central Africa, Tokyo, and Shanghai. The author of five books, French lives in New York City.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part I The "Discovery" of Africa

1 The Crackling Surface 17

2 Black King, Golden Scepter 28

3 Rethinking Exploration 36

4 Enter the Aviz 48

5 Islands in the Offing 55

6 The African Main 66

Part II The Essential Pivot

7 The Mine 87

8 Asia Suspended 96

9 Wealth in People Versus Wealth in Things 102

10 Circuits Old and New 111

11 Unto the End of the World 119

12 Pathways of Resistance 128

13 Becoming Creole 138

Part III The Scramble for Africans

14 For a Few Acres of Snow 147

15 Fighting for Africans 160

16 Endless Death in Lands with No End 168

17 The Perpetual Oven 176

18 The Cockpit of Europe 185

19 Dung for Every Hole 197

20 Capitalism's Big Jolt 208

21 Masters of Slaves, Masters of the Sea 225

Part IV The Wages of the Python God

22 Shatter Zones 233

23 Negros Seguros 239

24 The Slave Rush 247

25 Bargains Sharp and Sinful 255

26 The Spread of the West African Slave Trade 262

27 The Wages of Resistance 269

28 Seized by the Spirit 275

29 Dark Hearts 293

30 War for the Black Atlantic 305

31 People Scattered, a Continent Drained 320

Part V The Black Atlantic and a World Made New

32 The Scent of Freedom 333

33 The Black Jacobins 352

34 Gilded Negroes 361

35 Blues and the American Truth 375

36 The Gifts of Black Folk 385

37 How the West Was Made and "Won" 395

38 Toward a New Vision of Our Origins 411

Afterword 423

Acknowledgments 427

Notes 433

Index 485

About the Author 500