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

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.

20 illustrations; 4 maps

“This book is filled with countless eyeopeners… All history is, by definition, revisionist. In connecting the various dots, French is inviting us to reconsider what we understand about how we got here…. Painful and necessary… [an] infuriating and hugely enlightening book.”
― Dele Olojede, Financial Times

“The way we think about history is entirely wrong, says Howard W French at the start of this magnificent, powerful and absorbing book…. This is not a comfortable or comforting read, but it is beautifully done; a masterpiece even…. French writes with the elegance you would expect from a distinguished foreign correspondent, and with the passion of someone deeply committed to providing a corrective.”
― Peter Frankopan, The Observer

“Born in Blackness is laced with arresting nuggets… Filled with pain, but also with pride: pride at the endurance of oppressed millions, at the many slave uprisings and rebellions culminating in the Haitian revolution, which defeated ‘the idea of Black slavery itself,’ and in the cultural riches of the African diaspora… Searing, humbling and essential reading.”
― Nigel Cliff, New York Times Book Review

“There are few words that can express the resounding impact of French’s breathtaking work on the known historiography of African and African American history . . . Highly recommended for any audience.”
― Monique Martinez, Library Journal

“A Black journalist reframes modern history by restoring Africa to its rightful place at the center of the story . . . This meticulously researched book eloquently debunks conventional understanding of European conquest . . . A fascinating retelling of modern history that restores Africa to its rightful place.”
― Kirkus Reviews


From the Back Cover

Amazon • Editor’s Choice ― Best Books of the Month (History)

“What happens if we put Africa and Africans into the center of our thinking about the origins of the modern world? In this powerful account of six centuries of global history, Howard W. French takes us on a journey that effectively undermines many of the almost mythical narratives that we have been taught about the sources of Europe’s strength, wealth and modernity. Pushing back against a prevailing current of purposeful forgetting, French shows that Europe’s ‘Great Divergence’ would have been unimaginable without Africans; their wealth, capital and labor played an important role in powering the emerging global economy. To understand the world we live in today, this book is a must-read.” ―Sven Beckert, author of Empire of Cotton

“Born in Blackness charges into the roiling debates about how modernity began, with a powerfully argued case for placing Africa and Africans at the heart of the process, giving voice to a silenced history.” ―Kwame Anthony Appiah, author of The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity

“Born in Blackness is a brilliant reworking of the conventional wisdom about the rise of the Modern World. This deeply researched and elegantly written book rewinds the tape past Christopher Columbus, and shows how the tragic relationship between Africa and Europe, which began in the 15th century, created modernity as we know it.” ―Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

“Howard French’s Born in Blackness is a vitally important re-telling of a story from which Africa and Africans have long been wilfully excluded: it renders visible their role as leading actors in the making of modernity. This is essential reading for anyone with an interest in world history.” ―Amitav Ghosh, author of Gun Island and the Ibis Trilogy

“Born in Blackness does for traditional Eurocentric history what Copernicus did for the pieties of his time when he showed that the Earth revolved around the Sun and not vice versa. Africa, its peoples, and its wealth, the superbly qualified Howard French shows us, are far more central to the formation of the modern world than we usually think. And, unlike Copernicus, French has been to all the places he writes about.” ―Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost: A story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

“Born in Blackness is an urgent, searching and imaginative retelling of the decisive role of Africa and Africans in shaping world history. French covers a huge amount of ground with style, asking vital new questions and foregrounding the role of Africans in creating―and fighting for―the world of democratic freedoms which is now taken for granted.” ―Toby Green, author of A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution

“With this powerful retelling of global history, Howard W. French challenges us to discard long-accepted mythologies that have obscured to foundations of our contemporary world. Through a riveting account of the centrality of Africa and Africans in shaping economic systems and political thought, he offers a capacious and compelling explanation for how this world came to be. Born in Blackness offers us a new understanding of our common history, and reminds us that confronting that past is precondition for the construction of a different future.” ―Laurent Dubois, author of Haiti: The Aftershocks of History

“A necessary book. A compelling narrative that systematically dismantles one prop after another in the academy’s master narrative of how Europe brought light to ’the Dark Continent’ over the past six centuries. Howard W. French has written a worthy successor to Du Bois’ The World and Africa.” ―Mahmood Mamdani, author of Neither Settler nor Native

About the Author

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.

  • Publisher‏ : ‎ Liveright (October 12, 2021)
  • Language‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover‏ : ‎ 512 pages
  • ISBN-10‏ : ‎ 1631495828
  • ISBN-13‏ : ‎ 978-1631495823
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 1.93 pounds
  • Dimensions‏ : ‎ 6.6 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches

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