The old adage begins with a drunkard and a streetlight.
Hunched over, he strains his eyes toward the ground; cursing, as he looks for the keys he has somehow misplaced on his nightly walk home. A neighbor strolls by and our drunkard—now quite desperate for a helping hand—explains his predicament. The neighbor asks while stooping down, Are you sure you didn’t lose them elsewhere? Why are you searching beneath this lamp? To which our addled protagonist responds, I’m searching here because this is where the light is.
There is no such thing as history without boundaries. The past, in its sheer infinitude of events and details, requires parceling; the necessary imposition of borders to help make sense of a present ever-bursting at the seams. These boundaries, however, obscure just as much as they illuminate. By nature of their design, they create fetters that limit one’s ability to see things other than what is already known. Or, in other words, they train us to look for answers only where there is light.
Nowhere are the effects of this misprision more evident than in the stories told about the origins of the modern world. And with this in mind, the brilliance of Howard W. French’s latest work, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War (2021), now in paperback, comes into view. Contrary to, say, a layman’s—and even many historians’!—cursory gloss on the topic, modernity did not spring forth from the Age of Enlightenment and the genteel conversations of Parisian salonistes. Instead, French, a professor of journalism and a former bureau chief for The New York Times, contends that modernity unfurled itself from the earliest voyages of Iberia’s most acclaimed seafarers of the late fifteenth century—Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama, and, of course, Christopher Columbus—who “cut their teeth not seeking routes to Asia, but rather plying the coastline of West Africa.” West Africa, at the time, was held as a site of almost-mythic wealth, inspired largely by Mansa Musa’s gilded hajj in 1324 C.E. And so, greedy pirates that these men and their patrons were, they first set sail south, not west; hoping, in French’s telling, to “forge trading ties with legendarily rich Black societies hidden away somewhere in the heart of ‘darkest’ West Africa.”
Born in Blackness composes an altogether staggering portrait of what followed in their wake. These initial African expeditions refined the cartographical skills and navigational capabilities of a sailor like Columbus, who then leveraged this expertise in his infamous “discovery” of the New World. Iberian forays along the African coast eventually bore golden fruit. The Portuguese established a mining settlement at Elmina—a region located in the southern reach of present-day Ghana—where by 1506, outflowing gold “constituted fully a quarter of crown revenue,” or “about a tenth of the entire known total world supply around that time.” This gold eventually begot gold of another kind: “black gold.” In seeking to maximize output from Elmina’s lucrative mines, the Portuguese—and the Dutch thereafter—turned to indigenous communities like the Akan to supply enslaved labor. Through a tragic combination of material enticement and militant coercion, they cooperated.
And now, it’s fair to say we tread somewhat familiar ground. The abject fortunes derived from the ensuing slave trade, coupled with the production and consumption of select commodities, fundamentally changed global society. Take sugar for example: According to French, the demand in Britain alone paved the bloody way for modern capitalism as it catalyzed the technical advancements and managerial practices needed for the explosive success of the Industrial Revolution. This is irrespective of sugar’s social impact. The material wealth paid for by enslaved African labor afforded Englishmen the luxury time—and literal stimulation—to chatter away in coffeehouses and engage with one another in a historically unparalleled manner. This cultivation of a public sphere helped craft a social fabric defined by civil discourse and the equitable exchange of rational ideas; an essential piece in any formulation of the modern world. “Framed at its simplest,” French writes, “gold had led the Portuguese to slaves, and slaves drove the expansion of a lucrative new industry, sugar, which would transform the world.” Another way to look at it: If modernity were a cat’s cradle, formed by matted congeries of people and places, beliefs and dispositions, it would be strung together by an initial African thread.
Much can be, and has been, said of French’s account. To be frank, his thesis—as raised by Laura Seay—is not wholly new. One could easily turn to Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery (1944) or Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972) to get a sense of how the modern world—vis-à-vis the development of global capitalism—emerged from the exploitation and expropriation of African labor and land. As observed by Nigel Cliff in The New York Times, there are moments where the text hews prescriptive; siphoning facts with a commendable determination (“Africa has been the linchpin of the machine of modernity”), but that frequently leaves little space for interpretive flexibility. And in his review for Foreign Affairs, Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò also rightly comments on how French’s argument would have been fortified by a more deliberate engagement with African thinkers such as Edward Wilmot Blyden, whose writings—and not just labor—contributed to modernity’s assemblage.
All of this, however, does not take away from the transformative implications of Born in Blackness. French’s work is remarkable not only for his deft capacity to sieve through a tremendous amount of archival material—he traverses close to five centuries and five continents worth of documents and sources—but also because it provides a new foundation upon which to see the world. This is because the book subtly poses the question: What happens when histories once thought unbridgeable are, in effect, proven one and the same? Or said elsewise: How must one’s thinking—and subsequently, one’s actions—change, once properly situating Africa within the scope of the modern world?
As this is ostensibly a book review—and, to be honest, books are one of the few things this author can write about with somewhat confidence—let’s apply French’s premise to African literature. 2021 was heralded by many in the Global North as the year of African writing. And yet, as noted by the literary scholar Jeanne-Marie Jackson, readers are still often led to appreciate the works of African authors like Abdulrazak Gurnah first for their socio-historical value, and only second for their artistic métier. This stems from the unstated assumption by those in the Global North that African history is a history of the Other. By extension, African life—or at least how it is rendered through literature—resembles curious dispatches from a distant realm. Look at these people. Their stories have no real bearing on our lives. African literature—itself, a term indicative of the problem—transforms into something of a denuded textbook; a textbook for an elective, if that.
One expects something else from authors of the Global North. From the likes of Miguel de Cervantes up to contemporary writers such as Sheila Heti, one learns to read their works for their innate capacity to speak to those near-numinous questions—What is right, what is wrong? What do we owe others? What is the self?—that comes from being finely enmeshed within the arras that is the modern world. Their stories are understood to limn not solely what it means to be of a particular identity at a particular point in time. Rather, they’re looked to for something more: What does it mean to be right now?
And so, by submitting to the historical reality French outlines, the aperture widens and the space for who can lay claim to modernity’s legacy expands. As a result, it becomes possible to locate African writers within a shared historical heritage. This, in turn, nudges readers toward looking to writing from the continent for a valuable exploration of human nature and all its complexity in this latest longue durée. One learns to see other ways of being, which might be different, but that are just as relevant as, say, any offered by a Western legatee of modernity. For it’s now a difference of like, not of kind.
Whether the idea of modernity is something worth defending—riven as it is by internal contradictions, definitional ambiguities, and false proclamations to universality—is, in and of itself, a vital critique. But even so, this does not change the fact we are, à la David Scott, conscripted into modernity and not volunteers. That is to say, modernity shapes “the warp and woof” in which all things occur. Bound as we are to this past, one might then think—or at least desperately hope—if history taketh away, it might also give. Or, as Marilynne Robinson gently reminds us, a “shared history is certainly one basis for understanding.”
By affording the continent its rightful historical place in the modern world, the world itself changes in hue. For it encourages a deeper thinking that moves through Africa—and in this case, African artistic expression—as a critical avenue to imagine other ways one can be. Now, to be clear—as clarity is important when considering who is most likely to read this article—this is, by no means, an appeal for a sentimental reading. Just as the West has projected onto the continent its own darkest excesses, it has also sought to imagine Africa as the Edenic source for, what the philosopher Paulin J. Hountondji calls, a “heightening of the soul.” This, in essence, leads to thinking that might travel along a different path, but still arrives at the same distorted destination. Instead, what is being asked for is the continued refinement of the expectations brought to reading the continent. One that takes history into account, but simultaneously begins to see through history and into the realm of art.
Like all things, this is a fine balance to strike. Let alone the fact that art for art’s sake is, admittedly, a rather trite observation. Because really, what use is there for art when the continent, and in fact, the world, seems to be falling apart? But certain truths bear repeating in times of crisis. At its limpid best, art is in fidelity to a type of beauty; a beauty which, yes, relies upon history, but which also transcends history. In its all but alchemic ability to collapse time and space, to dissolve frontiers and boundaries, this affective power brings forth, like foam upon a brook, arguably the most valuable feeling of all: The sense of intimacy between oneself and others. Or simply, the immanent understanding of being in communion with those in the past, present, and future. It is this feeling of community brought about by art—fleeting though it often is—that prods us to change how we are, in hopes of changing how things one day might be. And without this feeling, without that helpful neighbor, we will only continue to look for answers where they won’t be found.
Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World,
1471 to the Second World War
By Howard W. French
Liveright Publishing Corporation
Published October 12, 2021
Tomi Onabanjo is a doctoral student at New York University. His writing has appeared in Electric Literature.