Culture, Research, Review

Book Review- ‘African Europeans: An Untold Story’ by Olivette Otele

Having read this title by Olivette Otele (the UK’s first Afrodescendant female history professor -Ed.) I felt like I was catching up on the Afropean history lessons that should have been part of my school curriculum.

In light of how complicated it is to research these stories, the Franco-Cameroonian academic must have the skills of a detective, given the breadth of the title; mapping Afro-European history over a timeline spanning from the third to the twenty-first century.

Considering the many different historical periods one could study, it makes sense that instead of following a chronological order, the author’s focus is on exploring race relations in various locations and across eras.

Reading through the chapters, I found examples of history repeating itself (sadly) and learnt about beliefs that I could always sense but never specifically name.

One of these is exceptionalism; that is, a tendency to celebrate high achievers who attain success through their ties with European culture. This was dependent on the good will of wealthy patrons who paid for their education and expenses.

One such example was Juan Latino (aka Johannes Latinus), a slave from Granada who gained prominence thanks to his proficiency in Latin as well as powerful benefactors, including Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba and Archbishop Pedro Guerrero.

Interestingly, Latino as well as many other gifted African Europeans, had one thing in common. As the author explains, they were completely assimilated into European culture and had no links with Africa.

“…He had scant connections with his African ancestry growing up in the household as a domestic servant. He was an enslaved child who knew nothing about his origins and could hardly bridge the gap between two cultures…

This may be why, when Granada went through a major political change known as Reconquista– leading to religious persecution of Muslims and Jews – Latino actively showed his support of Christianity through his poems.

On the other hand, there were also prodigies who dared to challenge the system but which led to their fall from grace. This was the story of Jacobus Capitein, an Afro-Dutch Protestant minister, who attempted to improve Christian education at the colony of Elmina (in modern day Ghana), so that both colonists and the colonised had the same access to faith.

The concept paternalism – used to rationalise this system- also resonated, given the realities we see today. Based on the idea that ”…Africans needed to be taken care of or even saved from themselves and their peers…”, this approach justified any corrective action or punishment by slave owners as an act of care.

Finally, seeing that Europe has a high number of dual-heritage citizens, it was interesting to explore their fate in a bygone age.

             Professor Olivette Otele (image: Times Higher Education)

To this regard, the author states:

People of dual heritage blurred those racial lines that had been established by the anatomists. They were allegedly physically, physiologically, and even emotionally closer to the white community. They could therefore inflict more damage on those racialised as white. As a result, it was felt that they had to be carefully monitored...”

The story of Joseph Boulogne aka Chevalier de Saint-Georges, shows just how easily (and dramatically) one’s fortune could change; sometimes because of a powerful individual, in other cases due to how the local political scene was transforming.

Those living on the African shore were also subject to this, though they found ways to establish different survival techniques in line with the system in the colonies. The stories of Signares or Ga women, who built a sense of independence and wealth through marriages for economic gain, exemplify such strategies. However, these unions also carried an element of risk, particularly if a woman became too powerful for the liking of European authorities.

Moving on to modern times, namely the 20th and 21st century, some trends continue to resonate. Complex stories of African Europeans such as Siki (Louis M’Barick Fall) and Theophilus Wonja Michael -from the post war era – show what was (and is) necessary to survive: resilience against hostility in their society and the will to carve out their own space against the odds.

The book briefly touches on the notion of ethno-nationalism but falls short of exploring it in more depth. The rise of this trend is visible across Europe, although perhaps it is most prominent in Eastern Europe. For Otele to give it such limited space was a missed opportunity.

Nevertheless, I appreciated learning about various grassroots movements that unite diverse minorities and create a sense of solidarity. In today’s Europe, which is again highly divided, these initiatives are very much needed, to ensure we also have a voice.

Considering how much disinformation circulates in the mainstream, a book like this should be available in every school library.

Until that happens, I recommend you purchase a copy. It will greatly help you connect the dots.

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