by Olivette Otele (Basic Books, 304 pp., $21)
This past summer, sports fans across the United States fell in love with a Greek basketball player who dominated the National Basketball Association playoffs. Giannis Antetokounmpo had already won the league’s most valuable player award two years in a row, but his witty and soft-spoken responses during interviews made him a social media darling and catapulted him into pop-cultural renown for audiences finally emerging from lockdown. To many Americans, the sight of a Black man switching between Greek and English was perplexing. Europe is still coded as an entirely White place in most Americans’ minds, despite the fact that immigrants—like Antetokounmpo’s parents—have been arriving there from Africa for centuries. The pace of that migration has increased substantially in recent decades, enlivening the continent’s culture and economy. But that increased migration has also been used by far-right groups to promote a wave of antagonism and violence against non-White people. For years, anti-immigrant organizations have insisted that Europe is not like America, and that the continent’s individual nations can succeed only as homogenous ethno-cultural states. At the crux of that argument is an historical claim of an uncompromised White past, now threatened by multi-racial infiltration.
Historians have not allowed this false narrative to be preached uncontested. British scholars, such as Stuart Hall, James Walvin, and Peter Fryer, immediately responded to the rise of the National Front, an extremist group that decried the arrival of West Indians into the United Kingdom during the 1960s and 70s (a migration brilliantly captured by Steve McQueen in his recent television series “Small Axe”). Those scholars dug deeply into the past to expose how critical members of the African Diaspora have been to British history for centuries, and paved the way for a generation of historians who have continued to refine that narrative.
Whether it be the visibility of African visitors in Shakespeare’s creation of Othello, the U.K.’s economic survival after the Second World War because of the arrival of laborers from abroad, or the centrality of Jamaican reggae on London’s punk rock scene, one cannot understand British history without assessing the role that Black people played in it. Those scholarly efforts have been mirrored by colleagues in western and central Europe, who have been piecing together the individual narratives of free and enslaved people of color in their regions. Like much of European history, though, these stories have largely been kept separate from one another; siloed as much by differences in the language of their publication as by the narrowness of many scholars’ geographic scopes.
Olivette Otele’s new book is a desperately needed synthesis of this continent-wide history of the African Diaspora in Europe. It spans several millennia to show not only the close links between Africa and Europe, but the consistent and long-standing influence of multiple Black cultures on the wider European public as well. Her research compiles dozens upon dozens of case studies of Africans living, thriving, and often struggling in Europe. She also assesses the broader trends that influenced those particular experiences to show how notions of race have tightened and loosened, and in many cases tightened again, over an impressively large timespan. What emerges, then, is a portrait of Europe always engaged with its continental neighbor to the south. The questions of identity and belonging that so dominate in European politics today, and which seem so novel to the modern era, have in fact been posed for many generations. This is an historical lesson not simply for White observers attempting to make sense of evolving demographics, but also for Black communities fighting back against racial intolerance.
Otele begins in antiquity, illustrating a Mediterranean world in which Africa and Europe were part of the same Roman Empire. Boundaries were porous, if they even existed at all, between the two regions. This created firm economic and social networks that endured into the medieval and early-modern eras. The strongest delineations first emerged, not through physical appearance, but through religious difference. As Europe became more Christian, and North Africa more Muslim, a sort of proto-racism centered on spiritual belief emerged. Otele, like many scholars, is wary of attributing current notions of racial prejudice to much earlier periods. Rather, she sees sixteenth-century depictions of individuals like Alessandro de Medici—a Florentine duke whose mother was likely African—as engaging with phenotypic differences without necessarily linking them to perceptions of inferiority. Medici’s behavior, instead, served to undercut his reputation. But this period of relative flexibility in accepting difference would not endure.
Spanish colonization of the Americas, in tandem with Portugal’s development of the transatlantic slave trade, initiated the transformation of European prejudice. The subjugation of millions of Africans gave birth to a European-wide belief that some were meant to be free and some enslaved. Of course, there were still exceptions. Otele highlights the complicated experiences of Jacobus Capitein, who arrived in the eighteenth-century Dutch Republic to be greeted as a scholar, but also leered at as an exotic specimen. Likewise, she examines the Signares, who were the children of African women and European men along the present day Senegalese coast. Their dual heritage gave them some entrée into refined European spaces when they traveled there for school. But the ravages of racism engendered by the slave trade prevented anything close to full acceptance.
The second half of Otele’s book more explicitly integrates past events with current challenges. For those more familiar with Western Europe’s colonial endeavors, Otele’s chapters on Afro-German and Afro-Italian history are especially revealing. In particular, she documents how the rise of fascism in the early twentieth century eliminated any ambiguity about the place of Black Europeans. The linkage between national belonging and biological heritage was now tighter than ever, making life nearly impossible for patriotic Europeans of African heritage. Yet, it was not simply that fascists in Germany and Italy removed members of the African Diaspora from their imagined communities, but that they erased the history of their countries’ engagement with Africa altogether. This has been especially pronounced in Sweden, where White residents retain little memory of colonial exploitation. This avoidance has made the discussion of race “un-Swedish,” and thus many are stunned to hear Black neighbors recounting their experiences with racial violence. Otele’s study will therefore tear down some of the blinders that Europeans have about their own history. It also enables Afro-Europeans to continue to build upon their ongoing activism. The book’s final chapter, in fact, recounts a wide range of civil rights campaigns, cultural movements, and social media operations in recent years that have given stronger voice to members of the African Diaspora in Europe.
In synthesizing such a large body of scholarship, Otele has crafted an engaging and helpful primer on the long history of Europe’s current struggle over multiculturalism. It is clearly written with the present in mind, in the hopes of correcting the vile rhetoric that frequently circulates across the continent. But in that celebration of African contributions to European history, Otele occasionally makes her story more simplistic than it needs to be. At the most basic level, the book never clearly establishes what it means to be European, or for that matter African. Both are enormous continents without any kind of singular identity or ethnicity. By lumping together migrants from North Africa to those from the sub-Saharan regions, as well as to Black migrants from the Caribbean who had never seen their ancestors’ place of origin, Otele’s precision in assessing European reactions to “African” people at times feels shaky.
Likewise, there are deeply complex arguments about the future of a multicultural Europe that are never given more than passing attention here. In a very short passage on Sweden, for instance, Otele notes that some children of Somali immigrants hold a nostalgia for their parents’ country, and even travel to fight in conflicts there. She does not mention that these cases are ones in which Afro-Swedes are joining jihadist organizations, which are expressly aligned against certain “Western” values. Otele does not ignore the disenfranchisement that these individuals feel, but she also does not engage in the legitimate concerns about radical fringes emerging within these dispossessed communities, and the challenge of creating shared cultures in Europe considering those profound disagreements.
Nevertheless, Olivette Otele gives one of the most thorough examinations yet published of the African Diaspora in Europe. Moreover, it is powerfully written for a general audience, who will learn a great deal on each page. For European readers, it will open the door for a much more sober assessment of demographic heterogeneity in the present day. For the American audience, it will serve as a reminder that the structural inequalities that are often felt to be entirely unique to the United States are, in fact, of pressing global concern.
Daniel Livesay is associate professor of history at Claremont McKenna College. He is the author of Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833, and is currently finishing a book about elderly enslaved individuals in North America and the Caribbean.
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