Friday, May 19, 2023

Preliminary impressions of Born in Blackness

Sadness. Pride. Anger. Confusion. Surprise. Gratitude. Disdain. Frustration. Dread. Admiration.  

Look, I've been composing a list of the emotions, the recurring emotions that I'm experiencing as I listen to Howard French's powerful, meticulously researched book Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War (2021) ready by James Fouhey on Audible. 

I'm really enjoying this book. I initially purchased the audio version, but became so intrigued by what I was learning that I decided to obtain a hard copy as well. 

French's book wasn't readily on my radar. Given my work as a scholar of African American literature, I tend to look out and receive recommendations for works within my field. And when I'm looking to take a break, I rarely pick up history books. Whatever the case, I'm glad that I noticed a few reviews and decided to check it out. 

Since I began listening, the revelations in Born in Blackness have been occupying my thinking. 

French makes the argument that Africans, and especially the forced labor, forced migration, and additional forced labor were central to the production of modernity. Not just add-ons, not as minor contributors. No, we simply cannot conceive of major developments among European and American nations, historic trade routes, dietary practices, the formation of "the West," and so forth without the facilitation by Europeans, to apply French's words, "violent domination of Black African slave labor" (116).   

Hearing and reading about the dreadful, massive toll of human suffering in this book is really difficult. Sure, we already know about enslavement, right? But French offers a sense of scale in detail, which is to say discusses the hundreds of captives here, the thousands of enslaved Africans there, and the millions of black people in bondage over here. By naming the islands, cities, states, countries, ships, and forts comprising those here, there, and over here locales, French gives a level of attention to what transpired that feels, I don't know, up close and personal.

I've been moving back and forth between my two versions of Born in Blackness -- listening to Fouhey relaying French's words and then reading the physical book, making notations and checking out the footnotes.   

People routinely mentioned "books that changed" their life. It's too early for me to speak on that, but I can identify one important way that the audio version of French's book changed my behavior. I take daily walks around my neighborhood as I listen to books, and I began extending my journeys recently mainly because I wanted to take even more time listening to Born in Blackness.  

And that brings me back to the emotions. When you hear about the the magnitude of pain and death associated with Africans and Indigenous people in the Americas, you are both sad and angry. Becoming aware of so many facts that were hidden in plain sight evoke surprise.  

You get a sense of pride when you learn of African captives fighting valiantly against enormous odds. And there are even some moments of amusement, like learning that Africans were initially disinterested in the trade goods that Portugal wanted to offer. 

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