A great many valuable books have been written about Black lives and experiences in very different geographical contexts. However, a relatively low number deal especially with the experiences of people of African descent in Europe before the world wars.
Those were the opening words in the introduction of African Europeans: An Untold History by Olivette Otele. As a historian herself, Olivette Otele traces and uncovers the long history of Europeans of African descent in Europe through the lives of individuals, both ordinary and extraordinary. Histories that have either been forgotten, erased or marginalised are brought back into the light.
African Europeans is one of those books that feels like it should be required reading for all adults and that should be included on various curricula, for it is indeed an eye opener in so many ways. It is well written, thoroughly researched, informative and provocative. Sometimes we think we know our entire history as African and Black people, but picking this book up has shown me parts of that history that were obscure to me – until now. It examines the relationship between African people and Black people in both the past and the present, it examines the complex concept of a dual identity that many Black and African people know and have to deal with, the construction of racism, slavery, colonialism, and, ultimately, of resilience.
Breaking it down into seven chapters, we see the connections between the past and present through the journey to the Mediterranean during the 16th century, the lives of African Europeans in western and central Europe through the transatlantic slave trade, gender roles, how children of African and European dual heritage were born and left behind, the documentation of German colonisation of African countries, the comparison of experiences between Afro-Italians and Afro-Swedish people, and how gender and Afro-feminism play a role in shaping African Europeans identities.
The author closely analyses the lives of people from as far back as the Renaissance, the medieval period, and the Roman empire, and skilfully manages to correlate her findings to current times and activism, French feminism, queer voices in the LGBT community, and issues on Afro hair and colourism.
As a non-academic, this was quite the intimidating book but I believe it was definitely worth making my way through its long and dense chapters.
The history of African Europeans is vibrant and complex, just as it is brutal. It is a collection of experiences that vary greatly from one place to another and across time.