Reinventing European History to Show that Black Lives Do Matter
This is part of our special feature, United in Diversity.
There is a common perception of Europe as a “white” continent populated exclusively by white people. This perception feeds into a feeling of resentment to the European Union (EU) from black communities, resulting in there being a strong feeling that it does not work for them; it is an exclusive club for the benefit of Europeans, who are essentially identified as white and Christian. The presence of postcolonial citizens and their descendants have become a major issue with the rise of extreme right-wing populism. The xenophobic discourse that denounces the illegitimacy of a non-white presence in Europe is frequently justified by a denial of the historical contribution of non-white populations in the development of Europe, in particular, people of African descent. For this and related reasons, there is a need for a reinvention of European history.
A step towards this reinvention could begin by examining the African presence in European history within the context of an African Diasporic paradigm. In so doing, it would allow students to see Europe’s emergence not only as a facilitator of the African Diaspora’s streams across the Atlantic, through interlocking networks of trade and commerce, but as a final destination for many Black people. These Black lives speak to us through historical archives, literature, and visual artifacts. Exploring the subject in this manner will change white and Black students’ images of a white only European society and give them a new perspective from which they can view the future. An African Diasporic paradigm serves to challenge the monochromatic versions of national, European history narratives, and their conventional racialized underpinnings.
The net effect of this approach would change the color of European history by seeing it through a multicultural lens; it would parallel the language and politics of the Black Lives Matter movement that has become globalized. African Diasporic communities are connected through a shared experience: the globalization of white supremacy, racism, and its oppression, and the legacy of colonialism and transatlantic slavery. Black Lives Matter has emerged from a tradition of activism that ignored the imagined boundaries of “nation-state” and has tapped into the global connections of the anti-Blackness and resistance that penetrates the African Diaspora in Europe. This essay sets out pedagogical theory, instructional strategies, and a constructive narrative for designing a course in African-European history. Since this subject is not covered in standard European textbooks, and many Europeanists are often not trained to teach the topic, the article is offering, a critical pedagogical strategy to facilitate a dialogue toward course development in re-inventing European history to show that Black lives do matter.
The thrust of the course should be to show how African people and their culture have influenced and shaped events in European society from ancient times to the present day. The course outline should provide a panoramic portrayal of the evolution of European societies from the prehistoric period to the present. The trajectory of the course is designed to look for and examine the importance of looking for the African presence within cultural influences, artifacts, literature, and popular philosophy. In this way, the proposed course must incorporate the efforts of Africans and persons of African descent and their attempt to adjust to, to resist, and to accommodate themselves within the larger narrative of western civilization from the prehistoric era to present-day. The course should place special emphasis upon patterns of change and continuity within a multicultural context. This approach allows for exploring the patterns of paternalism, hostility, misogyny, and exclusion against people of color in Europe as well as underscore African-Europeans’ achievements and contributions to European societies.
For example, this can be achieved by having students read works written by people of African ancestry, both non-fiction and fiction. Some of the non-fiction are discourses on various topics, particularly anti-slavery tracts while others are narratives. These writings suggest that there were many voices in the African chorus and the conductors were not Europeans, nor were the melodies always the same. Students should read the various texts critically as well as sympathetically but should avoid picking and choosing according to the dictates of modern norms and tastes. Neither should it be forgotten that for many Europeans, Africans were viewed as the missing link, that is, not quite human and not quite animal, such as Sarah Baartman, the Hottentot Venus.
As students are reading these narratives, they should be reminded of the intended audience, as well as how Black people were engaged in the anti-slavery movement by telling their own stories. What is clear from all the narratives and writings is that Africans were not blank canvases on which Orientalist tropes were painted. The narratives provide insight into how religion and culture interacted, how sexual and romantic relationships occurred, and how Africans acted pragmatically as well as innovatively in their emancipation. The writings show that the authors did not opt out of European society; instead, they were designated as outsiders. Their texts provide students with interesting glimpses of life in Europe, as seen from the viewpoint of a Black person.
In developing a course on the African presence in Europe, instructors must be cautious not to project onto European societies any cultural constructs that have evolved in the United States, and perhaps nowhere else, in quite the same fashion. North American scholars must avoid the temptation to impose paradigms that reflect their own experiences upon European areas. We should be careful to distinguish that when Black people in Britain and other parts of the world are drawn to political movements in America, it is not a case of copycatting a foreign set of ideas. Black people are rallying to movements that have been created across the African Diaspora that relate directly to their experience. As long as the conditions that have devalued Black life across the globe continue, solidarity will always exist against racial oppression. Since many diasporic communities have been divided by colonialism, Black people are increasingly connected through the shared experience of globalization the white supremacy, racism and its oppression, and the legacy of colonialism and transatlantic slavery. In resisting of white supremacy, Black Lives Matter activists have turned the long-standing struggle of Black people into a global political movement demanding racial justice, while centering their solidarity campaigns on their specific set of circumstances and conditions. But this requires careful consideration of specific circumstances alongside the commonalities.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics, between 2005 and 2012, white police officers in the United States killed an average of two African Americans per week. The majority of these deaths were treated as “justifiable homicides” because the victims are blamed for getting killed. In Britain, the majority of British police do not carry guns, so there are very few deaths of this kind, but the battle against police brutality and harassment in America resonates in Britain and other European countries because it is no totally alien to them but ties directly to their experiences. Even with a very small number of armed police since 1990, an Independent Police Complaints Commission found that Black people are three times overrepresented in investigated deaths.  In Britain, there is a long list of Black people who “lost their lives following contact with the forces of law and order” and the police and various private proxies have never been held accountable for those deaths such as in the deaths of Sean Rigg, Smiley Culture, Sarah Reed, Cherry Groce and Demetre Fraser.
Police harassment has been the source of many protests in the history of Black Britain. In the 1980s, there were rebellions across the country, against the ‘Sus Laws,’ under which many Black people were arrested on the officer’s suspicion of having committed an offense. This trend has resulted in Black people being up to 17.5 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police. It is estimated that three quarters of young Black men in Britain are in the police DNA database. In France and the Netherlands, anti-blackness and police action mirror that in the United States and Britain. In recent years there have been multiple reports from human rights groups detailing an entrenched culture of impunity among the French police and abuses against minorities. In July 2016, while in police custody Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old black man, in a town near Paris died and no one was held accountable. In the Netherlands, in the death of Mitch Henriquez, a 42-year-old Aruban, death was seen as the result of excessive police force after being pinned to the ground by five officers. A 2009 French study indicated that individuals identified as “Black” or “North African” were six to eight times more likely to be stopped by the police in Paris than whites were. The ethnic profiling by the police in France mirrors the “stop and frisk” policy in the United States in which Black and Latino people are subject to stops and searches at a higher rate than whites.
Indeed, the course content must address different kinds of issues in European communities that will more accurately inform students’ understanding of Black people who are similar and yet different. For example, there is no common definition of Black. The designation of Black in Europe, unlike in the United States, has been reserved for those of dark color, not the broader definition of African descent. In European lexicon, “Black” does not literally designate people with black skin; instead, it may be used to characterize a political mindset, also referred to as “political blackness.” Two of the most salient features of this political mindset are oppression and resistance to it. The idea that anyone from a group affected by racism could identify as politically black, to form a collation to define themselves in relation to whiteness. Consequently, the term Black may also be used to identify people of Asian ancestry. Hence, it is necessary to explain that the course content would be limited to discussions on the presence and identity of people of African ancestry in European society. It is indeed useful, in this context, to remind oneself that the appellation “African” is a misnomer for ancient and early modern European society. Generally speaking, neither Africans nor the Europeans referred to Black people as Africans. Africans traditionally identified themselves as ethnically rather than trans-ethnically, regionally, or continentally. In fact, Europeans referred to all African people as Ethiopians until the fifteenth century, and then the term blackamoor came into vogue.
There are many challenges in examining the African presence in Europe, such as identifying African people, defining blackness, characterizing the Moors, and distinguishing their contributions to European culture. African peoples’ color identity has been blurred for various social, economic, political, and cultural reasons. For the most part, European cultural assimilation was based on achievement which negated the identification of race. Furthermore, a clear distinction between a Black population in Europe was limited by the frequent occurrence of interracial marriages that subsequently light-complexioned generations might never be identified again as Black. Hence, instructors have to make the conscious decision, about how to address issues of race, gender, and identity when they appear, or do not appear, in traditional and canonical works or media and film productions, and about how to seek them out when they appear to be absent.
For example, during the middle ages, there was a diverse African population that lived among the Vikings; yet, in our modern revised and fine-tuned portrayal of Vikings as traders and explorers, all of them are white. The Orkneyinga Saga and the Saga of Olave clearly identified the fir goma or blue men as Africans who appeared among the Viking sea rovers. Africans accompanied Vikings when they invaded the British Isles. There were several notable African Vikings such as Thorhall and Thorfinn. Thorhall was the steward of Eric the Red and accompanied his son, Leif Erickson to North America. Thorfinn ruled over nine earldoms in Scotland and Ireland. The Viking story is becoming one not just about savagery and conquest, but about immigration and assimilation. Even though immigration and assimilation are major themes of Black existence in presence-day Europe and would be a thematical way to bring in the African presence, it is not included in this revisionist narrative of Viking history. One why to bring the immigration theme into the discussion is to ask students to explore how these blue men came to be a part of the sea rovers, and if they had a free or non-free status within the Viking community. And if they were not free, does this change their mode of thinking about the beginning of the African Atlantic slave trade?
In outlining the course, we suggest that the course begins with an introduction that centers on defining the African Diaspora, a discussion that grapples with the definition of the problem of studying the African presence in Europe and exploring the meaning of négritude and Pan-Africanism within the context of the diaspora. The course should open with a clear understanding of the African Diaspora and its European dimension. This discussion will frame the course and provide a solid rationale for the various approaches taken in the course outline. There is a growing body of literature on the epistemology bedded in the African Diaspora, but for the purpose of this course there are four essential readings that frame this course’s pedological approach: (1) Carlton Wilson’s “Conceptualizing the African Diaspora” that provides an overview of the coining of the phrase “African diaspora; (2) “Allison’s Blakely’s “European Dimensions of the African Diaspora: The Definition of Black Racial Identity” examines the recognition of Africans and people of African ancestry in Europe as members of the African Diaspora community and their interconnectedness with all other African people throughout the world; (3) and (4) Colin Palmer’s “Defining and Studying the Modern African Diaspora” and Kim Butler’s “Defining Diaspora, Refining a Discourse.” These articles provide the theoretical and methodological framework for the course by defining the concept and discussing the patterns of dispersal of African peoples around the world, and the kinds of diasporic identities these populations developed in their new spaces. They combine the individual migration experience with the collective history of group dispersal and re-genesis of communities abroad. They suggest that there are at least five inter-generational streams within the real and imagined African Diaspora communities.
Also, Carol Blackshire-Belay’s “The African Diaspora in Europe: African Germans Speak Out” should be read because it speaks to the advantages that can be accrued for contextualizing peoples of African ancestry within the African Diaspora as we move into the twenty-first century. She argues that as members of the international community of people of African ancestry, Black people can best strengthen and support each other in their individual battles against the evils of their environmental circumstances. Her assessment foreshadowed the language and politics of the Black Lives Matter movement that has become globalized.
Within the discussion on conceptualizing the African Diaspora, Paul Gilroy’s influential text, The Black Atlantic, that essentially forged a distinctive African-Anglophone Diaspora should be addressed. Insofar as diasporic communities and consciousness were forged out of complex and sometimes contradictory encounters and negotiations, the Black Atlantic is a distinctive part of the African Diaspora but is not synonymous with the entire concept African Diaspora. Geographically, the Black Atlantic appellation does not include African societies and peoples who are not a part of the Atlantic basin such as those in the Indian Ocean or in the Mediterranean region.
The layout of the course should speak to the African Diaspora’s real and imagined communities. The concept of an imagined community is a theoretical construction borrowed from Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. In an imagined community or a virtual community, the members of even the smallest communities will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in their minds, they perceive of themselves as part of a particular group. They are socially, culturally, and psychologically connected.
The African-European experience must be placed within the various stages of the African Diaspora. To be sure, the African-European experience is diasporic, in that, it is an organic process involving movement from ancestral land, settlement in new lands, and sometimes renewed movement and resettlement elsewhere. Furthermore, the African-European experience is a key ingredient in conceptualizing and teaching the five streams of the African diaspora as identified by Colin Palmer. The first African diaspora was a consequence of the great movement within and outside of Africa about 100,000 years-ago. The second major diasporic stream began about 3000 B.C.E. with the movement of the Bantu-speaking peoples from the region that is presently contemporary Nigeria and Cameroon to other parts of the continent, to the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean world. The third stream began around the fifth century B.C.E. Palmer loosely characterizes this as a trading diaspora which involved the movement of traders, merchants, slaves, soldiers, and others to parts of Europe, the Asia Minor, and Asia. The fourth African diasporic stream is associated with the Atlantic trade in African slaves. The final stream began after the demise of slavery and continues to the present day. This fifth stream is characterized by the movement of Africans and peoples of African descent, and their resettlement in various societies. Hence, the African-European experience has been trans-continental, interrelated, and overlaps the various streams of the African Diaspora.
For example, Olaudah Equiano travelled through overlapping streams from the continent of Africa, North America, South America, to Europe. His life experiences include the Atlantic slave trade as well as manumission. His life interrelates the fourth and fifth streams of the African Diaspora. Indeed, the various streams of Equiano’s diasporic experiences were interrelated, yet discrete. Also, as Colin Palmer has suggested scholars, depending on their perspectives, should identify other major streams or approximate dates of various streams. Therefore, we want to include sub-streams within the third major African diaspora stream to delineate the movement of African people and their culture as addressed in Greco-Roman society, the rise of Christianity and Islam, the Indian Ocean Trade and the Trans-Saharan trade, and medieval Euro-Africa. And we would sub-divide, the fifth stream between the movement of Africans and peoples of African descent, and their resettlement in, various societies during the colonial period and after independence. In this way, the course is better able to capture what is being called the “new” or “contemporary” African diasporas, that emerged out of the disruptions of colonial conquest, the struggles for independence, structural adjustment programs imposed on African countries by the international financial institutions in the twentieth-century, and the return to Africa motivated by the difficulty of life in the western countries. Most importantly, instructors must be careful not to present a static picture of the African Diaspora, because it is fluid and embodies a very dynamic set of processes at work.
The course does not necessarily have all the answer to questions about the African presence in Europe, but should invite students to ask how did blackness impact domestic and diplomatic relations abroad then and now? How did blackness shape Europe’s conception of self, and otherness? Did blackness alter everyday European politics, economies, cultural milieus, and social relations? How does African-European History encourage us to reexamine both issues of color and the multiculturalism of our own time? Do we reconfigure the Renaissance as a period that not only brought us into closer touch with the great thinkers of antiquity but also as an age that fused ancient African and European knowledge and thereby create alternative modes of thinking?
The course content must embrace interdisciplinary orientations and must be comparative in its methodological dimensions. Contrary to what some believe, there is a growing cache of materials available to faculty and students in the form of books, documents, multimedia aids, and digital technologies that will aid in critical and comparative teaching and learning.
These Black lives, now many generations gone, speak silently to us through the archives, literature, and visual artifacts. The hesitation in teaching a comprehensive history of Africans in Europe has been that there is a lack of available sources, but this understanding should be taken as a caution and should not be used as an excuse for inertia. After all, so much of what has been achieved in Black History was once thought impossible. Therefore, we are suggesting that it is clearly possible to use some of the existing sources to begin to construct a course on the history of Black people in Europe. Undoubtedly, there will be historical gaps, but there must be an attempt to teach a general history of Africans in Europe. This general history would be a culmination of existing information on Blacks that could provide a “lift-off” point from which future generations of historians can work. This beginning can serve as a common background of knowledge that could be the basis for linking trends, discarding one idea in favor of another, or to synthesize them into a historical philosophy. Similar to the history of Blacks in the Americas, the experiences of Africans in Europe are a mixture of legal struggles, daily toils, and cultural achievements.
history will reshape the teaching and research agendas of scholars of European
history and African Diaspora history. History is both continuity and change. The
change stems from our readiness to challenge the current order, using the best
tools and approaches of the various
disciplines. A new European history would revitalize education. It offers an
exciting and energizing opportunity to discuss how racial categories and even
the ideas of “race” and “racism” change over time and space in a new and
unfamiliar context. Our hope is that this essay will be a step towards this
end. And that it will spur a dialogue that will evoke a greater interest in a
multicultural approach to reinventing European history that would underscore
the African-European experience within the African Diaspora.
Lydia Lindseyis an associate professor of History at North Carolina Central University (NCCU), Durham, NC. She received her B.A. and M.A. in European History from Howard University; and her Ph.D. in British Empire and Commonwealth History and Modern European History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). During her graduate studies, she was in residence at the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations, The University of Warwick, Coventry, England and Institute for Historical Research, University of London, Senate House, London, England. Lindsey has published several articles on twentieth-century British history with a special focus on the black presence in the British Isles. She is presently working on biographies of Claudia Jones and Grace P. Campbell, as well as a study on black leftists’ anti-colonial organizing in the British Isles.
Carlton E. Wilson is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and associate professor of Modern European History at North Carolina Central University. His research and teaching interests include the African Presence in Modern Europe and the African Diaspora.
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Published on April 5, 2019.
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