African Europeans: An Untold History by Olivette Otélé

“The history of African Europeans is vibrant and complex, just as it is brutal.”

Olivette Otélé, who happens to be a professor at my university, is the first black woman in the UK to be appointed to a professorial chair in history. African Europeans is her meticulously researched and illuminating examination of the relationship, past and present, between Europe and Africa. Otélé reveals key figures and connections that have long been overlooked by historians and public discourse. By revealing the lives and experiences of African Europeans throughout the centuries Otélé dispels the popular myth of Europe having an exclusively white historical narrative (which leads many to criticise period/historical dramas that are set in Europe and star non-white characters, claiming that it isn’t ‘historically accurate’).

In the first chapter, ‘Early Encounters: From pioneers to African Romans’, Otélé states the following: “From confrontations to collaborations, the relationship between Africans and Europeans has been tumultuous since the third century”. She discusses figures such as the Queen of Sheba and St Maurice (an Egyptian and leader of the Roman Theban Legion) as well as African-born Romans such as Emperor Septimius Severus (who was born in Leptis Magna ie Libya) and Marcus Cornelius Fronto. who “paved the way for a strong tradition of African European intellectuals”. In the second chapter, ‘Black Mediterraneans: Slavery and the Renaissance’, Otélé touches upon famous names such as Alessandro de Medici to ‘ordinary’ ones such as Ursola, a black slave in a Valencian household, who hoped to “buy her freedom”.
From the Renaissance Otélé moves onto the following centuries, exploring, and challenging, Europe’s shifting perceptions of race and blackness. Otélé also demonstrates the ways in which racism has evolved throughout history.

“From religious artefacts to representations of the magi; from an intellectual in fifteenth-century Granada to the young grime artists of twenty-first-century Britain, African European identities have continuously evolved.”

In the latter half of this book Otélé focuses on more recent history, describing how many European countries refuse to acknowledge systemic racism (as if ‘apologising’ for their colonial pasts absolves them completely) feigning ‘color blindness’. I also really appreciated Otélé’s intersectional approach as she always takes into account the different ways in which one’s gender and sexuality contributes to the way they are treated by and seen by their society.
The lives, experiences, histories Otélé ‘unearths’ are riveting. While Otélé does not pose questions to the reader, the histories she ‘unearths’ are definitely question-inducing. Racism, citizenship, identity, notions of freedom and of belonging all shape the individuals Otélé is writing about.
This is the kind of history book that should become part of the curriculum. Although I did not attend a British school many of my British acquaintances have complained about the lacunae in their studies (especially when it comes to discussing the relationship between Africa and the UK). And I also hope that it will be translated in Italian and many other languages.
I think this an inspiring work that will definitely appeal to those with a ‘history’ background or to history aficionados.
Otélé is a thoughtful yet objective writer and her work demonstrates incredibly acuity and knowledge.

Many many many thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an a copy of this.


my rating: ★★★★☆

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