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Detail from the Catalan Atlas depicting Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire Detail from the Catalan Atlas, a medieval map produced in the 1370s, depicting Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire (Bibliotheque Nationale de France, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

‘Born in Blackness’: Howard French on Africa, Africans and the Modern World

Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021

The history of Europe’s Age of Exploration and Empire usually follows a familiar narrative. Starting in the late 15th century, European explorers set out to find maritime trade routes to the lucrative spice and textile markets of Asia. Happening by chance upon the “New World” of the Americas, they quickly established colonies whose wealth, mainly in the form of gold and silver, combined with advances in military technology, propelled what would become known as the West to centuries of global dominance that has only begun to wane today. In this narrative, Africa and Africans are all but invisible, except as a tragic footnote when it comes to the history and legacy of slavery.

WPR columnist Howard French’s fifth and latest book, “Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War,” convincingly argues that almost everything about this familiar narrative is wrong. Far from being peripheral to the Age of Exploration, Africa was in fact the central focus of its early period. And far from being anecdotal to the wealth and power generated by Europe’s colonies in the Americas, Africans were the irreplaceable producers of it. 

This week on Trend Lines, Howard French joins WPR’s Judah Grunstein to discuss “Born in Blackness,” which will be released on Oct.12 and is already available for pre-order. Howard is a career foreign correspondent and global affairs writer. From 1990 to 2008, he reported overseas for The New York Times, serving as bureau chief for Central America and the Caribbean, West and Central Africa, Japan and the Koreas, and China. He is a member of the board of the Columbia Journalism Review and a professor at the Columbia Journalism School. His website is HowardWFrench.com, his Twitter handle is @hofrench, and his weekly WPR column appears every Wednesday.

If you would like to request a full transcript of the episode, please send an email to podcast@worldpoliticsreview.com.

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Relevant Articles on WPR:
African Urbanization Is a Matter of Global Importance
Haiti’s Crisis Is Familiar. Its History, Less So
Africa’s ‘Big States Crisis’ Has Deep Historical Roots
Africa’s ‘Demographic Dividend’ Won’t Pay Off Without Purpose and Policy

Trend Lines is edited by Peter Dörrie, a freelance journalist and analyst focusing on security and resource politics in Africa. You can follow him on Twitter at @peterdoerrie.

To send feedback or questions, email us at podcast@worldpoliticsreview.com.