Journalist, professor and author of Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War, Howard W. French, spent ten years researching the book: ‘With Born in Blackness, what I have done is rewrite many of the standard narratives attached to the way the West has told the story of modernity. This was the central challenge in this project for me, to be able to do this in a very rigorous and yet highly readable way.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I am told that I was a very precocious reader. An early memory that gets talked about a lot among family is how my oldest sister took me to the public library in Washington, D.C., where I was born, in order for me to apply for a library card. I don’t know how old I was, only that I was told that I was underage; I think five may have been the cut off. In the end, I received the card because my sister persuaded them how serious a reader I was and that I would make good use of it. Strangely, it is not so much a recollection of specific books that I have in my memories, but rather, growing up in a house full of books, with three older siblings who all loved to read, and parents who were also very much devoted to reading. I suppose this is what normalized the idea of reading as an ordinary, everyday kind of pursuit for me.
What books/texts were foundational to your thinking on blackness and how did these texts influence your latest book, Born in Blackness?
I learned a tremendous amount from the large corpus of work by a husband-and-wife team of scholars of Africa, John K. Thornton and Linda M. Heywood. Most of their work centres on the history of Central Africa, and especially Kongo and Angola, in the late Middle Ages and early modern era. My views about Britain and both slavery and abolition were strongly influenced by my colleague at Columbia University, Christopher Brown. My first inklings about the extraordinary importance of sugar to the emergence of modernity were sparked by the writings of Sidney Mintz, especially Sweetness and Power. I was fortunate to get to know Sidney when I was a reporter covering Haiti in the early 1990s. I was also powerfully influenced by the historian of China, Kenneth Pomeranz, who showed how Western caloric intake, boosted by the consumption of sugar grown by enslaved Africans, powered the rise of Britain and of Europe. There are so many others I could cite. W. E. B. Du Bois, who was writing about Africa in ways that remain powerful and relevant 100 years later, has also always been an inspiration.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
When I think about classics, I don’t get the idea of books that need to be rewritten. I relish them for what they are and don’t much feel the need to amend or improve them. Even their distortions, fallacies and prejudices are useful in the sense that they reflect deeply on the moment in which they were created. With my Born in Blackness, I haven’t attempted to rewrite any single book, never mind a classic. What I have done, though, is rewrite many of the standard narratives attached the way the West has told the story of modernity. This was the central challenge in this project for me, to be able to do this in a very rigorous and yet highly readable way.
It is not so much a recollection of specific books that I have in my memories, but rather, growing up in a house full of books, with three older siblings who all loved to read, and parents who were also very much devoted to reading.
Is Born in Blackness ‘radical’? Have you anticipated any kind of pushback?
Born in Blackness is radical, albeit quietly so. Its arguments build gradually, and I think without any hectoring. I didn’t feel that was really needed. When one is talking about subjects that have been profoundly miscast and misunderstood, by the way, radical is a good thing. It can be astringent for some, but plough on and you’ll find the tonic effect is good for you. In general, I have been pleased with the critical response to the book, including by academic historians. I don’t pretend to have the final word on any of the subjects I take on in this book, which after all covers 600 years of history on four continents. I will be more than satisfied if a decade from now people are still debating some of my points, while others have more or less been embraced in the routine teaching of world history.
What’s one way the pandemic has affected your reading and writing?
The pandemic has made me a much more intense consumer of books. I would not have thought that possible, but with so few possibilities for social life and even being in public during the worst of the pandemic, I invested many of those hours in reading and worked through enormous quantities of books. One new practice, in addition to my regular reading habits, was listening to audio books, which I began to do during this period, and I can’t imagine not continuing to listen to books regularly in the future.
What’s a recent book/text you read and disagreed with?
I lived and worked for a long time in East Asia, and I still read a lot on that region and occasionally write about it, too, including in book form. One recent book about American relations with China, called Strategy of Denial by Elbridge Colby gave me lots to disagree with. I don’t think confrontation between the two countries is inevitable, which Colby seems to suggest.
‘Born in Blackness’ is radical, albeit quietly so. Its arguments build gradually, and I think without any hectoring. I didn’t feel that was really needed.
As a career foreign correspondent and global affairs writer, what has been the most noticeable change you’ve observed in how newsrooms portray Africa/the African diaspora?
In the West, and especially in the United States, the biggest change is that a number of publications are now employing Africans in the role of correspondents. The New York Times, for example, has Africans writing from Nairobi and Johannesburg. That is new and important. More of this sort of change is on the horizon and will be felt more in the next few years. The numbers of young Africans training in journalism schools like mine is also increasing. I expect many more African by-lines.
Born in Blackness argues that Africans were essential to the making of the modern world. What’s one thing you learned while writing it?
I spent ten years researching this book, and I drew on a huge amount of scholarly work and archival material, including accounts by the Portuguese written contemporaneously of their experiences trading for gold or slaves in Africa beginning in the 15th century. I was surprised to learn that the tiny island of São Tomé, a former Portuguese colony off Central Africa, was the place where the slave plantation model and the kind of chattel slavery that would become widespread in the ‘New World’ first took shape. These, I argue, were the most important economic events of the modern age at least until the Industrial Revolution. I also learned that European powers earned far larger profits from exploiting enslaved Africans in the growing of sugar than they made from the conquest of native societies in the ‘New World’, and the exportation of huge amounts of mined silver and gold. A tiny island like Barbados, one-third the surface area of Los Angeles, produced more wealth for England than all of the metals stolen by the Spanish in Latin America.
Were these relationships between Africa and the wider world signs of early globalization or simply international trade?
It is hard to separate trade from globalization, and globalization is itself a very amorphous term. When and where did it begin? It’s almost impossible to say. I certainly feel that Africa has always been part of global history. I open my book with a scene in Mali, for example, where porcelain from Han Dynasty China has been found. This means that however indirectly, West Africa and China have been connected via trade for about 2,000 years.
I was surprised to learn that the tiny island of São Tomé, a former Portuguese colony off Central Africa, was the place where the slave plantation model and the kind of chattel slavery that would become widespread in the ‘New World’ first took shape.
African histories are often equally histories of erasures (archival politics, missing data, ‘memory loss’ etc.). You wrote about encountering several of these erasures in your research—how does Born in Blackness navigate them?
As a writer, I felt that one of my principal tasks was the interrogation of this silence, or erasure. Sometimes this means talking about what is not there in the field or in the documentary record as well as what is physically present, talking about why there are almost no monuments to Africans and their diaspora in the so-called New World, even though it was these people who made the New World viable and prosperous in the first place.
And are there questions you still have post writing Born in Blackness?
My book ends with a question, albeit one that many will miss. In the subtitle appear the words Second World War. I come back to this below, where I say that my next project will explore this era.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I write, editing lightly while I write. I usually, but not systematically, review what I wrote the day before, and edit again lightly before resuming my writing for the new day. And various other stages of editing ensue—after I finish a chapter or a section, and of course once the book is complete.
What was your process for writing Born in Blackness?
Write every day. Aim for 1,000 good words. Don’t worry about falling short on some days, so long as you can keep the average up for the entire week. And finally, I don’t write until the tank, so to speak, is empty on any given day. I like to stop when I still feel certain of what I need to say next, and to pick up from there the next day.
Write every day. Aim for 1,000 good words. Don’t worry about falling short on some days, so long as you can keep the average up for the entire week.
The subject matter in Born in Blackness is also deeply personal to you. In writing the book, did you ever feel ‘too close to the subject’? Can writers ever be too close to the subject (is this ever an advantage)?
I think my personal experience was an advantage, whether this meant having worked as a journalist throughout the Atlantic world that I write about or being the mixed-race descendant of enslaved Africans. I can’t imagine what the liability of this might be.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Two things. Almost all great writing comes from disciplined and ambitious readers. And, good editors are worth their weight in gold.
What’s something simple that still manages to surprise you about writing a book?
The powers of concentration that it requires. This is as intense a load on your system as any physical workout, but don’t skip your exercise. The other thing is the self-isolation that all of this imposes.
What’s more important to you: the story or how it’s written (and why)?
The story is always primary, but how the story is to be written is nearly as important. A great argument that is impenetrable, scattered or boring in presentation, is an argument that few will bother reading.
Almost all great writing comes from disciplined and ambitious readers. And, good editors are worth their weight in gold.
What’s something you wish you had discovered earlier in your career?
I wish I had discovered the time, discipline and courage to write books at a younger age. There are so many books that I want to write now, and surely not enough time in years ahead of me in order to do so.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I don’t write about this myself, but I am deeply interested in the question of the origins of human society and of political order. One of my favourite authors on this topic is James C. Scott, a scholar at Yale whose every book is fascinating. One of them is called The Art of Not Being Governed. Francis Fukuyama’s book, The Origins of Political Order is fascinating on the topic. And a new and utterly compelling new book on this subject is The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wenrow.
What should we expect you to write about next?
I’m currently researching the independence era that followed the Second World War.
Question from Abimbola Alaba: What book have you refused to read, and why?
Either passively or actively, one inevitably ends up refusing to read the vast majority of books. I wouldn’t like to single one out⎈
We want to hear what you think about this interview. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected]