Review of African Europeans: An Untold History by Olivette Otélé
African Europeans: An Untold History
by Olivette Otélé
As the description of this book suggests, many of us have an inaccurate understanding of the history of Black people’s presence in Europe. So I wanted to correct my understanding. It’s important for us to learn the history of the slave trade, of course. But if we reduce Black histories merely to slavery, we are engaging in yet another type of colonial violence. Olivette Otélé aims to highlight the presence of African Europeans throughout history. She complicates and problematizes both our understanding of the slave trade as well as our conceptions about what it meant to be a “free” Black person in Europe during various centuries. African Europeans is informative and interesting, although it is also highly academic and difficult to read. Thanks to Perseus Books and NetGalley for the e-ARC!
I’m not going to attempt to summarize this book. All I will say is that I learned a lot from it. Some of the highlights include the first Medici Duke of Florence, Alessandro, and how his skin colour affected his rule. Another highlight would be the ways that various European countries attempted to restrict or require extensive documentation from people of colour. Throughout this book, Otélé demonstrates how European countries, such as France, the Netherlands, and Sweden, have yet to really reckon with their role in the slave trade. Much is made of celebrating when these countries abolished slavery. Little discussion happens around the experiences of Black people in these countries around or even after that time.
I wish I could say I enjoyed the book, but that would be a stretch. There are academic books, and then there are academic books, and then there are academic books. Like, African Europeans is full of research and references to other scholars. If that’s what you’re looking for—if you are studying this subject, then you will find this book useful. Nor do I want to suggest that every book should be comprehensible to a lay reader. But as someone who has a couple of university degrees and has been around the academic block a couple of times, I still found large parts of this book a slog to read. It largely comes down to how Otélé has organized the information. The transitions are often abrupt, and at times I found it difficult to understand the overall topic of each chapter.
So when I say that I learned a lot from this book, I also want to say that I think I could have learned more if the writing style had worked better for me. I’m not sure how much I will retain that I learned. Therefore, unfortunately, as much as I would love to recommend this book widely to my friends, I’m not sure I can do that. African Europeans is informative but no compelling, well-researched but not well-organized, important but perhaps in need of more work to make its information accessible to those of us who most need to read it.