May 14, 2023, 2:56am EDT

How Africa’s history shaped the modern world

Dutch ambassadors at the court of Garcia II, king of Kongo, 1668/Wikimedia Commons

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The Facts

Howard W. French, is an award-winning journalist, author and professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. His latest book is “Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War.” He is currently finishing a book on Black internationalism during the independence era in Africa.

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💡 Which character in Born in Blackness best sums up how little is acknowledged today about Africa’s role in shaping our modern world?

I would have to say Mansa Musa, the early 15th century rule of the Mali Empire whose pilgrimage to Mecca, during which he stopped over in Cairo I argue is really the starting gun that sets of the race to modernity. Mansa Musa distributed 18 tons of gold in acts of patronage, hoping to put Mali on the map as a new global Muslim power to be reckoned with. Things didn’t exactly work out that way, but his extraordinary largesse provoked a historic collapse in the price of gold that would soon light a fire in the imagination of the Portuguese, and fuel their ambitions to discover the gold’s African source and initiate trade and diplomatic contacts with the continent.

💡 What’s one story you covered as a young journalist in Africa in the 1980s, that you believe we’re still seeing its impact playing out today? I lived in Côte d’Ivoire for many years and experienced a good portion of Houphouët-Boigny’s rule. During this time, I also traveled very often to Ghana, and I have always been fascinated by the different paths these two countries took after independence. This actually relates quite deeply to the book I am trying to complete now, which is about the political emancipation of Africans bunched toward the middle of the last century. I think African independence was one of the most important events anywhere in the last century, and the advent of political freedom in Africa is a lot more closely related to the conquest of citizens’ rights in the same era by African Americans than most people realize.

Howard W. French

💡 What has been the steepest part of the learning curve in writing historical narrative versus your journalistic news training? Over the course of my book writing career I’ve been moving steadily in the direction of history and therefore away from what one might think of as journalism. China’s Second Continent placed recent Chinese migration to the continent in a historical framework, but was mostly a reported book, filled with travel and my encounters with both Chinese and Africans of all walks of life in 15 countries. The book that followed: Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power was sprinkled in almost every chapter with travel and reportage, but here, the ratios flipped and outright history writing outweighed journalism. Born in Blackness takes me further in that direction. There is a bit of travel and reportage, in places like São Tomé and Barbados, Ghana and Brazil, for example, but it is a really overwhelming work of history, and I wrote it with an explicit goal of rigor, as an academic might understand that term, but also with the goal of being accessible throughout to a well-read general audience.


💡 How has the African American understanding of their own African heritage evolved in your lifetime?

I think that, by and large, Africans and African Americans know each other very poorly and this comes at great cost to both of these groups. Each has the potential to be one of the other’s greatest resources in so many respects, but after a period of very hopeful connections forged mostly in the 1950s and ‘60s, much of the sense of mutual identification and common cause has dissipated. This theme will also feature in my next book.

💡 What is one area of Africa coverage you encourage your students to pursue to drive better coverage of the continent by global media?

I tell my students to push African voices to the fore when they write about the continent. Break out of the stale and long-practiced mold of depending on the views of Western (or other non-African) experts for everything.

💡 What African city’s cuisine do you miss most often?

I find cuisine chauvinism a little tiresome, but pound for pound, I find the cuisine of Abidjan to be pretty impressive. Nigeria, meanwhile, is like China or India because of its vastness and regional variety.