Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe
January 22, 2018 1:54 PM   Subscribe

Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe [pdf] is a free book written to accompany a 2012 art exhibition of the same name at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The exhibit and book focus on "Africans living in or visiting Europe in what has been called the long sixteenth century, from the 1480s to around 1610. The exhibition and essays seek to draw out not only their physical presence but their identity and participation in society, as well as the challenges, prejudices, and the opportunities they encountered."
posted by jedicus (8 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Othello springs to mind...
posted by jim in austin at 2:01 PM on January 22, 2018

See also: V&A's Africans in Art and People of Color in European Art
posted by Miko at 2:14 PM on January 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

Othello springs to mind...

There were plenty of real Black people in Shakespeare's London.
posted by sukeban at 3:04 PM on January 22, 2018 [5 favorites]

Southern California MeFites: The painting from the Prado that appears in the exhibition review linked above is currently on view at the Getty as part of Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas. The last day of the exhibition is this Sunday, January 28 - it is definitely worth a visit, if you can make it!
posted by Anita Bath at 3:28 PM on January 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Africans and people of African descent in early modern Europe has been a hot topic in the past 10-15 years. As current research is beginning to show, there were lots of Black people throughout 15th-17th century Europe, especially in the Mediterranean—but not exclusively so. While most found themselves restricted to the lower rungs of society, some were able to climb the ladder to positions of relative power and influence. Perhaps the most famous in the Spanish context is the great Latin poet Juan Latino (1518-c.1596), who occupied the chair in Grammar and Latin Language at the University of Granada for some 20 years. [The link is to Wikipedia—the page is a terrible translation from the Spanish, and both the English and the Spanish are badly written and deploy some highly problematic terminology. Hopefully, I can find a minute to edit it...]
posted by pleasant_confusion at 3:58 PM on January 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

Africans and people of African descent in early modern Europe has been a hot topic in the past 10-15 years.

It certainly is. Consider the Medieval People of Color thread from only four years ago, which had a lot of white people getting very heated or offended over that Tumblr.

More recently, I've been following scholars on Twitter who've been dealing with a lot of pushback from tenured scholars who not only minimize the presence of PoC in early modern Europe, but actively support the co-opting of Medieval and Renaissance studies by the neo-Nazi.
posted by happyroach at 9:14 PM on January 22, 2018 [8 favorites]

Perhaps this is the bias of my own interests, but it does seem like there is an erasure of Africans as Europe progresses from the early modern era onto a fully colonial mindset. It's as though the presence of black people as active participants in not European society needs to be erased by later scholars, in order to present a fully white narrative of colonialism.

Yet, the active role of Africans and African-descended people is fully documented not only works like those linked in the post, but in other texts like Restall's article on Black Conquistadors, which is just the most accessible and focused work regarding the participation of Africans in the colonization of the Americas (where, for a time, Africans outnumbered Europeans as the most populous non-indigenous group).

Black people were, from the very beginning active participants in the colonial project, because they were already active participants in European life. As the link says though, "We begin with slaves," as that was how the majority of Europeans in the Renaissance and beyond would interact with Africans. Portuguese interaction with the indigenous slave systems of West and Central Africa would begin in the 1400s. It should be noted though, this was not the strict racial caste system that Europeans would later develop, but rather a system of human ownership that was both distinctly African but also in line with what Europeans would be familiar with in regards to Classical and later "barbarian" systems of slavery. Conquered peoples would find their freedom forfeit, but would not find themselves dehumanized in the same way the Atlantic Slave Trade would do. Thornton's Africa and the Making of Atlantic World is a good resource for anyone who wants to delve into the early interaction of Europeans and Africans, which was essentially a trade between equals.

Over in the Americas is where we get our more explicit dehumanization. Though we have numerous Africans, both named and unnamed, who participated in colonial conquests, we still see a denigration of these African efforts. Martinez, in her book Geneological Fiction, makes the point that, since most Iberians interacted with Africans as slaves, the taint of slavery was applied to all Africans, whether they could cite their free service with Cortes or not. The natives, by contrast, were seen as untainted and would find themselves ranked above black peoples in the later casta system.

All of this is to say that white supremacy needs to eliminate African-ancestry people from history, because otherwise the narrative of white people dominating the globe starts to get a bit messy (and we all know that white supremacists cannot bear even one drop of messiness). So I don't think it is a mistake that the interactions between Europe and Africa have been "conveniently" forgotten, when as late as the 1960s we have Oxford dons like Hugh-Trevor Roper saying that Africa has no history outside of white domination, with naught but "barbarism" beforehand. The erasure of Africans, and their agency, in the early modern era is a requirement, just as the passivity of the American natives is requisite to explain the dominance of Europeans. Missing from those narratives are the facts on the ground about resistance, manipulation, and, yes, collaboration, which enabled colonialism.

A history of Europe which incorporated the actions Africans would have to contend with not only the backwater position of Europe at the time, but also that they met Africans as equals, which does not gel with later centuries' pseudo-scientific work to prove the superiority of the "white" man. Instead, we get a history where Africa and Europe existed a world apart, until the colonialism of the 18th century and beyond, when Europeans flush with the wealth of the Americas were finally able to exert direct influence on African nations. The intervening centuries somehow always get forgotten.
posted by Panjandrum at 11:57 PM on January 22, 2018 [11 favorites]

The Public Medievalist also has a series of articles about Race, Racism and the Middle Ages that has just been completed. The wrap-up post summarizes the series, if you're in a hurry.
posted by sukeban at 2:49 AM on January 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

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