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Telling modern world history with Africa at the center

Howard French Collage
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Courtesy of Town Hall Seattle and Elliot Bay Book Company

'This, I argue, is the beginning of the Age of Exploration, the Age of Discovery, and thereby, the start of the modern world.’

A new book by journalist and professor Howard French places Africa as the starting point of modern world history. In Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War, French argues that the age of discovery and the beginning of European colonialism was triggered not by Europe’s desire to trade with Asia, but instead Portugal’s interest in West African gold.

There are a variety of traditional starting points for modern world history- that era after the Middle Ages that brought the enlightenment, democracy, and industrialization- but most prioritize European history. French reframes modern world history by telling the story of the influence African empires had on international politics, the economic powerhouse of the Caribbean, and the Haitian revolution’s early spark for democracy. The book highlights Africa and Africans’ centrality and impact on the world stage.

Howard French is a professor of journalism at Columbia University. Before entering journalism, he worked as a translator in the Ivory Coast in the early 1980s. He then joined the New York Times, where he was a bureau chief from 1990 to 2008 in the Caribbean and Central America, West and Central Africa, Tokyo, and Shanghai. His previous book, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power, was published in 2017. It tracks the lasting impacts of Chinese history.

French is joined in conversation by Drego Little. Little has worked as an educator for over a decade. He teaches writing and literature at Rainier Scholars, a Seattle-based program serving students of color.

This talk was presented on February 7, 2022, by Town Hall Seattle.

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