The Benefit of Erasing Black People from European History

Over the past two years I have heard more than ever that “immigration to Europe is new.” What people are actually saying is that immigration of non-White Christian Europeans is new. However, neither of those statements are true. Europe, as a continent, as always been multicultural and has always had visitors (or “immigrants”) from non-European countries. Europeans went to Asia, Africa, and the Americas, why should we believe that the reverse did not happen? What is the benefit for Europe ignoring the history of Blacks, and other non-Whites more generally, coming to Europe before the 20th century? It justifies the lack of adequate language, discourse, policies, and inclusion around non-White European exclusion and inclusion. If this type of immigration is new, then we are more sympathetic to the shortcomings of European multiculturalism (or whatever you want to call it). The erasure of the history of Blacks and other non-White communities being in Europe during the Medieval period and otherwise validates the narrative of Europe as a White Christian continent that made sure slavery and colonialism never penetrated its soil. Well I don’t buy it, and you shouldn’t either. No matter how big the oceans and seas are you cannot keep history from showing its true colors, lapping at the European shores, and I can assure you… those colors are not just White.

I am currently writing this from Madrid, Spain where I’ve been living for the last few months. Al-Andalus, also known as Muslim Spain or—more geographically accurate—Islamic Iberia, was a territory that included Spain and some parts of Southern France and Portugal at its height. Beginning in the early 8th century until about the 13th century Spain was culturally and territorially Islamic. It is known that the Islamic empire included Black Africans, and not only as slaves. Thus, one can assume that during this period of about 700 years, give or take, there were some Black people in Spain and other parts of Europe. While there is evidence that Black Africans came to Europe even earlier than the 8th century, most notably Nubian royalty in ancient Greece, if we’re being modest we can start with Islamic Iberia. Over the past two decades especially, but beginning as early as the 1970s, there have been many scholars uncovering narratives and histories of Black Africans in Europe before the 20th century. The site Public Medievalist currently has a series entitled: “Race, Racism, and The Middle Ages,” which talks about the presence of Blacks in Medieval Europe.

In Black Europe and the African Diaspora (edited by Darlene Clark Kine, Tricia Danielle Keaton, and Stephen Small), there is a chapter by Dienke Hondius about the presence of Blacks in the Netherlands in the late 16th century. Before she goes into the deals of this group of Blacks in the Netherlands in 1596, she says something I rather like about Europeans surprise in encountering Blacks at multiple points in history:

So there is now a four-centuries old European history of the repetition of surprise (Hondius, 2009).

Hondius is referring to the reality that at every point in history when Europeans have encountered Blacks they are surprised. Thus, now with the changing demographics in Europe, seeing more Black Europeans and Blacks in Europe, the surprise associated with this is not new… in fact it is very old—more than four centuries old at that. Hondius and many other scholars have mentioned that since European history is largely written for and by the direction of White Supremacy it will obviously leave out, forget, disregard, or ignore other histories that do not maintain status quo and exclusionary nationalist politics. Especially in countries which are not associated with diversity at all, like the Scandinavian countries, these histories are far and few between—if known at all. Many people have no idea about Hans Jonathan, a free Black man who lived and raised a family in Iceland (of all places) in the 19th century or Caroline Bressey’s work on Black women (and now men) in Victorian-era London or Angelo Soliman, a Black man who ascended to the heights of Viennese society in the 18th century. Blacks and Africans of all shades have been in Europe for centuries, as such any discussion of them in Europe now needs to be nuanced and more accurate.

The idea that Blacks historically have only been in the Americas and Africa diminishes the multivaried, transnational geographies that Blacks have always had (even before colonialism). Whether or not it is common knowledge, whether or not it is surprising, whether or not it is accepted—Black people have been and are everywhere. The attempted erasure or limitations of our pre-modern and modern geographies in Europe does not unwrite or illegitimate our place in contemporary Europe or anywhere else in the world. If we continually succumbed to the misrepresentations of history than nothing in society would progress and scholarship would not be necessary. Nowadays it is easier than ever to unearth some of these histories which have been buried deep in European exceptionalism and political rhetoric. The fact that race is not even acknowledged in discrimination clauses in the European Union shows how deeply engrained these myths are. I hope the resurfacing of these Black historical geographies in Europe can be an invitation for European cities and nations to rethink the way they talk about and understand immigration, racism, and multiculturalism today. In the meantime we (Blacks and Africans) will be here, like we have been… for centuries.

Some Scholars on the African Presence in Europe before the 20th century: