Africans were the first migrants because they were the first people. Some 60,000 years ago they left their homeland and in a relatively short period of time (by geological and evolutionary standards) moved to nearly every habitable place on the globe. We are their descendants. The Africans never stopped migrating, but they began to do so with particular vigor beginning about 1400 AD. Patrick Manning tells the story of their movements in his remarkable new book The African Diaspora: A History Through Culture (Columbia UP, 2010). The tale Pat tells might well be divided into three phases: before slavery, during slavery, and after slavery. The middle period usually gets the most attention, but happily Pat well covers the “before” and “after” phases as well. This is an excellent corrective to the standard story because it shows us that for most of modern history African migrants were not really victims, but agents. Prior to the emergence of the international slave trade, they travelled and migrated to North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Near East in large numbers. Slavery of course violently brought millions of them to the Americas. But once it was officially ended (slavery continues to exist today…), the Africans in the diaspora set about considering their rightful place in the world. Should they build lives for themselves “abroad”? Or should they return to their African homeland? Should they integrate? Or should they remain apart? These questions–which are asked by every large diaspora community–were hotly debated in the cultural and political efflorescence of the 20th century. To some extent the debate still goes on; and to an even greater extent the African diaspora continues to grow both in numbers and in power. This is an important and neglected topic, and we should all thank professor Manning for shedding light on it.
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