In This Review

African Europeans: An Untold History
African Europeans: An Untold History
By Olivette Otele
Basic Books, 2021, 304 pp.

In a sweeping history extending from the classical world to the twentieth century, Otele masterfully analyzes the changing relationship between Africa and Europe through the lives of individual Africans who in some manner dealt with Europeans. She shows that notions of race and racial difference were relatively fluid until the seventeenth century. In the Mediterranean world, in particular, religious difference was often more of a dividing line than skin color, and Africans rose to prominent positions in Europe. Otele describes the careers of men such as Lucius Septimius Severus, a second-century Roman emperor from Libya, and Alessandro de’ Medici, probably the son of an African servant in the powerful Medici household in Florence, who became the duke of that Italian city in 1531. Otele argues convincingly that the hardening of racist European views about Africans was the inevitable result of the Atlantic slave trade and the subsequent colonial occupation of the continent. But even in this more recent hate-filled period, Otele finds examples of Africans or people of African descent who achieved prominence in Europe against the odds.