In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African Americans in Europe

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • African American Arts and Literature in Europe
  • African American Autobiography and Biography in Europe
  • African American Intellectuals in Europe
  • African American Music in Europe
  • African American Politics in Europe

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African American Studies African Americans in Europe
by
Corey D. B. Walker
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0125

Introduction

African Americans have an extensive history and continuing presence in Europe. This reflects the artistic, cultural, and intellectual exchanges between the peoples of Europe and the peoples of Africa since antiquity. With the advent of the transatlantic slave trade and founding of the United States, these exchanges with Europe took on a distinct character as African Americans negotiated the racial and imperial complexities of the United States and modern Europe. Over the span of close to two and a half centuries, African Americans engaged Europe culturally, intellectually, and politically in advancing multiple projects for cultural flourishing, political advancement, and establishing new modes of planetary possibility. African Americans saw Europe as both refuge from the vicissitudes of the racialist and racist protocols of the United States and a haven for the exploration of the full depth and possibility of modern humanity. In Europe, African Americans encountered Africans from the continent and from across the African diaspora and forged new cultural, political, and intellectual links that gave rise to new movements and fresh expressions of human possibility and solidarity. African Americans also forged alliances with Europeans in giving rise to a distinctive African American–inflected “Afro-pean” culture. Europe’s response to African American people, culture, and ideas contained a mix of admiration, appreciation, and respect tinged by racial essentialism, racial exoticism, and racial supremacy. African American responses to European people, culture, and ideas ranged from acceptance of dominant European frameworks and categories to position African Americans as human, modern, and civilized to creative creolization of Europe in forging fresh perspectives of African American culture, identity, and history. For African Americans, Europe was not only a geographic place across the Atlantic; it also served as a powerful symbol of a space where the play of ideas and identities offered possibilities not available within the cultural, geopolitical, and intellectual confines of the United States. African Americans used Europe to define and redefine themselves as well as to fashion new dreams and myths of being and belonging in the world. In other words, the Old World of Europe served as a new world of possibility for African Americans who sought to navigate its refined cultures and stately traditions in forging new paths for African American art, culture, and expression. The history and continuing presence of African Americans in Europe represents a significant element in the ongoing exchanges between the diverse peoples and cultures of Africa and Europe for millennia.

General Overview

Scholarship on African Americans in Europe generally highlights the cultural and political dimensions of African American encounters with the continent (Raphael-Hernandez 2003). Scholars are drawn to significant figures and debates in the modern world, such as abolition and anti-racism as well as exemplary artists, scholars, and activists who have sought refuge in Europe or spent significant time on the continent. General themes in the scholarship on African Americans in Europe include African American alliances with European peoples and cultures (Archer-Shaw 2000, Berliner 2002, Dietrich and Heinrichs 2011, Greene and Ortlepp 2011), Europe as refuge for African Americans, African American artistic and intellectual freedom in Europe (Stovall 1996), African American identity, and African American politics in times of peace and times of war. Blakely 1986 and Carew 2010 provide a keen interrogation of the understudied connections of African Americans and Russia and the Soviet Union. In many ways, Europe serves both as a setting and as an actor in African American encounters with the continent. Europe is neither a neutral space nor a benign actor in these encounters, as witnessed by a range of individuals from Sally Hemmings to Ira Aldridge to W. E. B. Du Bois to Angela Davis. More recently, Europe, in general, and Paris, in particular, has served as a locale for contemporary writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Thomas Chatterton Williams to rehearse some of the historically resonant themes and lines of argument in the African American encounter with Europe from the space of the twenty-first century.

  • Archer-Shaw, Petrine. Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

    A critical examination of how French avant-garde artists and writers adopted, adapted, and appropriated African and African American art, culture, and aesthetic styles in postwar Paris. The book explores the complexities and contradictions surrounding the cultural and aesthetic translation of Black culture in the period and the legacy of African and African American artistic forms on European modernism and modernist ideas.

  • Berliner, Brett. Ambivalent Desire: The Exotic Black Other in Jazz Age Paris. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002.

    Taking up the theme of ambivalence, this book explores how postwar Parisian culture competed and contrasted with Black culture in establishing the proper boundaries of French identity. A place of relative racial toleration in the postwar years, Paris was also a space where the play of racial difference was bound up with representations of Blackness tethered to the ideas and ideals of the exotic Other.

  • Blakely, Allison. Russia and the Negro: Blacks in Russian History and Thought. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1986.

    A landmark text providing an overview of the complex history of Africans and African Americans in Russia. From imperial Russia to the Soviet Union, the book offers a unique perspective of the African and African American presence in Russia as evidenced by the military exploits of Abram Hannibal to the multiple engagements of the scholar W. E. B. Du Bois, actor and activist Paul Robeson, and writer Richard Wright.

  • Carew, Joy Gleason. Black, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010.

    An in-depth examination of the African American encounter with the Soviet Union in the twentieth century. The book covers such towering figures as W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Louise Thompson Patterson as well as the experiences of African American travelers and expatriates in recovering how African American thought and politics were shaped and informed by experiences with the Soviet Union.

  • Dietrich, Maria I., and Jürgen Heinrichs, eds. From Black to Schwarz: Cultural Crossovers between African America and Germany. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011.

    From music to the visual arts, there is a long and extensive history of cultural exchanges between African Americans and Germans. Moving from the eighteenth century to the contemporary moment, this collection of essays offers readers a textured analysis of the creative collaborations and tensions that mark these cultural translations and transformations.

  • Greene, Larry A., and Anke Ortlepp, eds. Germans and African Americans: Two Centuries of Exchange. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011.

    Often overlooked and under-remarked is Germany’s extensive history and engagement with the people, cultures, ideas, and practices of continental and diasporic Africans. This collection of essays brings together an interdisciplinary group of scholars and writers to examine the rich interactions between Germans and African Americans in a number of settings. The collection provides readers with unique perspectives on the sophisticated ways in which Germans and African Americans have negotiated the complexities of culture in their extensive exchanges.

  • Raphael-Hernandez, Heike, ed. Blackening Europe: The African American Presence. New York: Routledge, 2003.

    A broad and wide-ranging collection of essays examining the complexities and nuances of African American influences on European life and culture, from identity to literature to philosophy to the politics of memory and beyond. The collection includes an elegant and highly instructive foreword by Paul Gilroy.

  • Stovall, Tyler. Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

    The definitive scholarly text on the lives, ideas, and experiences of African Americans in Paris from the eve of World War I to the contemporary era. Provides a detailed portrait of such luminaries as Josephine Baker along with a history of African American cultural expressions, as well as a critical geography of “Black Paris.”

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