The Absence of African Europeans In Historical Fiction

Guest post by Tonya Briggs

My grandmother instilled a love of reading in her children and many of her grandchildren. In fact, two of us are librarians. Growing up, I had access to the personal libraries of my grandmother, aunt, uncle and mother.

In my aunt’s personal library, there were books with characters created by Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor and James Baldwin who reminded me of relatives, friends or neighbors. My mother’s library included a lot of historical fiction. My mother and I continue to share an interest in reading about Elizabethan and Victorian history.

Reading my way through family libraries helped me realize how often Black people’s presence has been overlooked, especially the presence of Blacks who were not enslaved in American and European history. I knew people who look like me had to have been present in some way. I began to search for them and I found some of them thanks to some of the following books.

In November 2001 the Washington Post published an article about a portrait that at the time was thought to be of Guilia de’ Medici. The portrait was newsworthy because Guilia was of African descent and a Medici. Gabrielle Langdon’s Medici Women: Portraits of Power, Love, and Betrayal in the Court of Duke Cosimo I includes a chapter about the symbolism in the portrait and the most biographical information I could find about Guilia d’ Alessandro de’ Medici. Recently, the woman in the Allori portrait Langdon wrote about is no longer thought to be Guilia. But in a Pontormo Portrait of Maria Salviati and a child, Guilia has been identified as the child.

Guilia de’ Medici was the illegitimate daughter of the first Duke of Florence, Alessandro de’ Medici. The biracial son of an African mother and Lorenzo II de’ Medici, Catherine Fletcher’s The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de’ Medici is not as illuminating as I hoped it would be. After being murdered in 1537, a lot documentation about him has been erased from history by contemporary enemies and racism against Africans initiated in the 16th century to justify colonialism.

Black Africans in Renaissance Europe edited by Thomas F. Earle and Kate J. P. Lowe expanded my knowledge about noble, free and enslaved Africans in Portugal, Spain, Italy and England. Published in  2005, this book includes the first chapter length biography of Alessandro de’ Medici I read.

I was extremely pleased to read chapters about historical Black people in Miranda Kaufmann’s Black Tudors: The Untold Story. As Fletcher experienced when writing The Black Prince of Florence, Kaufmann had limited documentation for the biographies in her book. Renaissance art featuring Blacks has often led me to research the subject of the portrait as it did with Guilia de’ Medici. I was pleased that an image of trumpeter, John Blanke, featured in the Westminster Tournament Roll was included in Kaufmann’s book with her research about him. 

Olivette Otele’s African Europeans: An Untold History does a great job of synthesizing the history of African and European relationships beginning in the classical period, the development of racism, the effects of colonialism and current struggles in an extremely readable history. Otele writes about Alessandro de’ Medici and Juan Latino in her chapter about the Renaissance. Her inclusion of the racial constructs of the historical period illuminates her research in an innovative way. In addition, all the books mentioned above except Langdon’s are included in Otele’s bibliography.

I have always enjoyed learning through reading. My hope is to synthesize what I have learned over the years about Blacks in the Renaissance into engaging historical fiction for my mother, aunt and others like us. In essence, I am writing what I enjoy reading with characters I can relate to.

Maybe one day, a reader of one of my novels will experience the same feeling of being seen that I did when I first read the books of Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor and James Baldwin.

Published by Robin Henry

Independent Scholar and Book Coach specializing in Historical Fiction and Literary Fan Fiction.

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