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The Black Presence in Pre-20th Century Europe: A Hidden History

In the In  the following account, Professor Allison Blakely of BostonUniversity describes the presence of blacks in Early Modern Europe. Hisarticle reminds us that persons of African ancestry resided acrossEurope. Their numbers ranged from a few hundred scattered acrossGermany, Scandinavia and Russia in the period between the 16th and 18thCenturies to approximately 150,000 on the Iberian peninsula. Hisdiscussion below is excerpted from a larger article written for theAmerican Historical Society in 1999.

There is a risk in asking 20th-century questions of earlier times because todays terms of discourse may not find a meaningful context there. It is likewise problematic to project onto European history social and cultural constructs that have evolved in the United States, and perhaps nowhere else, in quite the same form. Such is the dilemma we face in considering the influence of blacks in European history for a primarily American audience.  

A discussion of the influence of black Africans on Europe and on Europeans is complicated by the absence of a universal definition of black. In general, the designation black in Europe, unlike in the United States, has been reserved for those of dark color, not the broader definition based on known black African ancestry. Consequently, awareness of a black population in Europe has been limited by the fact that when interracial marriage occurred, subsequent light-complexioned generations might never be referred to again as black. Hence the debate over whether Alexandre Dumas père, who had African ancestry through his father and paternal grandmother, was black.  Consistent with the predominant European attitude, he emphatically rejected the notion that he was. Besides, in his France—as in all the other European societies—class was far more important than color, at least until the 20th century. The great Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, who took pride in his African ancestry, shrugged off aspersions cast on that score, but took great offense at those who did not respect the

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