Teaching about Black Europe in AP European History

Linda Burns's picture

I teach AP European History at a school where our student population is 20% black and 10% biracial. I have been teaching Euro for two years and I'm trying to find ways to incorporate history that will be more meaningful for my black and biracial students in a European history course. I use McKay and have incorporated their readings on Rebecca Protten and Olaudah Equiano and I have had a discussion on the Windrush generation in England. I am wondering how any of you address the history of nonwhites in Europe beyond the slave trade in your survey courses. I would especially appreciate any suggestions of questions that I could use to center a class discussion and/or engaging readings at the undergraduate level.

Thank you.
Linda Burns
Oak Park River Forest High School

One idea that comes to mind - have them read the early 20th century novella, Ourika, to begin a discussion on ideas of beauty, gender, and marriage after the French Revolution.

You might try Michael Gomez's _Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora_ (Cambridge, 2004), as a good introductory-level text.

Hi Linda,

This is a really great question. I like teaching this topic with the portrait of Giulia de' Medici, who was the daughter of Duke Alessandro de' Medici, who was the son of a Medici cardinal and an enslaved African woman. (This is all from the Walters' website):
https://art.thewalters.org/detail/26104/portrait-of-maria-salviati-de-me.... The portrait of Giulia de' Medici works well because it centers what your students will see as a 'biracial' kid at the heart of Renaissance Florence. Giulia was an aristocrat and was treated like one (you don't get your portrait painted in Renaissance Florence otherwise!). I find it can be helpful to contrast the portrait of Giulia with the marginalisation of African subjects in the paintings of the 18th century, where people of African descent are often pictured as enslaved, often with monochrome skin and are located on the edges of the painting, like this portrait of Elihu Yale https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1665331. Lastly, I find that students really connect with the work of contemporary artists like Titus Kaphar who are addressing (and redressing) questions about the marginalisation of black subjects in European art. This TED talk has worked well in my classes in the past: https://www.ted.com/talks/titus_kaphar_can_art_amend_history?language=en.

I also like teaching with this article about Renaissance Venice:
Lowe, Kate. 2013. “Visible Lives: Black Gondoliers and Other Black Africans in Renaissance Venice.” Renaissance Quarterly 66 (2): 412–52.

For the 20th century, Tyler Stovall's Paris Noir, African Americans in the City of Light, is very readable.

Please feel free to email me if you would like more/different suggestions.

Best, Annie

Dr. Anne Ruderman
Assistant Professor
Department of Economic History
London School of Economics

Hi Linda,

Seeing some of the suggestions made by Dr. Ruderman, made me think of two books that might prove helpful:

Kate Lowe along with T.F. Earle have an edited volume, Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. There are a variety of essays that cover Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Britain (I'm sure there are more that just escape me). There is one essay, that talks about Alessandro de Medici, the "black Medici." There's another that discusses Isabella d'Este and her desire to acquire a black female child, essentially as an accessory.

In keeping with "accessories" you might also want to look at Catherine Molineaux, Faces of Perfect Ebony: Encountering Atlantic Slavery in Imperial Britain, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.

I hope this helps.

M. Stephanie Chancy
Ph.D. Candidate, History
Lecturer, Art History
Florida International University

Dear Linda, 

Thanks for writing in! In my Western Civ survey courses, I have had them read Mary Seacole's Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. Secole was a British-Jamaican nurse who was a contemporary of Florence Nightingale. Nightingale was not a fan of Seacole. Her autobiography is accessible. I also assign short prose from Black German author May Ayim. In my other upper division classes, I have had them read Ika Hügel-Marshall's translated memoir Invisible Woman, which documents her experiences as a Black German women in postwar West Germany. It is a short and easy read, though also hard in terms of the content. I have also assigned Black German writer Olumide Popoola's play Also by Mail, which also pushes students to recognize the experiences of Black Germans in a contemporary European context. I have also had them read excepts from British and Pakistani writer Hanif Kureishi's The Rainbow Sign and all of his play My Beautiful Laundrette as well as excerpts from from the critical 1985 volume, Heart of the Race, which documents the experiences of Black British women. They also read fiction like Zadie Smith's White Teeth or Andrea Levy's Small Island.

I also assign other shorter works, including poetry, music (YouTube), and film. If you need more advice, please do not hesitate to contact me at Tiffany Florvil: tflorvil@unm.edu.   


Tiffany Florvil

Not a history book, but a novel that draws on Europe's diverse racial history (and is very playful and satirical): Bernardine Evaristo's Soul Tourists.

Hi Linda,

This is a great question, and there is a growing body of material out there to choose from.

If you're interested in materials that have an American connection, you might use African-American travel reports, like Du Bois's autobiography talking about his time spent in Germany. Josephine Baker is also a great topic because her work was so provocative and has been interpreted in many different ways. I find Eileen Julien's chapter in _Black Europe and the African Diaspora_ to be good for raising questions and suggesting materials to engage with. The experiences of African-American GIs in West Germany are also a fascinating example for talking about the post-1945 order in Europe: Höhn and Klimke's_Breath of Freedom_ would help you with that for background, and William Gardner Smith's novel _Last of the Conquerors_ is an absolutely brilliant portrayal.

Of course, teaching Black European history also means getting away from American models. You could do a lesson on Negritude's analysis of the challenges of being black in France and dealing with empire, using the Nardal sisters, Cesaire, and Senghor, for example, with Frantz Fanon as a critique of their approach.

In addition to the materials mentioned above, you might find teaching about eras before the transatlantic slave trade--this always unsettles my students in a good way. You might use the black St. Maurice or the Black Magus (and other black saintly figures) as a way to raise questions about the meanings of race in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (e.g. https://blackcentraleurope.com/sources/1000-1500/st-maurice-in-magdeburg...), or discussions of black Europeans in courtly life in the early modern period (https://blackcentraleurope.com/sources/1750-1850/schmitz-abbess-franzisk...). You might also use more contemporary videos to talk about experiences of blackness in the present and how they relate to specifically European legacies. A few examples of series include Cecile Emeke's Strolling (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWlPztC6XDI) and Schwarz-rot-gold (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCE_5YwG9sXekBbHqCCuR7ZQ with English subtitles)

If you're interested in Germany specifically, you can find lots of materials at blackcentraleurope.com (including a couple of sample lesson plans), and if there is something there that sparks your interest or that you'd like to know more about, feel free to email me, and I'll be happy to chat and help put together a lesson plan. We would really like the materials here to be useful to teachers.

You might also be interested in joining the Facebook group Black European Studies (https://www.facebook.com/groups/606353082847508/) where you can also get lots of ideas and have more discussions.


Dr. Jeff Bowersox
Lecturer in German History
University College London

Hi Eileen,

I like Annie's suggestion of providing students with an image that can serve to focus their attention on the presence of people of color in early modern Europe, and Pontormo's portrait of Giulia de' Medici seems like a really productive way of putting your own students' lived experience of racial identity today in dialogue with the past, when terms and vocabulary used today were not yet codified. The catalogue for the Walters' show 'Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe' could be useful for introducing the complexity and flexibility of identity and the language used to describe it. That catalogue also has an essay by Natalie Zemon Davis on Leo Africanus (c. 1486-1554) who was born in Granada, studied in Morocco, crossed the Sahara (stopping in Timbuktu and Gao along the way) to Cairo, and traveled to Istanbul before his capture by pirates who brought him to the court of Pope Leo X in Rome, where he learned Italian and Latin and wrote a widely read book about Africa.

You might also think about introducing students to the significant impact of Africa on Europe through the circulation of material goods. The current exhibition at Northwestern University's Block Museum, 'Caravans of Gold, Fragments of Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa,' has a fabulous catalogue addressing the central role of the African continent in shaping the medieval world. (Also, Annie's work on glass beads is super interesting and pertinent!)

Best wishes,
Ingrid Greenfield

Postdoctoral Fellow and Assistant to the Director for Academic Programs
I Tatti, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies