Defining Black European History

June 22 - 23, 2018
Conference at the GHI
Conveners: Jeff Bowersox (University College London), Tiffany N. Florvil (University of New Mexico), Atiba Pertilla (GHI Washington), and Kira Thurman (University of Michigan)

Supported by the German Historical Institute, the University College London Global Engagement Fund, the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, the University of New Mexico History Department, and the Transatlantic Program of the European Recovery Program through the “German History: Intersections” project

It has been over 30 years since Sander Gilman’s On Blackness without Blacks (1982) was published. Since then, scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have worked to show how the European continent has hardly been a space without people of African descent. In fact, African diasporic peoples and their communities have been present for centuries, complicating who constitutes a part of Europe and the Black Atlantic. This scholarship has continued to challenge the myth of European identity as being homogeneously white while also changing discourses and excavating narratives that enrich our understanding of Blackness, racialization, nation, empire, and identity across different spacetimes.

The methodological underpinnings within the field of Black Europe have been largely interdisciplinary and conducted in a variety of fields, including English, Sociology, Cultural Studies, Women's Studies, African Diaspora Studies, and Anthropology. But where do historians fit in to these conversations? In response to this dynamic, a new generation of historians will convene at the German Historical Institute in June to explore what it means to bring the category of Black Europe to the foreground of scholarship on both Europe and the Black Atlantic.

Our conference has several goals in mind: first, we want to interrogate the value of Black Europe as an analytical category across different temporal and geographical borders. In doing so, we aim to bring these diverse scholars in dialogue with one another in order to assess what unifies historical scholarship on Black Europe.  Second, we want to understand the importance of history as a discipline to the field of Black Europe. In particular, we will consider the following questions: what are the disciplinary constraints that we face? What are the values, practices, and approaches that we bring? Where are historians in these scholarly conversations, and how do we re-imagine our approach to Black Europe through a historical lens that does not privilege the modern over the premodern world? Third, we want to discuss how our work can be appealing and important for individuals beyond the Ivory Tower. How can we use our academic work to impact a larger public? How do we continue to challenge historical memories of Europe that allow the public to understand its diversity? What digital tools can we use to reach the public?

Our two-day workshop will include six thematic panels that will illustrate the diversity within the field of Black European history and help us foster these important conversations. The pre-circulated papers cover medieval, early modern, and modern narratives of Blackness, migration, difference, and belonging in well-established areas such as Great Britain and less highlighted ones such as Russia. The workshop will also include a digital session, in which participants will learn tools that will help them disseminate and shape public discourses surrounding Black Europe. It is our hope that the workshop will continue to show that Black people have always been involved in the making and unmaking of European kingdoms and states, and that it will culminate in more collaborative work among scholars in the field.