An author’s telling of Africa’s unknown history


Jess Staley, Staff Writer

We all go through events that lead us to become who we are. Some of these journeys lead us to fulfill our passions for something that we would have never expected. For this speaker, that is his exact journey.

On Sunday, October 10, Howard W. French was interviewed by Dr. Todd Allen as part of the Harrisburg Book Festival, hosted by the Midtown Scholar Bookstore. During the interview, French spoke about his book, “Born in Blackness” for the first time to a live audience via Zoom .

French is an author of five books and a two-time Pulitzer nominee. He is a journalism professor at Columbia University and a former New York Times bureau chief in the Caribbean, Central America, West and Central Africa, and Shanghai. 

With his interest in history came an expansive amount of reading. He found that he had to dig deep for information that has been swept under the rug for so many years. Topics like the expansion of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase, causing the cotton industry to boom, thus fueling the start of slavery, is an example of this. 

“There are facts that are not emphasized either in mainstream teaching of history, nor in historical scholarship.” French said. 

When asked about the title of the book, French explained there are many ways it can be interpreted. One being explicitly said that the modern world was “born into blackness.” One of the reasons being Europe and their exploitation of Africa. In a more inexplicit way, that being born in blackness is interpreted as being born into something awful.

“We associate black with bad things. Black is negative. Not our existence as Black people, but the color black.” said French.

After the interviewer finished asking his questions for French, he went on to answer questions from the audience.

“What was the most surprising piece of information you found during your research?” asked one attendee.

French found the question difficult to answer, given the magnitude of information he uncovered through writing the book. He says he took on the project to most importantly learn. While doing so he became immersed and enthralled into the information. He goes back to one of my points made earlier about the amount of unknown information he found being one of the most surprising takes from the project.

“If you open the book and read a chapter randomly, I guarantee most readers will, if they have any idea what I’m talking about, have only the foggiest and most incomplete idea.” French answered.

Lastly, an attendee asked, “what was the most difficult part about writing the book?”

French goes on to say that taking a large piece of time in history, not missing any details, making sense of it all, all while telling a compelling story was the most difficult part. 

“In some ways, it’s a challenge every writer of non-fiction faces, how to marshal the facts and sustain the reader’s interest,” he said.

For more on the Harrisburg book Festival events go to

To purchase Howard French’s book “Born in Blackness”, visit