Book Recommendations

We had a really good discussion of Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina’s Black London: Life before Emancipation this weekend. During our discussion a number of other books came up:

The Woman of Colour edited by Lyndon J. Dominique
Original publication: 1808

In The Woman of Colour, Olivia Fairfield, the biracial heroine and orphaned daughter of an English slaveholder and an African princess, must travel to England, and as a condition of her father’s will, either marry her Caucasian first cousin, Augustus Merton, or become dependent on his mercenary elder brother and sister-in-law. As Olivia decides between these two conflicting possibilities, her letters recount her impressions of Britain and its inhabitants as only a black woman could record them. She gives scathing descriptions of London, Bristol, and the British, as well as progressive critiques of race, racism, and slavery. The narrative follows her life from the heights of her arranged marriage to its swift descent into annulment, destitution, and potential debauchery, only to culminate in her resurrection as a self-proclaimed “widow” who flouts the conventional marriage plot.

The Woman of Colour is a unique literary account of a black heiress’ life immediately after the abolition of the British slave trade, and will inspire readers to rethink issues of race, gender, class, and empire from an African woman’s perspective.

Britan’s Black Past edited by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina

Expanding upon the 2017 Radio 4 series ‘Britain’s Black Past’, this book presents those stories and analyses through the lens of a recovered past. Even those who may be familiar with some of the materials will find much that they had not previously known, and will be introduced to people, places, and stories brought to light by new research. In a time of international racial unrest and migration, it is important not to lose sight of similar situations that took place in an earlier time. In chapters written by scholars, artists, and independent researchers, readers will learn of an early musician, the sales of slaves in Scotland, the grave – now a shrine – of a black enslaved boy left to die in Morecombe Bay, of a country estate owned by a mixed-race slave owner, and of the two strikingly different people who lived in a Bristol house that is now a museum. Black sailors, political activists, memoirists, appear in these pages, but the book also re-examines living history, in the form of modern plays, television programmes, and genealogical sleuthing. Through them, Britain’s Black Past is not only presented anew, but shown to be very much alive in our own time.

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss

Here is the remarkable true story of the real Count of Monte Cristo – a stunning feat of historical sleuthing that brings to life the forgotten hero who inspired such classics as  The Count of Monte Cristo  and  The Three Musketeers.

The real-life protagonist of The Black Count, General Alex Dumas, is a man almost unknown today yet with a story that is strikingly familiar, because his son, the novelist Alexandre Dumas, used it to create some of the best loved heroes of literature.

Yet, hidden behind these swashbuckling adventures was an even more incredible secret: the real hero was the son of a black slave — who rose higher in the white world than any man of his race would before our own time.  Born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), Alex Dumas was briefly sold into bondage but made his way to Paris where he was schooled as a sword-fighting member of the French aristocracy. Enlisting as a private, he rose to command armies at the height of the Revolution in an audacious campaign across Europe and the Middle East – until he met an implacable enemy he could not defeat.

The Black Count is simultaneously a riveting adventure story, a lushly textured evocation of 18th-century France, and a window into the modern world’s first multi-racial society. But it is also a heartbreaking story of the enduring bonds of love between a father and son.

The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de’ Medici by Catherine Fletcher

In The Black Prince of Florence, a dramatic tale of assassination, spies and betrayal, the first retelling of Alessandro’s life in two-hundred years opens a window onto the opulent, cut-throat world of Renaissance Italy.

The year is 1531. After years of brutal war and political intrigue, the bastard son of a Medici Duke and a ‘half-negro’ maidservant rides into Florence. Within a year, he rules the city as its Prince. Backed by the Pope and his future father-in-law the Holy Roman Emperor, the nineteen-year-old Alessandro faces down bloody family rivalry and the scheming hostility of Italy’s oligarchs to reassert the Medicis’ faltering grip on the turbulent city-state. Six years later, as he awaits an adulterous liaison, he will be murdered by his cousin in another man’s bed.

From dazzling palaces and Tuscan villas to the treacherous backstreets of Florence and the corridors of papal power, the story of Alessandro’s spectacular rise, magnificent reign and violent demise takes us deep beneath the surface of power in Renaissance Italy – a glamorous but deadly realm of spies, betrayal and vendetta, illicit sex and fabulous displays of wealth, where the colour of one’s skin meant little but the strength of one’s allegiances meant everything.

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