Documenting the Diaspora
Historian couple investigate Central Africa’s place in world history, rooting Black studies in an international context
By Ronald Roach
Traveling to the Vatican to study documents once belonging to a 17th-century central African diplomat may seem an unlikely project for professors in an African American studies program. But for Drs. John Thornton and Linda Heywood, husband and wife historians, the trek they made earlier this year to Rome represents just one facet of the broad scope of Black studies scholarship for which they are known.
At a time when Black studies programs at American colleges and universities are placing increasing emphasis on the impact of Black migrations and movements throughout the world, scholars such as Thornton and Heywood are gaining prominence in the discipline due to the shifting focus. Scholars like this couple, who are now reshaping Black studies along international dimensions, often bring to their specialties fluency in two or more languages; backgrounds in European, Latin American, African or Asian studies; and an interest in examining the wide diversity of the Black experience both in and outside Africa.
As professors in the African American studies program at Boston University, Thornton and Heywood are gaining attention for at least two projects whose implications illustrate how African Diaspora research may serve to reorient Black studies. The one initiative that had the couple conducting research at Vatican City this year involves their investigation of letters and documents that were carried by Antonio Manuel, a diplomat from the Kingdom of Kongo, as he traveled from central Africa to the Vatican from 1604 to 1608. After a long delayed journey, Manuel died just three days after arriving in Rome.
The research is expected to shed considerable light on one of Africa’s first independent nations, the Kingdom of Kongo, which existed in what is now Angola. “(Kongo) was operating at a level of sophistication that most people don’t associate with Africa” during that period of time, Thornton says. “They had a large strata of literate people. The surviving letters indicate this.”
The second project, which encompasses the research that has revealed Kongo to have been a highly sophisticated and developed nation for its time, is expected to re-establish the origins of the African slaves brought to the New World during establishment of the first English, Dutch, Swedish and French colonies. Heywood and Thornton are contending in a forthcoming book that the first generations of African slaves brought to the colonies, such as in Virginia and New York, during the 1600s were not of West African origin, but originated directly from central Africa.
“(They’ve) got good evidence for making that argument. I have high regard for them,” says Dr. Ronald Hoffman, a professor of history at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
The direction of Black studies at Boston University (BU) where the program bills itself as “African American studies” has a strong international focus, according to observers. Upon his appointment in 2000 as the director of the African American studies program, Dr. Ronald Richardson proclaimed his intentions to root Black studies in an international context.
“We’re living in a different era now, and scholars of African American studies have to be in a position to comment on issues beyond Black-White relations. Few people have studied the global impact of Black people, economically, socially and culturally, but they have had an impact, and we want to show what it is,” Richardson said.
For his part, Richardson, whose expertise includes modern European cultural and intellectual history, political theory and medieval Europe, has written extensively about race in Europe. He is the author of Moral Imperium, which is a study of the English anti-slavery movement. His book, Winston S. Churchill: Imagining the Racial Self, is forthcoming. Prior to joining BU, Richardson had stints as a visiting associate professor in Afro-American studies at Harvard University, an associate history professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and an assistant history professor at Howard University.
“We knew Richardson was very interested in looking at African American studies not only in a national context but throughout the world,” says Heywood about Richardson, who had been a colleague of hers when she taught at Howard University.
One of the first hires to the BU program by Richardson was Dr. Allison Blakely, who now occupies the George and Joyce Wein Chair in African American Studies. Blakely, an accomplished scholar of Russian and European history who has written extensively about Blacks in Europe, had known both Heywood and Richardson previously as fellow Howard history department faculty members.
Blakely, a history professor since the early 1970s, says that in the early years of his career, his research interests left him regarded as a peripheral figure in Black studies. Now that some Black studies programs are moving beyond the Black American experience as the dominant focus, Blakely believes his work has gained wider appreciation in the Black studies world.
“There’s a growing awareness of how Black populations have moved around the world,” Blakely says.
Recruited by Richardson, Heywood and Thornton joined the BU faculty in 2003 where — for the first time in their careers as well as their marriage — they are teaching at the same institution. They hold professorships in the history department, as well as in the African American studies program. Between 1981 and 2003, the couple maintained homes in cities where Heywood taught locally while Thornton had lengthy commutes. “For 20 years, I’ve had to commute for at least two hours between home and my academic jobs,” he says.
Heywood and Thornton’s frequent collaborations, as well as individual projects, have highlighted central Africa’s role in the African Diaspora and African history. For Heywood, the central Africa focus is underscored by her scholarship that connects Portugal, Brazil and Angola. Heywood’s interest in ancient Kongo, Angola and Brazil stems a great deal from her graduate student days when Angola was gaining its independence from Portugal. At Howard University where she was on the history faculty from 1984 to 2003, Heywood largely taught African Diaspora history.
“We were colleagues for almost 20 years at Howard. I think Dr. Heywood is sorely needed in the history department (here at Boston University). She’s already made quite a positive impression,” Blakely says.
Though he began his career as an African studies specialist, Thornton gravitated to African Diaspora studies over the years and has authored Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, a well-regarded diaspora history text. “In many ways, John’s book was one of the first to take an integrated approach and show the role the African nations had in the slave trade,” Hoffman says.
One advantage in researching central Africa, according to Thornton, is that written historical records documenting history in the Kingdom of Kongo and other aspects of the sub-Saharan African region go back as far as the 15th century. Considered a Catholic country by 1491, Kongo began sending representatives to the Vatican State as early as 1513.
The Antonio Manuel story illustrates a small, but important, chapter in central African history. When he died, Manuel had in his possession 70 documents that were stored in the Vatican but forgotten about until 1983. Thornton and Heywood learned of the documents in the past few years from a British historian.
Among the documents are letters from officials, certificates from Kongo, responses from Manuel’s friends in Lisbon, Portugal, to his pleas for financial help after getting robbed, notes from lady friends, and other communications.
The goal for Heywood and Thornton is to transcribe the documents, which are in Italian, Portuguese, Latin, and Spanish, and provide a transcript to the government of Angola.
“We only got microfilms of the documents this (past) spring,” Thornton says.
Though it’s possible that Thornton and Heywood could end up writing a biography of Manuel, or Heywood writing a biography of Queen Njinga, another major figure from the Kingdom of Kongo, their most immediate concern is their collaborative investigation of the first generations of Africans to land in the English, French, Dutch and Swedish colonies in the New World. The period from 1585 to 1665 was one when Dutch and English pirates brought central Africans, taken from Portuguese ships, into North American colonies.
“These central Africans were the first generation of Africans for all of the Americas,” Thornton says.
Thornton and Heywood are writing a book on the subject, which they will likely finish by the end of 2005 and they expect it to be published in 2006 or 2007. The idea of central Africa origins challenges the belief that those first generations of Africans were brought from the Spanish Caribbean. The Africans in the Spanish Caribbean are believed to have originated from West Africa, according to Thornton.
“Public reception of our (first generations) work has been very supportive. We know our stuff has to be absolutely solid,” Thornton says.
For now, the couple says they are quite happy working at the same institution. “It’s been great. We’re a couple who can collaborate and work together. That’s not the case for all academic couples,” Thornton says.
“I didn’t feel as torn (as I thought I would have) going from Howard to Boston University because I’ve gone to a place (that’s) very committed to Black studies. It’s allowing me to do that type of work I was doing at Howard,” she says.
The couple have two daughters, one a recent graduate of Haverford College and the other a senior at Harvard University. Thornton is pleased not to have a two-hour commute any more now that he and his wife work at the same campus.
“I drove home every night. My goal (in the earlier years) was to read to my daughters every night before they went to sleep,” he says.
Referring to the African languages he practiced with audiotapes during his two-hour drives, Heywood notes, “It allowed him to learn his languages.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com