“Early” is the keyword when talking about Cassie Smith. Smith describes herself as an “early African Americanist and an early Americanist and an early Modernist.” Her new book, Black Africans in the British Imagination, explores representations of black Africans in the early Americas. Smith is interested in the narratives that lie outside the realm of typical slave narratives readers have come to expect. She explains, “Conventional wisdom says that the story of black Africans in the early Americas was about the slave trade. Slavery was a big part of the story, but there were also other narratives emerging. These black Africans were acting in ways beyond enslavement to affect politics.”
Smith’s book traces several black Africans who affected politics. She mentions Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow and how he based his character on the pirate Blackbeard whose pirating predecessor was Sir Francis Drake. According to Smith, “Sir Francis Drake was a pirate’s pirate” and one of the first English men to engage in piracy in the Americas, particularly in the Caribbean. Smith explains that most of the colonies in the Caribbean at the time were under the control of the Spanish, which made them prime targets for pirate attack. Pedro, a black African who was once enslaved in Panama, was essential to Drake’s success. Pedro understood the tensions between Spain and England, and when Drake came to Panama in 1573, he and Drake formed a friendship. “It’s a story of collaboration,” Smith says.
According to Smith, black Africans were in England and the early Americas for a variety of reasons, which were not solely limited to slavery. American literature classes, however, tend to emphasize a much narrower portrayal of Africans’ roles. “They did come here as slaves,” she explains, “but there were also black Africans who came here as merchants, who came here as explorers.” For this reason, her book includes a chapter where Smith examines the relationships between the English and black Africans on the coast of Africa before the start of the transatlantic slave trade. She wants the reader to “get an idea of what those initial economies were like between the people of Africa and Europeans before the slave trade came along.”
Smith asserts, “My project is pointing out this other part of the history. The transatlantic slave trade is dominant narrative, but the lives of those early modern Africans were much more complex than that. We do ourselves a disservice if we aren’t engaging in those more nuanced conversations about European and African interactions.” She’s hoping that her book can initiate more discussions in the academy about how black Africans mattered in the history of American literature and how they influenced literature and politics even when their names remain excluded from the pages of history.
Cassie Smith’s book, Black Africans in the British Imagination is currently available from LSU Press.