4 Black European Women’s History to Diversify Your Feed

by Emmanuelle Maréchal

Here at All the Pretty Birds, it’s no secret that we love amplifying multicultural, multiethnic experiences. As we reflect on Women’s History Month, our newest contributor Emmanuelle Maréchal opens up the nuanced conversation of the global black experience. As a multiculturally exposed woman herself, Emmanuelle is from Bordeaux, France of Cameroonian roots, now based in London. In this feature Emmanuelle unpacks the history of 4 Black European women whose stories are often overshadowed. These women hail from France, the UK, Germany, and Italy – barely scraping the surface of the Black European women’s history that has contributed to the global stage. 



The Evolution of Black History’s Celebration in Europe

For Black Europeans, the name Carter Goodwin Woodson may not ring a bell, but we owe him a lot. In 1926, he started the Negro History Week, making him the “Father of Black History”. In February 1969, Black educators and students from Kent State University proposed “Black History Month” following in his steps. It wasn’t until 1976 that it became official and was celebrated throughout the United States.

What about Europe, you ask? In the Old Continent, celebrating Black History and its people is still a work in progress (not that it still isn’t in the US). This is due to each individual country’s colonial past and race concept. For example, France does not have a Black History Month because of its ‘Universalism’, a concept according to which “all French people are the same”. In contrast, the UK is one of the European countries that adopted celebrating its Black History the earliest. The symbolic year of 1987 marked the 150th centenary of Caribbean emancipation and Marcus Garvey’s birth. In Germany, or rather Berlin, “Afrodeutsch” began to celebrate it in 1990. In Italy, Black History Month took place in Florence from 2018, with various initiatives organized in other Italian cities from Rome to Bologna in celebration of Black Italian History.

Handing Over the Mic

Although we can commend the recent efforts to popularize the celebration of Black History in Europe, Black Europeans are not as globally known as African American figures. Much of this is due to underrepresentation in film and media. Ultimately, there is a deep interest in (re)discovering stories of Black Europeans over the last few years. As we pivot from Black History Month to Women’s History Month,  we were eager to introduce you to four Black European women whose stories inspire our multiethnic, multicultural ‘Flock’. 


1. France: Paulette Nardal 

(Pictured: Paulette Nardal, Founder of The Revue of the Black World)

One year ago, Paris paid tribute to Paulette Nardal, and her sister Jane, by naming a promenade after both sisters. If their names aren’t familiar, it is because those of Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Léon Damas – the so-called “Founders of the Négritude” – overshadowed theirs. But this movement of francophone intellectuals and artists from the African diaspora wouldn’t be, if not for Le Salon de Clamart. A space Paulette Nardal created with her two sisters Jane and Andrée in 1929. Black people hailing from the francophone and anglophone African diaspora met, debated, and networked there. Rumor has it that Marcus Garvey took part in it!

Paulette, the first black person to study at La Sorbonne, arrived in Paris in 1920 from her native Martinique. She wrote a dissertation on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which introduced her to Black people’s struggle in the USA. Building on her studies and exchanges with Paris’s Black intelligentsia at Le Salon de Clamart, she founded La Revue du Monde Noir (The Revue of the Black World) in 1931. Translated from French to English, this short-lived yet discerning publication was trailblazing because it brought together two Black diasporas. The publication all the while paved the way for the Négritude movement and generations of black people to come.


2. The UK: Fanny Eaton

(Fanny Eaton c.1863–1865 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti)

When we think about Pre-Raphaelite muses, long-haired women with a pale complexion come to mind. Did you know that a Black woman disrupted this XIXth century artistic movement’s beauty standards? Her name was Fanny Eaton. Hailing from Jamaica, she arrived in London in the 1840s as a child and started modeling at the Royal Academy of Art in her twenties.

There is very little information about Fanny’s life. Still, in a letter dating from 1865, Dante Gabriel Rossetti – one of the most prominent figures of the Pre-Raphaelites – wrote to fellow painter Ford Madox Brown that Fanny had ‘a very fine head and figure.’ From Simeon Salomon, Joanna Boyce Wells, to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, it is interesting to see Fanny Eaton appear in paintings taking a cue from biblical and greek references. And doing so as the main subject. If Fanny didn’t enjoy the same fate as more major Pre-Raphaelite models, she is still important to remember because she was, and still is proof, that our Bridgerton fantasies are not all that anachronic!


3. Germany: Marie Nejar

(Marie Nejar in the 1954’s movie The Sweetest Fruit (“Die süßesten Früchte”))

At 90, Marie Nejar is the oldest Afrodeutsch alive today. The daughter of a Ghanaian man hailing from Liverpool and a German-Martinican woman, she grew up in Hamburg, a city renowned for being quite cosmopolitan because of its harbor. She was born in 1930, five years before Hitler enacted the antisemitic and racist Nuremberg Laws. Usually, mixed-race children were orphans and fated to lead a miserable life at the margins of society and living with the fear of being sterilized. Yet, Marie Nejar started a career as a child actress known as ‘Leila Negra’…for propaganda movies. 

At the time, the cinema world was one of the only industries to employ Black actors. In these movies, they always played very stereotypical roles such as slaves, the help, or criminals. And Marie was no exception (think about her stage name). Her first role consisted in fanning some white ladies. When Black actors saw their careers decline right after WWII, Marie managed to keep working because she transitioned from acting to singing in movies until 1957. Afterwards, she became a nurse. In her autobiography (only available in German) Do Not Look So Sad Because You Are A Little Negro: My Youth in the IIIrd Reich, Marie Nejar recalls precisely what her book’s title tells.


4. Italy: Isabella Marincola

(Isabella Marincola in 1949 Bitter Rice (Riso Amaro))

In Europe, nobody remembers Italy as a colonial Empire like France or the UK were. And for a good reason, Italy’s defeat during WWII led to the country losing its territories in East Africa. Nonetheless, Italy left consequent imprints in Eritrea, Lybia, and Somalia. One of the many consequences are the mixed-race children that Italian soldiers didn’t recognize. To this day, such descendants are unable to claim their Italian citizenship. Isabella Marincola, born in 1925, was the daughter of an Italian man and a Somali woman. Her story couldn’t be more different than these orphaned children. Despite the odds, her father not only recognized both her and her older brother, but returned to Rome with them. Raised by her father’s wife during the fascist era, Isabella Marincola’s life is very peculiar.

Contrary to her brother Giorgio – who led a short but brilliant life as a student and Italian resistant – Isabella didn’t enjoy her childhood. Eventually, Isabella was kicked out of home by her stepmother at the age of twenty. She found ways to make ends meet by modeling for artists and acting. Her story in the Italian panorama is essential because she was a woman, was recognized by her father, and lived throughout the fascist era. In the Italian podcast #blackcoffee_pdc dedicated to black identities in Italy, there is an episode about her narrated by NYU Florence lecturer and sociologist Angelica Pesarini.


Learn More About Black European Women’s History at #BlackCoffee_PDC

#blackcoffee_pdc, the unfiltered Italian podcast about black identities, was created by Ariam Tekle and Emmanuelle Maréchal. The podcast consists of interviews of black Italians who enrich the conversations around black identities through their work and initiatives. The third season of #blackcoffee_pdc is due in April 2021. For this new chapter of the podcast, we are collaborating with two experts. The production is entirely independent. That is why we launched a crowdfunding campaign to cover this season’s production costs. You can donate here.


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