Black Men Reading: Meet Andrew Fontenelle, PART TWO

Welcome back! – that is, if you’ve already read Part One of my Black Men Reading conversation with Andrew Fontenelle! In Part One Andrew shared some of his favorite Science Fiction/Fantasy/Speculative Fiction titles, and talked about how he got into working on his family genealogy. Today we continue our discussion about ancestry and family stories; and Andrew educates me about the Black Presence in the British Isles.

Andrew Fontenelle

[LR]: Yes, I am saddened sometimes when I realize that the relatives who might be able to shed light on our family stories have passed on.  I’ve romanticized the notion of elders who pass down family stories, but, in reality, many families are tight-lipped about the past.  Why do you think that is?
[AF]: I agree that some families can be tight-lipped about their history. In some cases, it might be that an event happened in the past that they are embarrassed to talk about or it might be that they don’t value certain elements of their family ancestry. I’ve seen that in some cases stories have been made up to embellish the image of what people want ancestors to be. Stories which – when looking at the documentary evidence and timeline – cannot possibly be correct. I genuinely feel that our debt to the ancestors is to remember them, and to remember them as they were, not as some imagined ideal. At the end of the day, we would not be here without them.

[LR]: I didn’t know that there had been a Black presence in the British Isles since Roman times.  That’s not how we were taught the “history of the western world” when I was going to school.  I wonder how much things have changed [in terms of how history is taught]?

Have you had to read widely to ascertain this knowledge? Is there a book or particular resource that you would recommend to people wanting to know more about the Black presence in the British Isles?
[AF]: Yes, the British Isles has had a long Black presence. Even Victorians like David MacRitchie in his Ancient and Modern Britons (Volumes 1 and 2) talks about the origins of the Celts and Gipsies, as well as claiming that the ancient Britons were a dark-skinned people.

Other useful books include:  Black and British by David Olusoga, Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, Their Presence, Status and Origins by Onyeka, Black Tudors: The Untold Story by Miranda Kaufmann, Black London by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina. The National Archives in the UK has a Black Presence gallery. Also, The Black Presence in Britain is another excellent site.

[LR]: I’m pretty sure that I was around 30 years old before I became aware of the migration of black people from British Commonwealth countries – places in the Caribbean like Jamaica and Barbados – to Great Britain.  I didn’t know that movement was known as the Windrush Generation (1948-1971). Thank you for educating me about that. To be honest, I think my awareness came from listening to the musical group, Soul II Soul back in the 1990s.  Do you remember them?
[AF]: Yes, I do remember Soul II Soul.

[LR]: It makes me reflect on the fact that people of African descent around the world haven’t always been knowledgable about the historical and political experience of our brothers and sisters around the world. Do you find yourself reading writers from any particular places around the globe?
[AF]: No, I read the work of writers from anywhere.

[LR]: Andrew, do you think that the internet has made it easier for you to connect – not only with other readers – but to books and authors in your favorite genres?
[AF]: Indeed, it has opened up further sub-genres under Sci-fi. For instance Sword and Soul, Steam Funk. It has also encouraged me to read in genres that I wouldn’t normally consider. For instance, I have read some romance novels.

[LR]: I have to “play the devil” and ask you how you came to read a few romance novels? That genre is usually associated with female readers, so I wonder what you liked and disliked about them? Do you consider yourself “a romantic”?
[AF]: I got into romance after being contacted by an author (Kiru Taye) on Goodreads and I thought it would be good to look at something different. Her writing is based on traditional African culture and set in pre-colonial times. Overall I did enjoy her work. I have also read some of Beverly Jenkins series which I especially like since she introduces historical characters and events from African American history into her novels. I wouldn’t say I have read a great deal of romance, and I am definitely not a romantic. But I did like what I have read. Goodreads has given me an opportunity to consider genres that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

[LR]: In a dynamic, fast-paced world, how do you situate yourself as someone who is comfortable with history, technology, and future speculation?
[AF]: I believe the importance of history is to guide your future so that you don’t make the same mistakes. Technology applied in an appropriate way could improve the lives of people everywhere. Speculative Science should allow you to draw up ideas of what a future might look like and how it might change based on past events.

[LR]: Are you a scientist?
[AF]: Science was always my favorite at school. At one time I wanted to become a Chemist. So, yes I would say I favour the scientific side of things.

[LR]: Aside from the places and dimensions you are able to visit through reading, what are some of the favorite places you’ve traveled to?
[AF]: West Africa [Ghana and Nigeria], India and Brazil. I look forward to travelling to Egypt.

[LR]: Is there an idea that you dislike, or a paradigm you would like to help change?
[AF]: If there is one thing I dislike, it is the negative image of Africa and the African World I often see. I would like to help change that.

[LR]: You’ve said that “we need to reconsider what we think about the places that we live in particular and the world in general.” I sometimes feel that I’m having to unlearn so many of the things I was taught earlier in my life, as well as re-educate myself as more and more “hidden” knowledge and information comes to light.  Are you having a similar experience, or a different one altogether?
[AF]: I came across a very good quote the other day which sums up my current attitude: “Most of what you know is wrong or at least there is no evidence for it.” So I am on that path of re-education that you mentioned. Thinking critically about things. When someone states something, I ask what is the basis of the data to support the statement?
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See Andrew’s Family History Site here.
Connect with Andrew on goodreads.com here.
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In this video, Yohan and Charmz – 2 Black Girls From London – discuss some of the complexities of how their blackness is perceived in Miami [Florida] in the U.S. versus in London in the U.K.

A lot of what they touch on illustrates how the lack of critical historical and cultural knowledge and understanding about the history of people of African dissent plays out in contemporary experiences.

15 Comments

  1. Romance novels are books I’m going to have to try. As for the historical side of things, Black Tudors and Black and British are both on TBR. I’ve been looking a bit closer at Black British writers lately, especially black British women writers. Someone asked me my favorite black British writer and I was at a loss for anyone other than Zadie Smith and Andrea Levy. So I have been doing my research. I’m looking for the perfect book for the October readalong in honor of Black History month in the UK. That stone seemed to be totally unturned on Booktube and Bookstagram. I’m looking forward to finding and reading Black British authors they deserve to be read and praised. More on that later. I thank you and Andrew for these informative posts!

  2. “Most of what you know is wrong or at least there is no evidence for it.” So I am on that path of re-education that you mentioned. Thinking critically about things. When someone states something, I ask what is the basis of the data to support the statement?”

    That path of re-education, as to go back this time around and sound off all those missing or lost beats. Courageous. Love this interview, Leslie!

    1. Thank you, Bethany! Andrew’s comments – and now yours – reminded me of a time when my lack of understanding about what my parents’ walks in life had been frustrated my ability to move forward in my own life. A friend told me about the mythical Sankofa bird – from the Akan people of Ghana in West Africa. It symbolizes “going back” in order to retrieve something valuable that is needed to move forward.

    1. Thank you, Kathy! I was happy to find the 2 Black Girls from London video and get their breakdown on some of the mess (and humor!) inside cross-cultural blackness. Have you had much contact with Black people from Africa, the Caribbean, and the U.K. in your part of Florida?

  3. Where to begin?! LOVED this post. I love Beverly Jenkins because of the history lessons she sneaks into her books. I wrote her an email and she responded and we ended up having a nice conversation. I also had a lengthy email with Steven Barnes, who is also a really great person.

    Octavia Butler is one of my favorites, too. I love this narrative of the Black man reading. My dad is an avid reader. In fact, I blame him for my book addiction. He always put a book in my hand from the time I was little. So to see Black men with a love for reading is important to me.

    I definitely am going to look him up on Goodreads. I’m also going to read about Sword and Soul. Haven’t heard of that genre before.

    1. Welcome, Audra! Please do connect with Andrew on Goodreads.
      It’s cool that you’ve been able to have email exchanges with both Beverly Jenkins and Steven Barnes. That could be very encouraging for readers and writers, alike. When I was younger I was more prone to reach out to favorite authors – and that meant sitting down [to try] to write an impressive letter that I sent via the U.S. Postal Service!😁 I’m glad you find resonance in the Black Men Reading Series, and in this particular installment of it. I wonder what your Dad would think?

  4. I’m always impressed with men who read romance. Are there any male romance writers? Thanks for the link to the YT video- 2 Black Girls From London. Can’t wait to get into it! This interview has reminded me to push up Black British novels on my tbr list. I’ve been holding it off for too long! Thanks to Andrew Fontenelle for this insightful interview!! Looking forward to who’s up next in this series, Leslie <3

    1. So, what did you think about the 2 Black Girls From London video?
      I am not sure that I have read very many Black British writers, myself; and I am curious to know what authors are on your list. Have you read anything by George Lamming, Helen Oyeyemi, Andrea Levy, Paul Gilroy or Zadie Smith? Is someone like Aminatta Forna considered to be a Black British author? Or is she a Scottish and Sierra Leonean?
      I tried to find something about (Black) male romance writers and found this link to a piece published 18 years ago! “Ladies Men: Male Romance Novel Authors.”
      Thanks for reading and posing some great questions, Darkowaa!

  5. I didn’t know there were Black people in the British Isles until I saw promo from that Black Tudors book when it was published. I haven’t read it, but the topic certainly has my interest.
    I like how varied Andrew’s reading taste is. I wouldn’t have expected him to mention romance as well.

  6. Thank you for the combined interview and video, Leslie. Well done. I find that the British girls’ comments apply to other races as well; we are too insulated and isolated in this country combined to their much more cosmopolitan outlook. These ladies have very valuable views that I’m glad to hear.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Margaret. I went back-and-forth with myself over whether or not to include the 2 Black Girls From London video. In the end, I decided that it complemented (a) much of what I learned from Andrew Fontenelle regarding the Black Presence in the British Isles; and (b) my feelings about what people from all over the [Black] diaspora have to learn about each other. In an indirect way, it also converses with Andrew’s comments about ancestors and genealogy.

  7. I am most annoyed by people’s ignorance about Africa, thinking it is one big place, not recognizing it is a continent, not a country. When I meet someone at church and ask them where they came from, they will often answer Africa. Then I say where in Africa and find them often startled. One woman was from Niger which I was unfamiliar with, so she explained where it was. I love hearing about different countries by asking.

    1. Elizabeth, your comment reminds me that there is so much we can learn by asking questions instead of taking everything we see and hear at face value, and making assumptions.

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