There’s a reason why Google autofills questions about the authenticity of Black presence in 17th and 18th century Europe – lots of people are asking. The hit Netflix show Bridgerton is Shonda Rimes’ first historical drama, but anyone who enjoys the screenwriter’s work (be it Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice,Scandal and many more), knows that you can count on her to bring the diversity.
Period dramas set in Europe tend to be entirely devoid of diversity, but not with Shonda. And if you thought Bridgerton was a wholly fictitious picture of the Regency era, think again. What most people don’t know is just how present Black people were in 18th and 19th century Europe – at literally every level of society.
Before writing her book Black London: Life before Emancipation, author Gretchen Gerzina walked into a well-known London bookshop one day, and asked for for the paperback edition of Peter Fryer’s exhaustive Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. “Madam, there were no black people in England before 1945.” This of course, is false. Off by just a few centuries, Africans were already known to have likely been living in Roman Britain; as early as the 3rd century AD, a troop stationed at Hadrian’s Wall was reported to include Black soldiers, and in medieval times, Black musicians were a common feature of Britain’s courts. This commonplace, revisionist misconception is just what Gerzina wanted to tackle (and we highly recommend reading the result).
Now granted, Bridgerton sits in the steamy Harlequin fantasy romance genre, but the point that Shonda Rimes’ light-hearted series surreptitiously raises is that history has been largely written by its “winners”; through White eyes; and that the full story is still in the process of bringing itself to light. So let’s shine our spotlight on the Black historical presence in Europe, from the aristocratic and royal circles, bohemians and artists, early activists and political pioneers to the working class…
Continue reading: Bridgerton’s Black Presence isn’t Total Fantasy, it’s Hidden History