Howard W. French is a Professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. His latest book is Everything ­Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power. He is at work on a book about the participation of Africa and Africans in the launching of modernity.
 (June 2019)

Follow Howard W. French on Twitter: @hofrench.


Africa’s Lost Kingdoms

Mansa Musa, the king of Mali, approached by a Berber on camelback; detail from The Catalan Atlas, attributed to the Majorcan mapmaker Abraham Cresques, 1375

The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages

by François-Xavier Fauvelle, translated from the French by Troy Tice

African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa

by Michael A. Gomez
It may remain a little-known fact, but Africa has never lacked civilizations, nor has it ever been as cut off from world events as it has been routinely portrayed. Some remarkable new books make this case in scholarly but accessible terms, and they admirably complicate our understanding of Africa’s past and present.

Notes from Underground

Nelson Mandela after his release from prison, Soweto, 1990; photograph by Inge Morath. It appears in Linda Gordon’s Inge Morath: An Illustrated Biography, just published by the Magnum Foundation and Prestel.

The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela

edited by Sahm Venter, with a foreword by Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela
The cursory familiarity that many people today have with Nelson Mandela’s story of moral courage and triumph has produced a near-universal secular beatification. Mandela enjoys an image akin to that of Martin Luther King Jr. The late South African has, in other words, become an easy-to-claim hero. From the perspective of the present, Mandela’s ultimate triumph can feel deceptively predestined. His political journey, like that of his country, was far more complex.

A History of Denial

Empires in the Sun: The Struggle for the Mastery of Africa

by Lawrence James
All too many publications about the history of Europe’s relationship with Africa fail to sufficiently convey the damage that was done to the African economy, peoples, and political development by the slave trade and European colonialism. Perhaps the most striking recent example of this is Empires in the Sun: The Struggle for the Mastery of Africa, by Lawrence James, an English author who has written extensively on the British Empire. James does not practice outright denialism about European behavior in Africa. But at almost every significant turn in his account, which spans the five centuries from early modern European contacts with the continent to its decolonization beginning in the 1950s, he tends to downplay its ill effects on Africa and wonders aloud why, as he sees it, non-Europeans don’t get held up for comparable scrutiny.

Looking for Hope in Burma

Aung San Suu Kyi addressing supporters at the National League for Democracy 
headquarters in Rangoon after her release from house arrest, November 14, 2010

Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's Tyrant

by Benedict Rogers, with a foreword by Václav Havel

Everything Is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma

by Emma Larkin
In the ordinarily glacial world of Burmese politics, the last few weeks have been remarkably active. On November 7 the generals who run the country held the first parliamentary elections in twenty years, and only the second in half a century; a few days later, on November 13, they released …

A Hero of the China Underground

The Chinese writer Liao Yiwu, right, with a caretaker at the ancient Buddhist Gu Temple, which was damaged in the Sichuan earthquake, June 6, 2008

The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up

by Liao Yiwu, translated from the Chinese with an introduction by Wen Huang, and with a foreword by Philip Gourevitch
As a poet and chronicler of other people’s lives, Liao Yiwu is a singular figure among the generation of Chinese intellectuals who emerged after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Unlike the leaders of Beijing’s student movement, people like Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi, Liao had no part in organizing …

Kagame’s Hidden War in the Congo

Government troops sheltering from the rain after a night of battles against rebel forces led by the warlord Laurent Nkunda, near Goma, eastern Congo, November 12, 2008; photograph by Marcus Bleasdale from The Rape of a Nation, a collection of his i

Africa's World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe

by Gérard Prunier

The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa

by René Lemarchand
Although it has been strangely ignored in the Western press, one of the most destructive wars in modern history has been going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa’s third-largest country. During the past eleven years millions of people have died, while armies from as many as nine different …


‘It Is Not Convenient To Speak of Such Things’: Notes from Rangoon

I arrived in Rangoon at the beginning of the monsoon this summer after 36 hours of travel from New York, with a stop in Tokyo and a second change of planes in Bangkok. There I boarded an old Air Myanmar jet, and it was immediately clear that I was traveling to a country that lived in semi-isolation as the plane filled with migrant workers, many of whom were awkwardly toting large, makeshift bundles of carry-on goods—clothing, medicine, electronics, and other items that were either unavailable or unaffordable back home. Officially, I had come to Burma—ruled by one of the world’s most opaque and repressive regimes—to teach a one-month documentary photography course to local photojournalists. But it was the only country in Southeast Asia I had never managed to visit and I was very eager to explore the place for myself.