Colin A. Palmer, a historian who broadened the understanding of the African diaspora, showing that the American slave trade was only one part of a phenomenon that spanned centuries and influenced cultures worldwide, died on June 20 in Kingston, Jamaica. He was 75.
His family announced the death but did not specify the cause. Professor Palmer, who lived in Yonkers, had traveled to Kingston to begin work on an interpretive history of Jamaica, his native country.
Professor Palmer published his first of many books in 1976, at a time when the black power movement and issues of black identity were prominent in the United States. But it wasn’t about the Civil War-era slave trade; it was called “Slaves of the White God: Blacks in Mexico, 1570-1650,” chronicling a period when the colonies that would become the United States were still in their formative stages. The book set him on a career-long path.
“Palmer definitely brought about a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the African diaspora, one that extended well beyond African-American history or the history of the slave trade,” said James H. Sweet, who as a graduate student worked with Professor Palmer and is now Vilas-Jartz distinguished professor of history at the University of Wisconsin.
Professor Palmer did more than just show that the African diaspora was not a single event; he examined the various strands of it for differences and similarities.
“He argued that the millions of African-descended peoples were united by a past based significantly on the struggles against racial oppression,” Professor Sweet said by email, “and despite their cultural and political variations, diaspora peoples faced broadly similar historical challenges in realizing themselves.”
Professor Palmer urged students and fellow scholars to consider whether the term “African diaspora” was even appropriate, given the cultural and linguistic diversity within the African continent, and to make sure that any examination of diaspora began with a study of Africa itself.
“Africa, in all of its cultural richness and diversity, remained very much alive in the receiving societies as the various ethnic groups created new cultures and recreated their old ways as circumstances allowed,” he wrote in an article for Perspectives on History magazine in 1998. “Consequently, the study of the modern African diaspora, particularly the aspect of it that is associated with the Atlantic slave trade, cannot be justifiably separated from the study of the home continent.”
Professor Palmer also wrote well-regarded articles and books on the Caribbean countries, including “Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean” (2006), about the historian and politician who led Trinidad and Tobago to independence. In an academic career of more than 40 years, he taught at Oakland University in Michigan, the University of North Carolina, the City University of New York Graduate Center and Princeton University. In the classroom and in his writings, he sought to counter an earlier generation of scholarship that filtered black history through a white lens.
“Any history of the peoples of African descent must be written from their standpoint,” he said in a talk at the Harlem Book Fair in 2010, “and must be centered on them, in laserlike fashion.”
“It is their optic that is important,” he added, “their experiences that are paramount. Their voices are the central ones, and their complicated lives must get center stage.”
Colin Alphonsous Palmer was born on March 23, 1944, in Lambs River, Jamaica. His father, Cecil, was assistant superintendent of public works for Westmoreland, Jamaica; his mother, Gladys (Malcolm) Palmer, was Lambs River postmistress.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1964 at University College of the West Indies at Mona in Jamaica and was considering teaching secondary school when he was offered a graduate fellowship at the University of Wisconsin, which had begun a “comparative tropical history program.” He earned a master’s degree there in 1966 and a Ph.D. in 1970.
His dissertation explored the subject that became his first book — although when he went to Mexico to begin his research, he encountered considerable misinformation.
“A young student politely told me that I was embarking on a wild-goose chase,” he recalled in an article on the website smithsonianeducation.org. “Mexico had never imported slaves from Africa, he said, fully certain that the nation’s peoples of African descent were relatively recent arrivals.”
Someone else told him that Mexico’s blacks were descendants of escaped slaves from North America and Cuba. But his research later showed that the Spaniards had brought in black slaves as early as the 1520s.
Professor Palmer identified five streams of African diaspora, the first being the initial spread of humans from Africa in prehistory.
“To study early humankind is, in effect, to study this diaspora,” he wrote in Perspectives on History, although he acknowledged that “some scholars may argue, with considerable merit, that this early African exodus is so different in character from later movements and settlements that it should not be seen as constituting a phase of the diasporic process.”
There were two other “premodern” streams, as he called them. One involved the movement of Bantu-speaking peoples out of the areas now known as Nigeria and Cameroon to other parts of Africa and India in about 3000 B.C. The other was related to trading in the fifth century B.C.
The Atlantic slave trade, which he said began in earnest in the 15th century, was the fourth stream; the fifth began after slavery’s demise and continues today.
Professor Palmer taught at Oakland University from 1969 until 1980, when he moved to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, eventually becoming history department chairman. He helped establish the university’s Afro-American Studies Program. In 1994 he moved to the CUNY Graduate Center, and in 2000 he became Dodge professor of history at Princeton, where he taught until 2011. From 2000 to 2012 he directed the Scholars in Residence Program at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Manhattan.
He is survived by his wife, Myrtle Thierry-Palmer, whom he married in 1970; a son, Glendon; two daughters, Allison and Andrea Palmer; a brother, Courtney; and two sisters, Gloria Greenidge and Stephanie Gunter.
Though the history he wrote about was full of oppression, Professor Palmer saw achievement and resilience in that history as well.
“We should not romanticize it,” he said in the 2010 talk, “because people’s life chances were circumscribed. They are still being circumscribed. But there’s a lot to celebrate. There’s a lot to draw strength from.”
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