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. Palmer, who lived in Yonkers, New York, had traveled to Kingston to begin work on an interpretive history of Jamaica, his native country.
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 Sweet, who as a graduate student worked with Palmer and is now Vilas-Jartz distinguished professor of history at the University of Wisconsin.
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,” Sweet said by email, “and despite their cultural and political variations, diaspora peoples faced broadly similar historical challenges in realizing themselves.”
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.”
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 laser-like 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.
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.