Johny Pitts takes us on a trip through a black Europe from which we rarely see and hear; when we do it is usually framed through a narrow, problematising lens. Pitts, a Sheffield-born writer, photographer and broadcaster, who set up www.afropean.com in 2013 with similar aims, sets out to explore the ‘beauty in black banality’: in alluring, crisp prose he shines a light on the everyday lives of black people in a number of European cities, among them Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris. At a time when the populist right is on the rise throughout the continent, this is an important project.
His journey, taken over several months, and his interviews with the people he meets along the way are a means of testing whether or not the term Afropean – first coined in 1993 by Marie Daulne, the Belgian-Congolese lead singer of Zap Mama – is a cohesive idea that can bind Europe’s diverse black populations. When Pitts first heard the term, he writes, ‘it encouraged me to think of myself as a whole and unhyphenated: Afropean. Here was a space where blackness was taking part in shaping European identity at large. It suggested the possibility of living in and with more than one idea: Africa and Europe, or, by extension, the Global South and the West, without being mixed-this, half-that or blackother. That being black in Europe didn’t necessarily mean being an immigrant.’
The European Union estimates that there are at least 15 million people of African descent living within its borders, most of them in France, the UK, Italy and the Netherlands. For one thing at least, Afropean is a starting point to examine the present conjuncture in Europe: not only in terms of what it means to be black in Europe today, but also to test whether we are at the cusp of a black identity that can be said to be pan-European.
To explore these deeper histories of black people in Europe means to uncover histories in which black bodies have been invisible, marginal in the continent, and present too, in which black communities experience insecure lives blighted by social deprivation, unemployment and racism.
But black people in Europe are a very diverse group: what connects the second-generation Afro-Cuban-Swede Lucille in Stockholm, with Mozambican-Portuguese Nino in Lisbon, both subjects Pitts meets on his journey, with Becky, the young woman trafficked by the Nigerian mafia to work in a brothel in Sicily, whom I interviewed last summer in Palermo? Beyond their shared blackness, a narrative is needed that can amalgamate these different individual histories and circumstances into an open and inclusive identity that, as Pitts writes, does away with the need for hyphens. While it may be a starting point for us to reflect on black Europe today, it is not clear that ‘Afropean’ does that job.
Pitts’s text does not delve into a number of important aspects of the black experience in Europe. Not just how conditions for newly arrived migrants from Africa will be very different to those settled on the continent, but also the roles played by Christianity and Islam in shaping black communities, and what it means to be queer and black, to name a few. Nor does he much acknowledge intergenerational tensions that exist within black communities. The writer is, to be fair, honest about these intersectional shortcomings from the outset, admitting that the journey could never be exhaustive for all sorts of practical and economic reasons.
For me then ‘Afropean’ needs to exist alongside ‘the black Mediterranean’ – a term first coined by Italian academic Alessandra Di Maio in 2012 that drew inspiration from Paul Gilroy’s 1993 book The Black Atlantic. Since then it has sparked international interest in the relationship between Europe and Africa – and how much of this history is rooted in violence and oppression. At its heart ‘black Mediterranean’ is a means by which to examine the realities at Europe’s borders, to not treat the continent as an enclosed space, but one that is porous and rooted in histories of slavery and globalist mass extraction – a history in which black bodies have been brutalised to make Europe rich. These are histories denied as often as they are forgotten; they are histories of colonialism rarely discussed outside academia. Europe, unlike America, has all too often refused to confront the history of brutal racism and colonial plunder that is integral to the stories of migrant arrivals from Africa today. In former European colonial powers today such as Italy and Belgium there’s a collective amnesia over how these histories may shape a pan-European black identity. And all the while European countries have not sought to decolonise in order to create a new gaze on black bodies in Europe, a gaze in which black agency, not displacement or suffering, is the central component of their identity.
Afropean: Notes from Black Europe, by Johny Pitts, Allen Lane, £20 (hardcover)
From the September 2019 issue