Reading Progress:

The winner of the 2020 Jhalak Prize is a pioneering travelogue about Black Europe

by Jane Link

With Afropean, Johny Pitts leads the way in spotlighting the flavour and entangled histories of Europe’s Black communities through what may be one of the most transnational studies on the subject to date. Any discussion of Afropean should begin with an acknowledgement of this feat.

Any discussion of Afropean should begin with an acknowledgement of how it is a pioneering work, and certainly so within the Anglophone literary tradition. The winner of the 2020 Jhalak Prize recognises how we hear a lot about Africans, African Americans, Black Brittons, and West Indians, but rarely do we hear about those who make up the Black communities of mainland Europe.

Debut author Johny Pitts, of course, says it best: “the US exports its blackness; Europe does not.” The result is that Europe’s virulent and backwards brand of anti-Blackness often slips under the radar. Make no mistake: Europe is astonishingly anti-Black and recently, “former Black British MEP Magid Magid was asked to leave the European Parliament on his first day on the job” after being mistaken for a cleaner.

From the suburbs of Paris and Lisbon to the clandestine migrant enclaves of Sweden and Russia, Pitts takes his readers on an odyssey of Black Europe that comes alive through a genre-irreverent mélange that collages together interviews, historical accounts, personal reflections, and various modes of analysis that arise out of his journey. Born out of an eponoymous blog, Pitts’s Afropean leads the way in spotlighting the flavour and entangled histories of Europe’s Black communities through what may be one of the most comprehensive and transnational studies on the subject to date.

Pitts’s Afropean leads the way in spotlighting the flavour and entangled histories of Europe’s Black communities.

Whether or not that is truly the case, it is certainly one of the more engaging. While the sheer amount of historical material that contextualises each city might obscure the fact, Afropean is in the form of a travelogue, a deeply personal mode of memoir writing. In writing the story of a Black man visiting Europe, Afropean powerfully appropriates the colonial travelogue, drawing inspiration from Caryl Phillips’s own European travelogue titled The European Tribe. Pitts insures himself against claims of comprehensiveness by subtitling Afropean: Notes From Black Europe, reminding us that it is important not to put the weight of history on a single travelogue.

But if it is indeed the closest thing to an authoritative document on contemporary Black communities in Europe, it is a coloured one that is filtered through the perspectives and biases of its author. Pitts, a mixed-race photographer hailing from Sheffield, often gravitates towards artsy, urban arbiters of culture and conclusions of hybridity that are, perhaps, only natural to him. The effect is one of landscaping without depth, of taking the safe road while steering clear of risk. A conversation with a gallery owner in Matongé, Brussels and another with the critically acclaimed author Phillips later that day provide an effortless sense of narrative warmth.

His conversations with those present at a Clichy-sous-Bois, Paris protest and during a visit to the Cape Verdean favela that borders Lisbon are less so, foregrounding instead his outsider status and gallivanting privilege which will soon deliver him from the horrors of these dark European secrets. Fortunately, Pitts beats us to it. Somewhat like Hari Ziyad’s essential Black Boy Out of Time, this memoir boasts wondrously self-aware and self-critical writing that is constantly reflecting on its own positionality. Pitts is not embarrassed about who he is: he does not try to play the racial chameleon, blending into every iteration of Blackness he encounters.

It is important not to put the weight of history on a single travelogue.

That is one of the memoir’s strengths, namely how it lays to rest to the fiction of a single, homogenous Blackness by presenting an array of Black experiences. But the term ‘Afropean’, as Pitts characteristically points out himself, is potentially problematic. “I felt this disjuncture between feeling Afropean and then those who were more intelligibly African in Europe,” he says. In an interview with Elleke Boehmer, Pitts “describes [his] book as a happy failure … Afropea [is] less…a place of arrival and more a place of departure.”

Armed with that term, Pitts sets out to document the invisibilised mark Afro communities have left on mainland Europe. Buying into the myth that xenophobic discourse stems from a denial of the historical contribution of non-white populations in the development of Europe and can therefore be fixed through education, Afropean sets out to find those instances where Africa has shaped Europe in order to evidence Black people’s right to exist in it.

This, of course, leads him to idealise the racial ambiguity and cultural hybridity of sunny Southern Europe. Ultimately, his quest to document the ways in which Black people have marked and mixed Europe produces a limiting lens. It is, therefore, entirely logical that Afropean ends up right where it begins: in “[politically] black Sheffield,” a multicultural utopia where “white girl[s]” speak a “mélange of working-class northern dialect, Jamaican patois, [and] Urdu.” Afropean does not offer us the freedom we deserve and, in short, lacks imagination.

By Jane Link

JANE LINK is the founder of bigblackbooks. She is also a publishing professional holding two master’s in literature from The University of Edinburgh and SOAS. Find her on Twitter @verybookishjane.

JOHNY PITTS is the curator of the ENAR (European NetworkAgainst Racism) award-winning online journal Afropean.com and the author of Afropean: Notes From Black Europe. Translated into French, German, Italian, and Spanish it has won the 2020 Jhalak Prize and the 2020 Bread & Roses Award for Radical Publishing, and is the recipient of the 2021 Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding. Find him @johnypitts on Twitter.

The winner of the 2020 Jhalak Prize is a pioneering travelogue about Black EuropeAfropean: Notes From Black Europe by Johny Pitts
Published by Penguin on 5 March 2020
Genres: History, Memoir
Pages: 393
Goodreads
three-half-stars

Afropean is an on-the-ground documentary of areas where Europeans of African descent are juggling their multiple allegiances and forging new identities. Here is an alternative map of the continent, taking the reader to places like Cova Da Moura, the Cape Verdean shantytown on the outskirts of Lisbon with its own underground economy, and Rinkeby, the area of Stockholm that is eighty percent Muslim. Johny Pitts visits the former Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, where West African students are still making the most of Cold War ties with the USSR, and Clichy Sous Bois in Paris, which gave birth to the 2005 riots, all the while presenting Afropeans as lead actors in their own story.

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