Afropean — Home is where ..... is
I was born black, working class and northern in Margaret Thatcher's Britain.
With these words, Johny Pitts opens the prologue of "Afropean — Notes from Black Europe." At the age of 30, the journalist and photographer packs his bag and leaves the UK to go on a 5-month Interrail journey across Europe. Nothing out of the ordinary, it seems, but for him, a Black working class kid from Sheffield, a rather unlikely trip. First because he doesn't have wealthy parents. Second, because he is, as he half-jokingly describes himself, "that rarest of creatures: the black backpacker."
So from the onset, we know that his is a unique perspective. He wouldn't be writing this book if he had not managed to leave his old neighborhood, a place riddled with violence, poverty, and death. He wants to transcend his past and at the same time stay true to who he is. Ultimately, he is seeking what every traveler seeks to find — his place in the world, peace of mind, and true connection. Only that his quest is inextricably linked with his identity as a black male with a working class upbringing. This, as we shall see, brings him to very particular places — places the average backpacker would never set foot in.
As the name of the book indicates, he travels the continent to explore Black identity in Europe, something that hasn't really been done before — for political, cultural, and historical reasons, but also, as he is to find out, because there are as many black identities as there are black people. Is there anything, beyond their blackness, that connects and potentially can unify them?
The book is thoroughly political and deeply anti-colonial. It challenges European narratives of progress, wealth, and democracy, sheds light on the erasure of black people from its history, and makes us aware that despite the stark differences between the countries the author visits, they are unified by at least one thing: their anti-blackness. Some parts of the book are more reflective and descriptive, others are like a slap in the face, like the opening paragraph of the chapter on Belgium:
"'Recently voted Europe's most boring capital,' it said of Brussels in my Interrail city guide. [...] I knew 'boring' was exactly how Brussels wanted to be thought of. It guiltily insists, 'Nothing to see here! That way for chocolates, this way for beer,' not mentioning one of the most brutal massacres that has taken place in the last two centuries, and an extended period of exploitation that, among other things, enabled Belgium to use the best ingredients for its chocolate at low cost, making it world famous. The country has long been trying to wash Congolese blood off its hands."
Taking the train to mainland Europe, Johny Pitts travels the continent clockwise: Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin, Stockholm, Moscow, Marseille, and Lisbon. In Paris, he traces the steps of the bohème and is disappointed about the realization that "Hemingway was a hipster" — like many of his contemporaries who perfectly incorporated the image of the broke, struggling artist stranded in the French capital, Hemingway actually came from a middle-class family. "To starve as Hemingway described in A Moveable Feast (1964) is the highest of luxuries; suffering as experiment, pain for literary purposes, frugality for fun", the author remarks, contrasting the bohemian lifestyle to the black experience that is, more often than not, concerned with actual survival: education, finding a place to live, eating regularly, etc.¹
No place demonstrates that more clearly than Clichy-sous-Bois, one of Paris' most notorious banlieus where he spends a couple of days — an experience that shakes him to the core. Each place he visits afterwards, no matter how bleak it is, seems more inhabitable and humane than Clichy, where "the landscape was a mutation, buildings stretched and elongated into tall, concrete zombies, dead behind the eyes with rotting crevices stitched together with patches of rusting sheets of metal". It is here where France's (post-)colonial disaster is most obvious, a mere 15 kilometers away from the romanticized postcard-Paris. In Clichy, almost 30.000 people live jammed in ramshackled high-rises, more than every third person is unemployed, and forty per cent of the inhabitants are under twenty years old. And it doesn't come as a surprise that it was here that the spark of the youth riots in 2005 was ignited, in the truest sense of the word. Growing up here, for most, is a sentence for life.
The curiosity and determination that drives the author to wander Montmartre only to head to the banlieus the next day makes "Afropean" so rich and illuminating. Johny Pitts does not simply dwell on his own liminality — he uses it both as a motivation and an entry ticket to explore the most contrasting black experiences in Europe. He engages with elderly black tourists from the US, talks to Ghanaian souvenir sellers at the Eiffel Tower, and interviews black activists from Clichy. Across the continent he bonds with people in restaurants, art galleries, activist spaces, trains, and simply on the street. Because he himself inhabits this particular grey zone of in-betweens, he has access to utterly different realities and knows to navigate a broad spectrum of social interactions and spaces. This, I find, is often the key to the most nuanced, expressive stories told: Like wanderers between the worlds, people who move between the margins and the center are able to traverse borders and boundaries, their very existence proof of connections invisible to others.
Pitts' descriptions of the different suburbs are among the most impressive examples for this fluidity. He manages to shed light on the huge number of problems (drugs, delinquency, unemployment etc.) and sharply criticize the structural inequalities that lead to the marginalization of certain groups and neighborhoods. But he neither victimizes nor vilifies them, the inhabitants of the suburbs are depicted as real people with real struggles but never as passive objects without agency. At the same time, he recognizes the spirit of grassroot solidarity and community these neighborhoods hold, without ever romanticizing the idea of poverty and multi-culturalism.
Race and class issues are constantly discussed throughout the book. The author is frustrated, angry, and sometimes depressed — but what shines through all of his writing is a deep sense of true kindness and humanity beyond his age, a love and understanding of humankind and the challenges that living a life on this planet holds for everyone. While he is repelled by the arrogance and bigotry of some people he meets on the way, he writes:
"Racism and prejudice are cages — a prison sentence alienating those who hold these attitudes from the beautiful diversity of the world — and I pity people with those afflictions."
When he is abused by white Brits on the train to Marseille, he endures their racist remarks and physical threats with a heart-breaking stoicism²: "In some ways, I did feel sorry for these men. [...] As human beings, they were infinitely complicated, like the rest of us, but the culture that contained and confined them [...] really hadn't allowed them to develop much of a culture of their own".
And so he travels from country to country, from city to city, sharing moments and memories with strangers, making new friends, thinking about life and meaning, time and belonging. He learns about famous black communists in Amsterdam, stumbles into an Antifa protest in Berlin (and ends the long night at Berghain), and crosses path with a former Apartheid freedom fighter in Stockholm. He traces Baldwin's steps on a picturesque hill in southern France, experiences fleeting moments of community in "an inclusive tribe of people who [...] had found themselves as cultural nomads connected by the very notion of not being part of any group connected to class, race, or nation", and, surprisingly, finds a new home towards the end of his long journey, "a sort of black Bohemia — a place that could sustain my Afropeanness over the long term, [...] a place I could exist in Europe without any questions of belonging."
What made the book so special was the combination of all of the above things: I learned a lot about black history and blackness in Europe, I felt moved by the accounts of the author's search for belonging and identity because it reflected so much of my own quest, I admired his reflective, self-critical way of writing and thinking, never hesitating to reconsider his own judgment and knowledge, I was in awe of the humbleness and forgiveness he showed towards the people he met along the way. His writing reconciles radical politics and radical compassion, something that I am still trying to figure out how to do for myself. And, what's more, it beautifully merges politics and poetry, not in the form of actual poems but in exquisitely lyrical passages, and this, too, makes the read so rewarding.
"The staircase spilled onto a long, drooping boulevard of pink limestone set aflame by a low sun, a lava flow of brake lights, and the inner glow of heaving Algerian and Tunisian cafés splaying out onto the sidewalks. In the distance, past this glowing labyrinth, lay the Mediterranean Sea, stirred gently by the throb of a full moon rising, and beyond its straits the physical land of the Maghreb — Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia. [...] Yes, Marseille is physically Provence, but they say here that it turns its back on France to stare lovingly at Africa."
And then the very last sentence, oh, that last sentence! I will not quote it here because I don't want to spoil it but just that bit alone is worth reading the whole book.
More stories, photos, and inspirations on the topic of Afropeanness can be found on the website the author runs, afropean.com.
¹ This made me think of two more recent phenomena: first, the minimalist lifestyle many modern-day hipsters embrace, who live in nearly empty flats and possess few material things even though they earn a couple of thousand Euro a month — which is a great idea, if only there weren't all these books and articles on how life-changing and spiritually enlightening it is to stop buying Hugo Boss. And secondly, the "begpackers", white kids who backpack in the Global South and beg for money when their travel funds run out, on the streets, often in countries where millions of people live from less than 2$ a day.
² I suppose that his reaction can partly be explained with stoicism and his calm temper but also with sober assessment of the situation and fear — you don't want a bunch of drunk racists getting seriously angry at you as a lone black traveler.