It’s time to review Book 7 in my 20 Books of Summer project. I am a bit behind but I have a week off this week and now I’ve got my annual blood test out of the way, and presumably while the hedge man is here later in the week, I should have lots of lovely time for reading. I bought this one off my wish list on a bit of a whim (the full story is here) and I’ve been looking forward to getting to read it. It’s one of those lovely Penguins with the orange and white striped spine, too, with a great cover picture taken by the author, who is a photographer as well as a writer. .

I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun with their books! How are you doing?

Johny Pitts – “Afropean: Notes from Black Europe”

(02 July 2020)

in contemporary Europe it seemed to me that black people were either presented as uber-stylized retro hipster dandies in thick-rimmed glasses and a bit of kente cloth, or dangerous hooded ghetto-yoot. (p. 6)

Pitts grew up in a working-class, multicultural area of Sheffield and, bruised by an encounter with London life, he gathers his savings, moves back into his mum’s for a bit and prepares to go on a trip to see whether he can find brotherhood and a sense of belonging in the “Afropean” communities across Europe. This descriptor was only relatively recently coined, and at first he thinks he’s going to be visiting an elite group of musicians and artists who exist in glorious idiosyncracy as part of society but also apart from it; crucially people who have an identity as a European of African heritage rather than an immigrant. However, he soon realises that the people he really needs to talk to are the invisible, the indigent, the undocumented, the people who, as with GMP people in the UK, are “here because you were there” (i.e. they are people from former colonies who have come to the “mother country” through having citizenship and a connection, or have been called to come to fill a labour gap) but are not permitted to feel part of the majority populus. He has an epiphany when visiting the “Jungle” in Calais, being called to write about the people there by an inhabitant.

The author makes a conscious choice to avoid the academic in his work (although it’s rigorously footnoted and referenced). Unlike more privileged travel writers, he goes out with his own budget and wanting to make a book, not a publisher’s budget with a book deal set up (and the way this gets published is a lovely two-fingered salute to old-school-tie networks: he meets Caryl Phillips, whose “European Tribes” (which I now yearn to re-read) he is inspired by, and through him makes a train of connections that leads to publication with Penguin.

I read a lot of valuable academic research and sociological theory, but all too often this was gathering dust in universities, or preaching to the converted, written or cited more often by wealthy, educated white scholars than the people being written about and couched in a stand-offish, academic vernacular. Formal education is often driven by someone else’s knowledge: who authorized it and shaped its rhetoric? Whose knowledge is it? Who has access to it? What about black Europe beyond the desk of a theorist, found in the equivocal and untidy lived experiences of its communities? Black Europe from the street up? (p. 5)

He’s careful to name what he doesn’t cover (the role of churches and Islam in supporting Black culture in Europe) and names his privilege in terms of being able to walk out of the “Jungle” (but still have to prove his identity to police) and bring able to wander freely late at night in sketchy places, unlike his female friends. He mentions how glad he is that there’s “a new zeitgeist of intersectional black thought that is often led by feminism and queerness” (p. 132(He’s frustrated that there are areas he isn’t able to get to and encourages readers to submit their experiences to his website, (there’s some great stuff on there). He covers France (Paris and the South), Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Russia and Portugal and I have to say I’d have liked to see more than the small amount he writes about Spain, as I’ve always been concerned about the numbers of African people selling in markets in mainland and particularly Canary Islands Spain and would have liked to know more about them.

After an introduction and sociological exploration of working-class Sheffield, explaining Pitts’ roots and experience (like Akala and Guvna B, he credits his escape from a path he could have gone down to his circumstances, in this case a strong and stable home, his mum supported by her White working-class family, his dad an African American entertainer who gave him some different life experiences), we’re off round Europe, experiencing immigrants and second- and third-generation citizens, the undocumented and the documented, those living in precarity and secure middle-class folk. There are some very striking examples and he brings himself into the picture but not excessively, giving voice to his subjects (and subtly indicating their accents, which is incredibly well done). He makes it very clear how cultures that don’t even use words for racism (social issues anyone?) are systematically racist and he honours different kinds of activism while noting the flaws that some of it has.

I stuck millions of post-it note tabs into this book but if I used them all, this review would be as long as the actual book! Suffice it to say, he makes visible the invisible world of the network of people who make Europe work; he takes himself off to estates and banlieux and tries to talk deeply to people. I learned about histories and legacies of colonialism I didn’t know about (I had no idea about the Dutch in Suriname, for example, though I was more up on French colonialism) in this very human and warm, though at times provocative (he shares an interesting perspective that maybe Trump and Brexit are better for immigrant communities because “their position is clearer” and the blatant racism makes a space come available for people to politicise and organise).

And just to make it clear: this is no po-faced polemic. It’s incredibly engaging and readable, and I kept wanting to read just one more section. Published in 2019, I’m not sure I’ve seen it on too many of the “Black Lives Matter” lists: it deserves to be known and read.

This was book number 7 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!