Afropean: Notes From Black Europe by Johny Pitts

The Blurb On The Back:

“Afropean.  Here was a space where blackness was taking part in shaping European identity … A continent of Cape Verdean favelas, Algerian flea markets, Surinamese shamanism, German reggae and Moorish castles.  Yes, all this was part of Europe too.”

Afropean is an on-the-ground documentary of the places where Europeans of African descent live their lives.  Setting off from his hometown of Sheffield, Johny Pitts makes his way through Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin, Stockholm, Moscow, Rome, Marseille and Lisbon, through council estates, political spaces, train stations, tour groups, and underground arts scenes.

Here is an alternative map of the continent, revealing plural identities and liminal landscapes, from a Cape Verdean shantytown on the outskirts of Lisbon to RInkeby, the eighty per cent Muslim area of Stockholm, from West African students at university in Moscow to the notorious Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois.  A Europe populated by Egyptian nomads, Sudanese restaurateurs, Belgo-Congolese painters.  Their voices speak to Afropean experiences that demand to be heard.

You can order Afropean: Notes From Black Europe by Johny Pitts from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Johny Pitts is a writer, photographer and broadcaster who founded the online journal Afropean.com.  In this insightful, compassionate and thought-provoking book that’s part anthropology, part memoir, part travelogue and part rumination on the black experience within Europe, he seeks to “honestly reveal the secret pleasures and prejudices of others as well as myself” and make sense of what it means to be a black citizen in Europe.

The book is structured as a travelogue, beginning in Pitts’s home town of Sheffield and then following him as he backpacks through Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin, Stockholm, Moscow, Marseille and finally Lisbon.  Because Pitts is doing this as cheaply as possible the book offers a double insight both into what it means to be black in Europe but also how race and poverty are often part of the same discussion.  This is particularly interesting in his discussions with a bi-racial woman called Lucille who comes from a privileged background in Stockholm and is not aware of how this makes her better off than others in the city but is also a strong theme through the chapters for Paris, where the economic experience of the black French community and specifically the younger generations seeing how the hard work of their parents and grand parents has not paid off is making them more politically active and willing to challenge the status quo head on.

One of the things that struck me about the book was how much the Afro-American experience ties in with the Afropean experience, both as a contrast and as an influencer.  I would have liked to see Pitts analyse this more than he does in the book because while he wants to look at the interplay between black and European identities, it’s telling how many Afro-American writers and thinkers feed into the way he analyses things – notably James Baldwin (whose house he visits in the South of France) but also the story of Otto and Hermina Huiswood, whose archive is in Amsterdam but he also notes with sadness a Public Enemy concert in Amsterdam and talks about a variety of American black artists.  To be fair, he also mentions European thinkers such as Caryl Phillips (who he meets and is clearly influenced by) and Zap Mama but I wanted more of this because what comes out of his experience of going on a tour of Paris with an African American couple is how divergent their views are of Europe because of their different experiences.

What comes through is the dislocation and anger that members of the black community feel due to the institutional (and outwardly flagrant) racism and double standards at play within European culture.  Pitts is strong on analysing the effect of colonialism and how colonialist attitudes not only form the backdrop towards modern society’s views on race but also blinker governments to how to address issues like immigration and improving the experience of the working poor.  He also pinpoints how white allies, such as the anti facist protesters in Berlin, are unaware of how their privilege ties in with their protest such as the consequences they face for speaking out are much less damaging than those that black and ethnic protesters would face for the same activities.  Pitts is even-handed in his analysis as well, letting his own experiences growing up in Sheffield speak to the reader as effectively as a frankly terrifying scene in Moscow where a skinhead wordlessly tries to get Pitts into his car.

I enjoyed reading about the people Pitts encounters, especially Ibrahim, an Egyptian wanderer he meets in Marseille who has a unique perspective on the world and Pitts laces his descriptions of each city with a brief (and damning) history of its relationship with its minorities.  I also thought Pitts’s photographs provide an extra perspective on the subjects that he’s talking about and, if anything, I would have liked more of them.

My main criticism of the book is that I wonder how accurate some of the conversations he recounts are – he mentions writing his notes afterwards and also says how his phone (with a lot of notes) was stolen (although it’s not clear whether he tried to recreate them for the book or abandoned them and focused on what he had).  I also think that at times the writing style drifted into more academic language, which I found difficult to engage with – Pitts is, for me, at his best when his own emotions come through as he’s affected by what he witnesses because it provides clarity and something to connect with.

Ultimately though, I found this a very thought-provoking read that has made me reconsider my own attitudes towards race and also to how European society has been influenced by the presence of its black minority.  I will definitely check out PItts’s next book on the strength of this.  

AFROPEAN: NOTES FROM BLACK EUROPE was released in the United Kingdom on 6th June 2019.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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