At a time where politicians across the world are calling for ever more secure borders, there are books whose mere existence feels radical. Afropean: Notes from Black Europe, by Johny Pitts, feels like one such publication. It is the story of the Sheffield-born author’s travel from his home town across the Continent, visiting several of its major cities and connecting – or not – with people of African heritage as he goes. Crucially, it is also the story of Pitts’s internal journey, to find where he, a working-class, mixed-race man from the north of England, might fit most comfortably within Europe’s complex past and its possibly chaotic future.
It is this constant self-interrogation that elevates the book. “Did ‘Afropean’ include only beautiful, economically successful (and often light-skinned) black people?” he asks himself at the outset. “‘Afropean’ as aspiration was one thing, but as I was writing about an interplay between black and European cultures, I realised this utopian vision of a black European experience would mean wilfully ignoring realities shared by a majority of black people living in Europe.”
For Pitts, Sheffield – much like many other parts of Britain – is, though no utopia, a triumph of community and multiculturalism, largely despite the efforts of successive Conservative and Labour governments. However, he sees that triumph as precarious, and likely to succumb to the ravages of underinvestment. And so, wishing to avoid being jaded by this inevitable decline, he heads for the Continent.
The premise of Afropean is deceptively simple. In an attempt to discern some kind of common identity among black people of African descent in Europe, Pitts decides to visit as many of their most significant communities as he can. His efforts, though constrained by his budget (he apologises for being unable to afford to stop off in smaller towns or explore black Europe’s rural communities) are extremely impressive. Although he only spends a few days in each location, it is remarkable how quickly he gets to the soul of a place.
His grasp of the racial dynamics in Berlin is a particular highlight. While observing that some white Germans have nurtured one of Europe’s most loved and enduring hubs of black culture – in the form of the nightclub YAAM – he also notes how the anti-fascist movement could do much more to be inclusive of black people. He is gutsy, too, not only in his willingness to explore precarious situations but in his refusal to draw neat conclusions.
Indeed, the greatest triumph of this work is Pitts’s willingness to embrace nuance. He takes us to Stockholm, a city he has previously found to be a racial safe haven, and points out the “passive apartheid” of poor non-white immigrants being forced to its margins. In Moscow he feels little kindred spirit with the Africans studying or working there, who are just passing through a part of the world they have long since come to regard as deeply unsafe. Pitts himself apparently escapes abduction by a neo-Nazi. One evening, he is walking down a street when what appears to be a taxi pulls up alongside him. Having heard that this is a common ruse of far-right extremists who wish to kidnap and even kill unsuspecting Africans, Pitts peers into the car; he sees a skinhead sitting there, and swiftly declines.
The further you read, the more you may find yourself stopping – not because of the prose but because of a need to reflect upon and research further the historical moments that the author presents. Crucially, too, Pitts stresses the importance of Afropean heritage, of learning from those who came before. For this reason, his meeting in Amsterdam with and embrace by Caryl Phillips – a comparatively unsung titan of black British literature, whose essay collection The European Tribe is a direct forerunner of Afropean – feels especially poignant. It is as though Phillips, noting both Pitts’s outlook and his commitment to his craft, recognises him as a fellow traveller in work and in life.
What is consistently impressive throughout Pitts’s work is his ability to blend fact with anecdote; the effect is often cinematic. At times, you may feel that instead of reading a non-fiction book you are watching a well-paced historical thriller. He never pauses too long to set the scene, sending you onwards with just the right amount of detail. Yet this is no mere travel guide; Pitts is unafraid to be assertive in his analysis. “In the 21st century,” he states, “US hip-hop culture is no longer a place where important social issues and political ideas are being worked out in public. Was it even a culture any more?”
Elsewhere, he gives a nod to the winds of nationalism that are blowing across the continent. “Travelling through the cities of western Europe during the winter months,” he writes, “I got the feeling I was witnessing a slow decline, that the continent was looking backwards, dining out on a warped, sentimental view of itself.”
Despite the considerable ground covered, Afropean does not attempt to be all things to all people. As the author states early on, this work is constrained not only by his budget but by his worldview; since he is not particularly religious, for example, he does not examine the role of faith within Afropean life. In an era when Islam is under the political microscope more than ever, this feels like something of an omission, and it would have been good to see greater curiosity in this regard. It would also have been interesting if Pitts had examined more of Europe’s black queer history – he is, after all, deeply respectful of many queer heroes of African-American literature, particularly James Baldwin.
However, in his defence, Pitts notes what Baldwin referred to as the “burden of representation”: the pressure on writers to produce work that is all things to all parts of the ethnic background they hail from. This book is deliberately not exhaustive in its scope, and within its defined boundaries, it is superbly executed. Most importantly, Pitts’s own enthralling story is one to which, like several of the cities featured in this lyrical and frequently moving work, many readers will doubtless return.
Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician
Afropean: Notes from Black Europe
Allen Lane, 416pp, £20