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Being Black and European

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
May 26, 2021

The winner of this year’s Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding, UK author Johny Pitts, discusses his book, "Afropean," and what it means to be Black in Europe.

British author and TV presenter Johny Pitts has won the Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding
Black and unhyphenated: Johny PittsImage: Jamie Stoker/Penguin/Suhrkamp Verlag

"I felt less British than ever before with the rising racism that was happening in Britain," Johny Pitts recalls, referring to when he began "piecing together" the notion of being Afropean around 2008, during the financial crisis right through to Brexit, when the UK left the European Union.

"It seemed to me that all the things that were sustaining my multiple allegiances in the past were really falling apart and I needed to find a way to bring them together again," the author and television presenter explains. It was this search that led him to coin the term "Afropean."

Not being from the Caribbean, Pitts could not tap into that cultural identity while growing up in an industrial neighborhood in Sheffield in the 1990s, when for him, Britain felt more European than ever before.

Afropean: In search of identity

With the term "Afropean," Pitts wanted to expand the notion of both Blackness and Britishness. As he explains in his Leipzig Book Prize-winning book, Afropean, it encouraged him "to think of himself as whole and unhyphenated" and not "mixed-this, half-that or black-other."

Exploring Black identity in Europe

"The reason I wanted to look at Europe as a continent ... was to look specifically at Black communities dealing with the wake of colonialism and the kind of multicultural blur that's happening in Europe today," he says. This "blur" includes people who feel both part and yet not part of Europe.

These are people who have varied allegiances, to their homes in Jamaica or Senegal, a former colony of France. Pitts uses the example of Black football players in the French team, who are "both French and something else." The writer quotes Hanif Qureshi, an English author of Pakistani descent, from his book The Buddha of Suburbia: "I am an Englishman born and bred, almost."

"The 'almost' is where the blur is for me," Pitts says, adding that the mix of cultures is what he finds most fascinating.

Black and British

A Black person in Britain seems to have more self-confidence than their counterpart in mainland Europe, Pitts observes. A lot of this can be attributed to the cultural diversity in Britain owing to the empire. Academic discussions and theorists like Stuart Hall and the cultural studies movement have contributed to discussions on race and multiculturalism. That aspect is missing in France for example, where " Black French people have been told, 'Fit in, or else. You can't be anything else, you're French and that's that.'"

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Pitts refers to this attitude as a kind of "historical amnesia," where there is a tendency to "either valorize their imperial history or on the other hand, just completely forget about it and act like it never existed."

Historical amnesia is omnipresent in Europe, Pitts says, aside from in France and the UK, where there is still a degree of pomp and ceremony connected with the past. "People in this country seem to think the Empire is this jaunty, well-meaning uncle who sometimes got things wrong but is also benevolent," he says.

In contrast, he says: "The Portuguese were the first and last colonizers, but there's a lack of knowledge, even among the Portuguese, about that history. It's almost as if it never existed." For Pitts, it was important to not only address this aspect but also to focus on important Black people who fought against colonialism, "because Europe really lacks its Black icons. It doesn't have Black icons in the way that America does."

That is the gap he seeks to bridge with Afropean, in which he brings together anti-colonialists such as Frantz Fanon and Aime Cesaire, as well as the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, who was of Black ancestry.

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'The imperfect Black person'

Afropean is not an attempt to represent the Black person as a superhero, Pitts says. Ultimately, the book is also about "learning to be imperfect being Black," he urges, explaining that there is a tendency within the Black community to elevate people to the level of kings and queens. "I wanted to get away from the superlative."

Interesting moments while writing his book included, for example, listening to people being silly or presumptuous about things that turned out to be untrue. Through Afropean, Pitts wants people to reflect on simply being human. "We are not scumbags living in the ghettos, on the one hand, or these superhero people ... who have the answers for everything."

Johny Pitts has been awarded the 2021 Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding. On May 26, he will receive the prize together with Laszlo Foldenyi, Hungarian essayist, literary critic and art historian, who won the honor in 2020.

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
Manasi Gopalakrishnan Journalist and editor from India, compulsive reader of books.