BYP Bookclub celebrates inspiring and motivating books from black authors or authors of black heritage which we feel help in the positive development of our community. This month, we're delighted to share that our BYP Book of the Month is Johny Pitts' Afropean.
'Afropean. Here was a space where blackness was taking part in shaping European identity ... A continent of Algerian flea markets, Surinamese shamanism, German Reggae and Moorish castles. Yes, all this was part of Europe too ... With my brown skin and my British passport - still a ticket into mainland Europe at the time of writing - I set out in search of the Afropeans, on a cold October morning.'
Following on from our conference, I've been thinking about representation and visibility. Johny Pitts' Afropean is a wondrous journey into the Europe we so rarely see. For five months, the TV presenter, photographer, writer and founder of Afropean.com decided to head off on a trip around Europe, discovering the lives of black Europeans.
As a modern languages graduate who spent a year living in France, Italy and Spain, I was instantly drawn to this story of a young man heading off on a nomadic journey to find out more about black identity, culture and visibility across the continent. At the age of 20, I myself jetted off on a flight to Toulouse excited, nervous (and a bit naive), expecting to enjoy six months of bread, Brie and Bordeaux. In reality, I spent six months trying to adjust, from working through the cultural differences and language barriers to dealing with prejudice, discrimination, sexual harassment, and subtle (or, not so subtle) racism in a country I was acquainted with as a holiday-goer, but not as a student and citizen. The same was to be said for Italy and Spain. Whilst I found these countries easier to live in, I still found it to be an experience that was challenging. Despite meeting great people and forming equally great relationships, having insightful and exciting experiences, seeing beautiful sights and improving my language skills, in truth, I found my year abroad to be stark, isolating and at times, traumatising.
As a person of mixed-heritage, it can seem difficult to know where you belong, particularly when you're transplanted to a world which seems close to the UK geographically, but a million miles away in other ways. Pitts shines a light on this - discussing identity, race and belonging - whilst also showing the diverse, complex, connected and difficult histories that have shaped the Europe we live in today and the relationships that our motherlands had, and still do continue to have with Europe.
There are moments I relate to - the realisation that some of your childhood heroes (in my case, growing up on a diet on Tintin, Tintin and more Tintin), are flawed and flagrantly racist, to questioning the beauty of museums and galleries when you realise the way in which these colonial countries acquired their 'treasures'. However, there are moments which are beautiful - from the people Pitts meets along his journey, from deep discussions about race and identity with black American tourists to brief salutations with fellow English holidaygoers, to those forging new identities and building their own communities in their places of residence. Perhaps, though, the most perfect of moments, are just Pitts' observations of everyday banality. From a young braided girl reading a book in a café to Senegalese men joking with each another in creolized French - from Paris and Brussels to Stockholm and Lisbon, Pitts' experiences paint a vivid, vibrant and ultimately authentic black Europe.
Recommended read for fans of Natives, Black, Listed and Mother Country.
About the author: Johny Pitts is a writer, photographer and broadcast journalist. He has received various awards for his work exploring African-European identity, including a Decibel Penguin Prize and an ENAR (European Network Against Racism) award. He is the curator of the online journal Afropean.com, part of the Guardian's Africa Network and has collaborated with Caryl Philips on a photographic essay about London's immigrant communities for the BBC and Arts Council. Find him on Twitter at johnypitts and at johnypitts.com
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Writer: Mireille Harper