When a non-fiction books holds your attention on every page you know you’re reading something special. “Afropean: notes from Black Europe”, by Johny Pitts is this kind of book.
Review: Sean Sheehan
Photos: Johny Pitts
Johny Pitts, son of an African American father and a white English mother, takes a five-month, self-funded trip around European cities.
He journeys as an archaeologist of Europe’s black soul, acquainting himself with the continent’s black diaspora and its history born out of colonial exploitation. Along the way, he meets some fascinating individuals with lives to tell about.
The book begins with a bitingly good account of his youth in a multicultural neighbourhood of Sheffield, home to working-class whites as well as Yemenis, Jamaicans, Indians and Pakistianis.
For those who regard ‘European’ as a synonym for ‘white’ – a mentality behind many of those who just voted for the Brexit Party – he is an intruder. His estrangement goes all the way down: ‘not black enough for my old black friends, not white enough for my old white friends, not working class enough for my old area in Sheffield but not middle class enough to survive cliquey London’.
So he sets off, a black Stephen Dedalus with a camera, seeking to create something in the smithy of his soul: ‘This book is forged by independent black budget travel; it is an independent black working-class journey.’
His first stop is Paris and the off-grid Château Rouge neighbourhood, bubbling with a mix of Senegalese, Cameroonians, Algerians, Tunisians and Moroccans; a far cry from the Paris of the Champ-Elysées and Haussmann’s grand boulevards.
It reminds Pitts of Firth Park, where he grew up in Sheffield; not so Clichy-sous-Bois, a banlieue that makes him think of Chernobyl and Aleppo. He is glad to leave.
A short hop to Brussels where he seeks out reminders of the holocaust in the Congo when, under Belgian rule, more than 10 million Congolese were murdered.
A chance meeting, through the writer Caryl Phillips whom he meets there, leads to the publication of “Afropean”.
In Amsterdam he experiences something of the Dutch Surinamese community and the restoration, the repair, of ‘a powerful but broken black lineage’ – an education for him and for the reader.
In Berlin, another lesson is learnt when he mistakes what he thinks is a parade of Neo-Nazis for the anti-fascist organization known as Antifa. In Friedrichshain, he meets German-African Rastafarians.
He looks forward to Stockholm and is shocked to realize that only Israel and Russia export more arms than Sweden.
The city’s immigrant enclave, Rinkeby, proves not to be an Afropean utopia but after moving on to hostile Moscow he looks back at it with a degree of respect.
His odyssey takes in parts of Italy, Marseilles (which he loves) and Lisbon. Returning home (‘I went back to where I came from’), Johny Pitts is wiser and readers will be too after reading his revelatory account.
Any trip around Europe now needs two books in the wheelie: Trans-Europe Express by Owen Hatherley and Afropean by Johny Pitts.
“Afropean: notes from Black Europe”,, by Johny Pitts, is published by Allen Lane
(Photos by Johny Pitts, supplied by the publisher)