Everywhere Pitts goes, the closer he gets to people and the more he talks to them, the more he finds that conventional labels become blurred, that human relationships transcend news reports and don’t conform to any expected narratives. The beauty of Afropean is less the discovery of a unified black experience in Europe than the revelation of its vibrant and contradictory aliveness. And this feels like a Europe worth acknowledging.
The son of a white Yorkshirewoman and an African-American Northern soul singer, Pitts offers a deeply personal contribution to reversing the erasure and reductive stereotyping of Black Europe... Such telling stories, alongside Pitts’ evocative photography, could have been larger parts of the book, but it is both a vast undertaking and distinctively individual... Pitts rightly notes the impossibility of surveying the whole continent and that what James Baldwin called “the burden of representation” could have crushed his project. In its absences, however, he points to issues that demand future attention: churches, Islam and the black and African communities in southern European cities that lay beyond the route of his odyssey. More travellers and journalists should follow where this important book has led.
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... 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... 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.
Throughout this book, Pitts makes a point of emphasising the role of western Europe in colonialism and lauds the dead heroes of ‘blackness’, but he fails to extend lines of understanding between the cultural battles of black communities in the last century and those of today. By and large, Pitts’s Afropeans are isolated minorities racked by doubt, anger and despair. Apart from musicians, rappers, a couple of writers and a scattering of demonstrators, the population he describes is a miserable one, inhabiting a continent dominated by traditional prejudices, indifferent and unmoved. I’ve visited all the places he describes, and worked and lived in some of them. However, I put the book down feeling depressed and disappointed. Not by Europe, but by Johny Pitts’s view of it.
this is an important book and I have no doubt Pitts will soon become an important writer. Afropean shows us that people with black and brown skin colour who live in Europe, while proud of their own cultural heritages, often want feel a part of this continent too. Accepted. Treated like everyone else. Like other Europeans. This book aims to bring black Europe to the rest of Europe. To spark a mutual conversation. I have no doubt it will do just that.
Pitts, a TV presenter and photographer as well as a writer, sets out to explore “black Europe from the street up”, with the idea of being Afropean as “something of a utopian alternative to the doom and gloom that has surrounded the black image in Europe in recent years”. Dissatisfied with the limits imposed on his identity and the framing of his black experience, he is a nomadic writer in search of his tribe, who claims membership of a collective black community in Europe that offers a sense of belonging more nourishing than the reductive nationalism of individual European countries... Pitts’s story starts to take on the dimensions of an epic saga. By the end of the book we’re not certain that he has found his tribe. What is clear is that Afropeanannounces the arrival of an impassioned author able to deftly navigate and illuminate a black world that for many would otherwise have remained unseen.