Afropean by Johny Pitts review – black Europe from the street up

A quest to find unity among African Europeans introduces a singular new voice and reveals an unseen continent

The term “Afropean”, Johny Pitts writes at the beginning of this beguiling book, “encouraged me to think of myself as whole and unhyphenated ... Here was a space where blackness was taking part in shaping European identity at large. It suggested the possibility of living in and with more than one idea: Africa and Europe, or, by extension, the Global South and the West, without being mixed-this, half-that or black-other. That being black in Europe didn’t necessarily mean being an immigrant.”

Pitts is right that labels “are invariably problematic”. None of my black friends will identify as English. They shudder at the thought, preferring British. “English” for them is an exclusive label, previously denied to them and that will never be rid of its toxic associations. It’s British for now, then, but perhaps in the future “Afropean” will prove a better fit.

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. But what is it to be Afropean? Armed with a computer and camera, the Sheffield-born son of a white English mother and African American father spent five months on the road in search of an African Oz in Europe.

Pitts is driven by the possibility that Afropean is a unifying concept, a riposte to the nativism of Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage. If it’s a concept whose time might have come, there have been numerous rehearsals from the early 1900s onwards, at least in terms of recasting black identity – including Pan-Africanism, the New Negro Movement, Negritude, the Harlem Renaissance, Marcus Garvey’s Back-to-Africa project, Rastafari, Black Power and many others. Pitts pauses on many of these stepping stones as he journeys to Paris, Lisbon, Moscow, Berlin and Stockholm.

Though he travels alone, spiritually and artistically he has a number of writer companions. In particular, he cites Caryl Phillips as a mentor. Whereas in The European Tribe (1987) Phillips reversed the usual narrative of the white explorer in the “developing world” by dissecting the malaise at the heart of Europe and treating white Europeans as anthropologically interesting, Pitts’s focus is on previously white spaces now occupied by black people.

Rinkeby, Stockholm, Sweden.
‘Even the second generation refuse to lose their immigrant accent …’ Rinkeby, Stockholm, Sweden. Photograph: Richard Orange/The Observer

Pitts came late to Phillips; like many black Britons he went first to African American literature – James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright. This perspective is both a prism and a prison: he signs up for a tour of “Black Paris” established by expat African Americans that investigates the romantic exceptionalism of figures such as Josephine Baker and Baldwin. Gradually, though, Pitts begins to “blur out the suggestive Parisian backdrops and … focus on the invisible blackness in the foreground”, specifically the market stalls of “Little Africa” in the 18th arrondissement.

In one of the many amusing passages in the book, Pitts chronicles the shifting emotions of Jimmy, an African American on the tour for whom “the whole city was a film set, with even its homeless people appearing to him as something oddly picturesque – this wasn’t Skid Row in Los Angeles, it was Les Mis poverty, Roma women in headscarves begging beneath dramatic Napoleonic fountains and scattering pigeons”. But Jimmy’s wistful gaze freezes when the bus turns into a discombobulating street full of Cameroonian, Algerian and Moroccan stalls. “‘This is insane,’ said Jimmy, about seven or eight times. It’s like we on 125th [street in Harlem].’”

Jimmy and the other Americans clasp their bags nervously, but Little Africa reminds Pitts of his council estate in Sheffield. Later his register shifts to that of a critical friend when describing the impoverished banlieue Clichy-sous-Bois, on the anniversary of the deaths in 2005 of Bouna Traoré and Zyed Benna, two boys electrocuted in a power station, having been chased there by police – an event that sparked widespread riots in France.

Clichy is vividly portrayed as being wounded and diseased like “a rotting leaf that had fallen from a tree in the city”. Checking into his cheap hostel, Pitts is hit by the room’s “strong whiff of suicide”. But one of the strengths of the book is Pitts’s awareness of how his emotions might colour his perception. This Afropean odyssey comes at a moment of crisis in his mid 20s: “I’d split up with my long-term girlfriend and was back living at my mom’s”; the anonymity of Clichy “had confronted me with my depression”.

In Brussels he meets at a gig the Belgian-Congolese vocalist from Zap Mama, Marie Daulne – “a year 3000 version of Billie Holiday”. In the early 90s, Daulne, with David Byrne, popularised the term “Afropean”. She’s a mixed-race woman who recounts the story of travelling to her mother’s homeland and being “surprised to find the people there singing, ‘Mundeleo, mundeleo, the white girl is here’. The work I do with Zap Mama brings two cultures together,” she says. “Neither one dominates. I take what I have as a European and what I have as an African.” Pitts tries to rid himself of his cynicism about the white women at the concert who “looked like anthropology lecturers who were living the dream – having sex with their subjects”, as they “clutched the arms of their indifferent black boyfriends with pride”.

His account of Brussels is also the occasion for a discussion of Belgium’s mass murder of Congolese during the reign of Leopold II, and for a painful re-evaluation of his boyhood hero, Tintin (Hergé’s Tintin in the Congo has been accused of racism). There is a freshness and elegance to Pitt’s treatment of these familiar subjects, and a tenderness and vulnerability about the author that readers, as well as those he encounters, will pick up on.

Too often his hopes are dashed and unity among Afropeans appears unrealisable. Not everyone he meets fits the template. Being a descendant of an immigrant in Stockholm does not exempt Lucille (who has a white Swedish father and Afro-Cuban mother) from bigotry. According to Lucille, the problem with Rinkeby, the suburb with the highest population of immigrants, is that “even the second generation refuse to lose their immigrant accent”. She’s irritated that her mother, too, is determined to “hold on to the past”. Her assessment leaves Pitts questioning the pride some Swedish people take in the notion of folkhemmet (family of citizens). He asks himself the simple question: “If an educated mixed-race European felt this way, was there any hope at all?” Later he meets a man in self-imposed exile from South Africa who claims to be Nelson Mandela’s brother and who proceeds to list his many horrific privations. “Don’t live laif like me,” he warns Pitts, before bidding him a merry Christmas.

It is a pleasure to follow Pitts on his journey: “One typically Arctic evening in Berlin, I discovered a little piece of Afropea glowing in the darkness of Friedrichshain.” He relaxes in a restaurant “comforted … by the sizzles and scents of Sudan”. He argues that despite the “psychological wounds at the core of some of these communities … they were keeping it together”. But everywhere reality undercuts his dream of Afropea; he ends up with a “sullied utopia”. Mohammed, a Ghanaian Rasta in Berlin, who introduces him to a grassroots non-profit organisation called “Young African Artist Market”, where dreadlocked Rastas huddle around an open fire, spells out the dilemma of many migrants: “We end up drifting in Europe, getting stuck. Europe has a way of getting into you, even though you feel worse than you did back home, because it’s too shameful to go back empty handed.”

A man from Chad struggling to sell fake designer handbags in Lisbon expresses parallel concerns to a Zimbabwean housecleaner in Bilbao. 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 Afropean announces the arrival of an impassioned author able to deftly navigate and illuminate a black world that for many would otherwise have remained unseen.

• Afropean is published by Penguin (£20). To order a copy go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Colin Grant

The GuardianTramp

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