Journeys Through Black Europe

Johny Pitts

We speak to Johny Pitts – author of the book Afropean – about cities, race, class, colonialism, the 1990s, and going from CD:UK to socialism.

Interview by
Owen Hatherley

Johny Pitts is a writer, photographer and broadcaster from Sheffield. In 2010 he was the founding editor of the online journal Afropean, and his new book of the same name records a five-month journey around the continent from Moscow to Lisbon, in a mixture of travel writing, interviews, and political history, where he describes encounters with ‘Egyptian hobos, Portuguese favelas, racist football hooligans, Black Panthers, German anarchists, Russian Nazis and Black French militants, as I rattled around Europe on trains searching for a different side of the continent and answers about my own mixed-race identity’. Owen Hatherley spoke to him about the book in a cafe in south-east London.

From the Miners Strike to Prince Naseem

OH

How did the ideas behind the book change in the process of writing it, and as you took the photos?  Early on you mention being in the ‘Jungle’ in Calais and realising that your original plan to write a sort of ‘aspirational’ book really wasn’t going to work.

JP

The book took a long time to write, and when I first started to formulate it I was very much a product of New Labour. I feel like I started as New Labour and went closer to Marxism as I wrote the book. Initially I just wanted to promote the notion of ‘black people in Europe’, and I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I imagined it would be optimistic stories and beautiful photographs, in a Sartorialist style – thank god that didn’t happen. When I was travelling I guess I was looking for landscapes and conversations, and the story began to emerge out of that. I started from a place of ignorance really, without any ‘methodology’ or any notion that I would do anything but a pretty coffee table book. But as I was travelling, the ambiguous nature of ‘blackness’ became clearer and it was messy and it didn’t fit together, and in a way that became the methodology, of letting the people I met speak as a narrative, and using my narrative to hold it together. I wanted to try and create a situation where the black communities of Europe were speaking to each other through the chapters of the book. It was Paul Gilroy who put me onto the notion that there is this knowledge in black communities that never really becomes trans-local, although the survivors of the Bijlmer disaster would have much to talk about with the survivors of Grenfell tower. There are these communities that are dealing with the legacy of racism and prejudice and the legacy of colonialism that are dealing with it themselves – or are influenced by American racial politics. So it seemed to me that I had to make this narrative that would help these black communities somehow connect – without shoehorning people together. 

OH

So what you’ve got is a city-by-city travelogue. How do you feel about doing travel writing? I’ve done a certain amount myself, but feel a bit uncomfortable about it, as it has a bit of a specific colonial legacy and a lot of the writing can be a bit… well, things like Eric Newby…

JP

… Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, Bill Bryson…

OH

…’I went on a train in India, and I got dysentery’ etc etc. Whereas you make this decision early on to refer to yourself as ‘that rarest of creatures, a black backpacker’.

JP

With my tongue in my cheek, obviously. I actually kind of like the idea of a travel book, and in my teenage years I did read a lot of Paul Theroux. What I liked about it was its postmodern nature – the way he tells you what he’s reading, and the structure, and is deconstructing the idea of the travel book as he goes along. But every time I’d have to see the world through his eyes, I wished I could see it through someone else’s eyes. I think he realised that people enjoyed it if he was insulting about people, so he’d go to Afghanistan and say ‘these people are lazy and dirty, it’s a horrible country’, and you pay attention to that sort of thing. I started to look at the notion of black travel, what it might mean, and I realised that a lot of the black travel narratives subverted that very specific gaze. People like Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay, and Caryl Phillips who was sort of a mentor to me.

OH

So, there is a sort of tradition that you’re trying to bring out.

JP

Yeah, I hope so. But the ‘rarest of creatures’ comment is also about the fact that when I was growing up you didn’t see black people camping or climbing mountains, or doing any sort of ‘travelling’.

OH

I’d like to ask about the photographs that run throughout the book. A lot of your pictures are quite classical – some of them look like they could have been taken any time in the last fifty years.

JP

Oh no. That’s kind of annoying. I couldn’t print the photographs in colour, which is how I’d taken them. When I transferred them to black and white I found that a lot of those I’d taken as wow photographs in colour didn’t work. There a lot of reflections – someone asked if I was commenting on WEB Du Bois’ ‘double consciousness’ through this, and I wanted to say yes, so now I do tell people it was that. I was looking for banal situations of everydayness. I wasn’t looking for black people struggling, celebrating, fighting – I was looking for commutes to work.

OH

Public transport comes up a lot.

JP
London Underground. (Credit: Johny Pitts)

That’s partly because I’m a nerd for Metro systems. But one of the words that comes out of this book is ‘liminality’ –  that notion of being between places, and the images became part of that narrative.

OH

The book starts in your home town, in Sheffield. We’re about the same age, and its story about there being spaces at the start of the 90s that are obliterated by the end of it felt quite familiar. One of the stories in the Sheffield chapter is the story of the graffiti artist Simon Sunderland, or ‘Fista’, who was jailed for five years in 1996.

JP

If you were around in Sheffield in the 1990s, his tag was everywhere. It was vandalism, it wasn’t art – which I preferred, it snapped people out of their consumption. I look at 1996 as a year that the landscapes started changing – the landscape I’d grown up in, in Sheffield was just totally destroyed, and the places that sustained me, my psychic geography, was challenged when Tony Blair came in. There were so many changes globally in the 1990s, and Fista seemed to be almost symbolic of a failing landscape that I remember from my childhood that got demonised, and got reduced and over-simplified. I wanted to explore this art form and this character who was this Daily Mail villain and show that what he was doing was extraordinary, and that it got crushed, and the fact that he got five years in prison for graffiti was outrageous. And then it was this slow situation where everything…going back to Paul Gilroy, there’s this interview where he talks about going to the United States to teach in the mid-90s and coming back in the early 2000s, and all his comrades from the left had become management consultants. Fista’s really quite unpleasant and nasty tags, which I loved, got replaced with Kid Acne – I don’t know if you’ve heard of him – and people like him get commissioned.

OH

Was it him that did the big Urban Splash sponsored ‘Tha Knows’ stuff at Park Hill? 

JP

Yeah, all these Sheffieldisms. And there were no traces of Fista, it got wiped out, and everything he represented got destroyed, and replaced with a lighter form. The tower blocks were being destroyed, but then the pirate radio stations that were housed in tower blocks suddenly all got extracted and turned into 1Extra. I was there at the beginning of 1Extra, I had this show late at night, and n the early to mid 00s I actually wanted to do an Afropean show at 1xtra, that would play French hip hop and German reggae and would look towards the continent rather than to the States. But 1xtra was meant to be this pirate radio gone mainstream station and all they wanted to talk about was what Beyonce wore on the red carpet, the shade she threw at Rihanna. I didn’t want to talk about that, and I didn’t think this is what a black music radio station should be focusing on. It just got reduced and commodified. And that was what happened at that time. Talking about things being ‘liminal’, I feel like we’re very much a liminal generation – are we millennials or Generation X? 

OH

A lot of the shift to the left in the UK really circumvents our generation, it’s so often either people much younger or much older. You talk about being born in Sheffield in the 80s that you were ‘socialist by default’, but that this changes through the 90s. 

JP

Yeah, there was in Sheffield that connection through the Miners Strike and it was just always around. But again, I saw this transition through these awful turns, and how in the 1990s working class kids got so into brands, and shoes – I was one of those kids that dressed head to toe in Kappa. And god, the pressure! It hurts me when I think about it, we were all incredibly poor, but there was this pressure around Christmas to come out with new clothes and shoes. My parents couldn’t afford any of this so I’d save my dinner  money and just have a Mars bar for lunch, and I’d go to Windsor’s World of Shoes, where they had slightly out of season Nike trainers, but I could still get some, and then I could take them to school and show them off and tell everyone I’d got them for Christmas. Horrific! Horrific that were all thinking like that. I had friends who were gasmen or plumbers who would be going to the gym and waxing their chests, and getting their eyebrows done. We were all ten bob millionaires. Coming of age after the fall of Communism, there was a lack of imagination, and no alternative energy that was propelling us, especially for working class people.

OH

There were also things like the very short-lived National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield, which was trying to put youth culture in a museum.

JP

My mum was part of that. ‘We’ll have a cultural industries quarter’.

OH

The other element of the Sheffield chapter is of course Prince Naseem Hamed. 

JP

I don’t know if I’d call Prince Naseem a role model, but he was a phenomenon. He came about at a time when people were talking about a ‘post-racial’ moment, and he was part of that, where you could be Yemeni and talk in Ebonics about praising Allah, and that wasn’t strange. The walls were falling down everywhere, and there was a slight optimism  which was misplaced and mis-sold. So on the one hand you had someone like Naseem Hamed who represented so well the culture we came from, but also misdirected us and misdirected himself towards Adidas and so on. I think about this now in terms of someone like Conor McGregor…a figure like Muhammad Ali was a conduit for his politics, and someone like Prince  Naseem could have been like that, but it was too easy just to make a shitload of money and become detached from that culture. And I took part in that, I’m complicit completely, it was all about getting away from where you were from.

OH

And yet he was so Yorkshire.

JP

It wasn’t just that he was Yorkshire – his dialect was the specific Sheffield that I’m from. He was a superhero. I’d go next door to Mohammed’s house and it’d be about 3am and we’d be watching his fights in America, where he’d come in to ‘Here Come the Hotstepper’ – he was a superhero, and he was us. 

Centre and Periphery in Paris and Marseille

OH

At the start of the book you make this decision not just to avoid the US, but to avoid the familiar ‘Windrush’ story in Britain, and concentrate on places that don’t fit in either of these. So after Sheffield, we’re in Paris, and particularly in the Banlieue, where you find how layered even that is –  places with a RER connection where you’re in the centre of Paris in 20 minutes, and places like Clichy-sous-Bois where the 2005 riots started, where you could be in Mars.

JP
Paris. (Credit: Johny Pitts)

Massively. The self-described ‘black French militant’ Almamy Kanoute was a godsend in Clichy, because you can’t spend four days in a place like that and come out with any kind of nuance. The reason I ended up including it was the massive influence of Francois Maspero’s work, especially that one extraordinary book, Roissy Express. I intended this book to be entry level in a certain way, an entrance into the notion of black Europe, which I think for a lot of people will be a surprise. There is great sociological work on Clichy-sous-Bois that is much better than anything I can do, but I wanted to include it to challenge people’s notion of what Paris is. And I didn’t really have a plan – I found myself in Clichy-sous-Bois when there was this memorial service to the Bouna and Zyed, the two men whose deaths led to the riots, so I found myself flaneuring the continent following leads, and then I came back and researched it only after.

OH

Which means it comes out quite organically. Paris can be quite monolithic, and you manage to find places like Chateau Rouge that are cracks within that even in centraL Paris – and you end up there with this mostly African-American tour group on a ‘Black Paris Tour’ who are incredibly scathing about the Franco-African people in Chateau Rouge, calling them ‘dirty’ and so on. 

JP

That came at the beginning of the journey. You can’t escape America, and it is all over this book, with people like Langston Hughes and Josephine Baker. But this was definitely a reminder that I had to orient myself along an Afropean axis and couldn’t rely on America. The black diaspora in Europe often imports issues that aren’t necessarily related to our environment. That’s not to say we shouldn’t connect to these issues, but it can become the dominant narrative, while there are different issues in these post-colonial societies. So the Black Paris Tour was a reminder also that ‘blackness’ is not monolithic.

OH

Well, they’ve come to find out about the history of black Americans in Paris – ‘not these people’.

JP

And I think that’s the result of the commodification of black radical movements, and how the American Dream swallowed everything. The Harlem Renaissance is reduced to dancing and gaudy music, and its political backbone is removed. And the idea of black Paris has become part of a certain idea of ‘black excellence’. When people think of James Baldwin in France, of course they don’t think of him there having a nervous breakdown and worrying about being followed by the French secret police, they’re thinking of him having his feet up on the Riviera and having nice chats with Sidney Poitier. 

OH

The chapters on the south of France are interesting for the implicit contrast between Baldwin, who is incredibly unhappy out in this villa in the Riviera, and the Harlem Renaissance writer and Communist Claude McKay a few decades earlier, who portrays Marseille in his novel Banjo in quite utopian terms – and it still comes out in this book as the city closest to your ideal. 

JP

I hadn’t really thought of it like that, but yes, you do have this one person living this ‘dream’ where he’s actually smoking himself to death with gigolos, and…I think a lot of Mark Fisher’s line about Drake and Kanye and the ‘secret sadness of the 21st century’s forced smile’, and I feel like there’s a lot of that in the American dream and with Baldwin. And yet in Marseille and still to this day I feel like it’s got an element…it’s less glamorous, it’s dirty. I let myself be quite romantic about it, and of course I didn’t write about human trafficking or anything like that. I wanted the right to be quite subjective about Marseille, I spent a lot of time there, and I hope to make it permanent. I wrote most of the second draft of the book in Marseille, and every time I went back to London, I felt this constant paranoia that I didn’t look good enough, that I wasn’t wearing the right clothes, like I was back in school. Take this place (the South London Gallery cafe in Camberwell) – there’s an estate next to this, and you never see the estate kids in here. Peckham Levels, Peckham Pelican, and chicken shops, that’s what you have on this street. They don’t feel welcome here. And in Marseille you still have working class spaces that haven’t been colonised. I say in the book that I saw less hipsters there per square mile than anywhere else on the continent. 

OH

You also go to Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation, and have quite ambiguous feelings about it.

JP

I’m fascinated by modernist architecture, but yes. I remember a while ago going to Robin Hood Gardens and taking pictures, and there was this kid there, and we had a chat about it, and I said ‘it’s an amazing building’, and he just said ‘yeah, but would you live here’. And I was like ‘if they looked after it like they do at the Barbican, yeah, but as it is, in the state it’s in, no, I wouldn’t want to’. The Unite is an amazing building but when you compare it to the rest of Marseille it does feel kind of sullen and subdued.

OH

It’s like a retirement home in a way. I stayed with some friends there with my partner and we got shitfaced on Rose and realised that’s what it really is – you’ve got the mountains on one side, the sea on the other, and the city below, and everything there for you, it’s like the Magic Mountain. But in Marseille places like the Unite still feel plugged into everything else, more than in Paris.

JP

But then, I went to Chandigarh, and while you can admire the idea of this post-independence modernist idea, you really feel that Indian life is just being strangled by these grids.  

Against Vibrancy

OH

Moving on to the chapter on Brussels and Belgium, you describe a photography exhibition that really pisses you off, which seemed like a description of what you didn’t want to do in the book. ‘the usual patronising bullshit about Africa by a white photographer obsessed with two-dimensional vibrancy – the vacant smiles and colourful suffering of black people…I didn’t want only street festivals and carnivals, I wanted work commutes and the banal humanity of everyday life’.

JP
Matongé, Brussels. (Credit: Johny Pitts)

Yeah, exactly. There’s a line about how lot of depictions of ‘blackness’ are just reduced to ‘saris, samosas and steel drums’, this celebration of otherness where it gets compartmentalised into ‘oh look at these people, they’re doing things that aren’t European’, and I wanted to get into the cracks between European and black, I wanted to find the inbetween space. I find photography like that offensive. Teju Cole writes really beautifully about this in an essay on Steve McCurry and his work on India, and soon after he wrote it, it came out that McCurry had been photoshopping, taking elements out of the photographs. Teju Cole talks about how you would very rarely see an Indian person on a laptop wearing a pair of jeans. He’s out looking for ‘types’, and it’s not that the scenes he shoots aren’t there in India, but he’s taking with him all this colonial baggage and looking for what he remembers from The Jungle Book or whatever. And for me, I see that in so much photography. Martin Parr talks about this, about how ‘socially concerned photography is supposed to be about poverty in Sudan or whatever, but I think it’s about the greed of you and I in the west’. What annoyed me about that particular photographer was that it was someone with power who could move freely documenting people that couldn’t, and it was so obvious in the images. You can even see this in the way people work on photography series about England and Brexit, and it’s never looking up.

OH

It’s depicted as if Brexit has nothing to do with middle class people, as if everyone that voted Brexit lived in Clacton and was in the EDL. Do you think you’re going to get a call from The New European for this book? There’s not a lot of room for discourse on European cities that aren’t about swanning off on the Eurostar and hanging out in Paris. I didn’t find much interest from that quarter in my own book on Europe, for instance.

JP

There’s not much interest in nuance. Obviously I’m not comparing, but this is something that happened to James Baldwin – it was very hard for people to use his work for limited political purposes, even though it was so connected to the Civil Rights movement. We’ll see – I have absolutely no idea how this book is going to be received. 

OH

One of the really telling moments in the book is when you meet Caryl Phillips, whose book The European Tribe, was very important for you, and you meet a group of people from that older generation like Linton Kwesi Johnson, and their disappointments – you quote Gary Younge quoting Chris Ofili – ‘I remember looking behind us, searching for the next generation coming up, and they weren’t there’. 

JP

Phillips is part of a generation that I think of as having been educated properly. They were socially conscious. I don’t want to be too down on those of us born in the 80s, but someone like Gary Younge, he was fighting against Apartheid when he was 14 and became fluent in Russian. But in the 1990s, with the idea that the war had been won, and the fall of Communism, our generation got raised with the idea that everything is fine, and that’s not only in the black community – I remember seeing you and Lynsey Hanley talk about how this idea of the ‘working class intellectual’ is entering public consciousness again, and for years, that just wasn’t talked about.

OH

Because we were all middle class, except for the chavs.

JP

Exactly. I saw an amazing documentary about the Manic Street Preachers, and whatever you think about them, they were working class intellectuals, and they could do something like ‘Kevin Carter’, which is commenting on the suicide of a photographer who documented the wars in Sudan and the end of Apartheid. 

The B-Side

OH

In the chapter on Germany there’s a quite scathing description of an Antifa event in Berlin as this quite posturing and culty thing, full of white people with dreads where everyone is listening to bad music which is sort of like reggae but isn’t – but you later shift to being more sympathetic about as the chapter goes on.

JP

I felt I couldn’t slag off Antifa after what happened in Charlottesville in the US, but yes, I did want to say ‘this is not what you think it is’. But I remember watching a documentary about Massive Attack, and they were talking about the producer Mad Professor, who remixed their album Protection, and how when they got one of the singles they produced they’d always flip over to the B-Side. There’s actually an area of Munster in Germany that gets called ‘the B-Side’. It’s one of the world’s most liveable mid-size cities, and then there’s this ‘B-Side’ – where there’s a subculture with an energy that comes from trying to resist this twee corporate world. And that’s what I came to feel about Antifa, that it’s a reaction. It is a hangover from the 90s, and also from the 70s and 80s, and it is also a youthful resistance.

OH

That continuity is interesting – on one level it’s why it looks to us so 90s and naff, but they’ve also managed to hold their ground, keep a lot of their squats and so on – whereas the equivalents in London or Sheffield have mostly disappeared. The squat-anarcho world in Berlin or Hamburg dug in and said ‘we’re not going away’, and they haven’t, and it’s hard not to respect that, even though it’s quite annoying. But then if you make something like Anti-Fascism a way of dressing, that has its own dangers.

JP

That’s definitely what I tried to get across. I felt very uptight and weirdly conservative among that crowd. ‘I don’t belong here, I want to go and have a glass of wine somewhere’. 

OH

You have quite a similar crowd in an anecdote about going to a Public Enemy gig in Amsterdam, where you have this hilarious photograph of the band barely visible through loads of people raising their plastic pint glasses. 

JP

Yeah. That photograph did feel like it captured something about Public Enemy and hip hop in the 21st century.

OH

So a lot of what you do in the book is reach much further back. In Amsterdam you meet these activists at the New Urban Collective, who introduce you to the figure of Otto Huiswoud, the Surinamese Communist who became very influential in the Comintern.

JP
Amsterdam. (Credit: Johny Pitts)

I think I quote the scholar Michelle Wright about this, and she talks about how ‘the past is never dead, it’s just in a changed form’, and I’m not a historian, and at first I wanted to create a very contemporary portrait of black Europe, and I just realised that there’s no way – the past is contemporary. It’s just astonishing to me that you can still find these spaces – in Amsterdam there’s a space where the energy of the Harlem Renaissance is still somehow alive! Even if it’s embers are flickering, it’s still there. A lot of the time in blackness history isn’t passed on or if it is, it’s in quite opaque ways, and I realised writing this book that history is still there, and it’s there to be used. What I realised they were doing in Amsterdam was using and piecing together this history and applying it. What I found really powerful is that all that work, it’s like Langston Hughes’ line about a ‘dream deferred’, it’s like a dream dispersed – the Harlem Renaissance was crushed, but it made all these international connections. There’s this amazing photograph of Otto Huiswoud and Langston Hughes in Uzbekistan, and it’s just astonishing. That American dream of African Americans in Paris – why were they there? It was to forge new connections, it wasn’t just to smoke cigars and listen to jazz, they were looking for places in which the Harlem Renaissance could carry on. Cornel West talks about how people love to talk about black radical traditions as being ’empowered’, and you get the sense that there’s a ‘strong’ tradition, but what he talks about is that it has a long tradition of being crushed, it’s often ephemeral and it often doesn’t survive. What’s great about travelling, and meeting people like Jessica de Abreu, and getting the story of people like Otto and Hermina Huiswoud, that even when they are crushed the embers are still there, even if it’s just embers, they can be reignited. Sorry, I know that’s a bit corny and cheesy…  

OH

So many of the figures you come across seem to have been either Communists or fellow travellers. There seems to be something very important there about the transnational nature of Communism at that time, for people like Langston Hughes, and for long after – though obviously that was already dead by 1991.

JP

Yes, and it’s interesting you say that, because a lot of people know about those names in a cultural capacity, but when people think about Langston Hughes, they don’t think of Communism, which is crazy considering the amount he wrote about it, they just think of him as this cool poet from the 1920s. And again I’m talking about the American dream is carried by those in power, and how these things are remembered in those communities – when Black Audio Film Collective did a very strange, beautiful film about Langston Hughes, Looking for Langston – well, Langston was gay, and his estate did not want that to be spoken about. So they did this amazing piece comparing the gay scene he came out of with the gay scene of the 1980s and they got threatened with legal action by the Langston Hughes estate. So let’s ignore anything that doesn’t fit in with what America wants and can commodify – like the fact he was a gay Communist! That nuance just gets lost.

OH

Moscow is in so many ways the conduit for this, both in the connections with the Harlem Renaissance and in building institutions like the People’s University of the East before the war and the Patrice Lumumba University from the 60s on. And yet the chapter on Moscow and St Petersburg in the book is quite depressing.

JP

It is depressing. But I knew I had to go to Russia, and I had to understand, having read  what Langston Hughes wrote about it, that energy that was around there. This also came from my brother and sister, who are twelve and eleven years older. The B-Side is alive with them, but for me, I don’t know how much you know about my history, but in my 20s I presented CD:UK. So I feel I’m rediscovering, and getting away from this awful culture that they never engaged with. So I’m moving towards them. My brother Richard went to Russia in the 80s and had a great time, and I mentioned Gary Younge, who was there right at the fall in ’91, and – why is it so different now? I think we’re seeing something similar happening now in the west, of just seeing constructs and institutions falling apart, and one of the things that happens when they fall apart is this rise in racism.

OH

But you find that one of these institutions still exists – that the Patrice Lumumba University is still there in Moscow, now called the People’s Friendship University. People are still going there from Africa, but as you write they’re advised strongly not to leave their suburbs, not to go certain places at night, and so on.

JP

I think it’s a very, very different thing, even though there is still this connection there. It’s not surrounded by any over-arching vision, and I don’t think the students there have any illusions about that, they go there to get a degree to make some money, and they don’t see it as political.

Nelson Mandela’s Brother in Stockholm

OH

The major contrast with the depiction of Moscow and St Petersburg is Stockholm, which is obviously a city you know very well, and your description of going there in your early 20s chimes very much with what I remember feeling from my own first visits around 2003 or 2004 – ‘oh my god, it’s actually real!’. You describe finding a clean, pollution-free, egalitarian city full of healthy, elegant ‘Afropean creatives’, which ‘shouldn’t sound revolutionary, but did to me as a working class black Brit’. But your repeated visits show an increasingly complicated reality. 

JP

I don’t mention this in the book, but really fell out of love with Stockholm when they destroyed Slussen.

OH

Did you go to Debaser?

JP
Slussen, Stockholm. (Credit: Johny Pitts)

I did. This little bit of urban wilderness, that all of Sodermalm used to have, and where a black community had forged itself, and that area used to be a very bohemian world, and it’s completely not there anymore. I saw Slussen as an ember.

OH

The fact that even that late, it could still happen, was nice.

JP

I think what the book tries to engage with is possibility. That there are things that can happen, and are possible, and I do think there has been a war on the imagination since the fall of the USSR.  

OH

A lot of the Stockholm chapter concentrates on the suburb of Rinkeby, which has come to symbolise how Stockholm is segregated. You find an old man wandering around shouting to nobody in particular that ‘Nelson Mandela is my brother’, who everyone assumes to just be some local character, but you find turns out to have been a revolutionary from Botswana who fought in the struggle against Apartheid. And one of the many interviews in the book is with this very angry lad, Saleh, a bouncer from Tunisia, who is scathing about Swedish society and its hypocrisy, but also full of prejudices against Somalis.

JP

Yeah. A lot of that, these prejudices within black communities, reminded me a lot of things I’d seen with regard to the Yemenis in Sheffield, and it’s something you can see in Sheffield with Slovakian Roma. Something I put as a footnote in the book is that what I find fascinating about the Slovakian community in Sheffield is, you go into this area that used to be very Yemeni and is now very Roma, and you see kids with no shoes on playing in the streets, men hanging out on street corners, there’s litter everywhere, and it’s dirty – ok. Then you look at this, and I’ve documented this, I’ve taken pictures, and then you look at those pictures, especially when they’re in black and white, and you talk to people there, especially the elderly white working class community, who’ll go ‘oh, it’s disgusting’. And then you listen to them talking about when they were growing up there, and they’ll say ‘oh it was great, we were all filthy, playing in the streets’. Their working class culture has changed over the years, and they’re looking at a living breathing working class culture that they’re disgusted by. It’s ironic…

OH

The ‘Nelson Mandela is my brother’ guy seemed to symbolise a lot of what is good and bad in Sweden’s relatively enlightened migration policies. Of course, we’ll welcome refugees from Apartheid, and give them nice housing – and then we’ll do nothing. So after he’s arrived, that’s that, he’s left alone, just wandering around full of memories that nobody else understands, saying what sounds like nonsense, but actually isn’t. And the fact that, for instance, Oliver Tambo wrote one of the most moving tributes to Olof Palme is forgotten. 

JP

Do you think this is connected to the fall of Communism, this certain lack of will in the 90s, and things becoming so much about the self? 

OH

Yes, but also quite specifically liberal and Swedish – we are nice and will do this nice thing for you, but then our responsibilities end. Don’t expect us to be friends. And this is something I always enjoy as a tourist, because I like cold places where no-one talks to me, but it’s not always a good way to run a welfare state. But perhaps if it is a 90s thing it’s connected with the way that a lot of Scandinavian welfare states have still got these nice things that we don’t have any more, but it feels like they’ve forgotten why they have them – whether it’s solidarity, or internationalism, or what have you. So in that void there’s an effort from the far-right to grab the idea of the welfare state for themselves. Denmark’s ‘ghetto’ laws are an extreme form of that.

JP

I think there’s a general amnesia across the continent about what happened, why it happened and how that’s connected to now. Did you think it was a pessimistic book? I’ve been doing the audiobook, and as I’m reading it I feel that at every corner I was trying to tell these, if not positive stories, then empowered stories – and at every corner I was faced with the question of colonialism, and constantly thrown back into it. That amnesia was not just about things I didn’t know, but also about how a lot of the imagery, and a lot of the issues, were about this lack of understanding of the past, this forgetting. 

OH

I don’t know if it’s pessimistic. There does seem to be a certain amount of hope in some of the places you write about, especially Sheffield, and Marseille and to a certain extent Stockholm. And that contrasts with more cautionary stories in Paris and Moscow and St Petersburg, and the direction Stockholm is going in. But you end the book in Portugal with another thing people have forgotten about – the revolution of 1974, and especially, how that revolution really began as a revolt in Angola, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, in the last (and first) major European colonial empire in Africa, and how one directly affected the other – you describe a group of sixty African students who were crucial to the movement against Salazar’s dictatorship. And even though this is in living memory for a lot of people, it seems to be talked about very seldom.

JP

1974’s not a long time ago. And one thing which I did find interesting about Portugal is that notion that Salazar was described as leading a ‘hermit kingdom’ yet at the same time having all these colonies across the world. There’s this incredibly long history and yet it doesn’t get talked about, it doesn’t get exported. The thing in pop culture most people know in popular culture is Brazilian.

OH

Somehow people in Brazil speak Portuguese, we don’t know why.

JP

Exactly. I know a guy who is Portuguese-Mozambican, and he is literally the devil. He’s told me about how he fought in the wars there killing Cubans, and now he supports UKIP.  Just horrific stories, the worst – and it’s quite fascinating. He’s an old man now, in ill health, and both his daughters ended up marrying or being with black guys. But it’s interesting talking to him, because he’s got this low-level friendliness, but when you get into the politics, you find he was involved with the Nazis in the Afrikaans movement and the South African Nationalist Party, and he’s a perfect enemy, so I talk to him a lot. He lives in Wales now, and he loves Jacob Rees-Mogg. So anyway, when I was in Portugal for the first time, not for this book, it was such a shock to hear Portuguese Portuguese – it’s amazing how you don’t often hear it, and it sounds very Eastern European. Everything I knew about Portuguese culture was from Africa or South America.

OH

You end the book in Gibraltar, but Portugal seems like the place where it culminates.

JP

There’s a lot of reasons why it ends there – it was a sort of circumnavigation of the continent – but it’s also because in Britain and France the colonial legacy is so overt, but Portugal people don’t connect to it. Going back to the book being ‘entry level’, I felt like this was an alternative guide to Europe, and this was a side of history that was really worth talking about. 

OH

In Lisbon you write about the largely Cape Verdean Cova da Moura favela as a fairly successfully functioning thing, which has managed to regulate itself and get in a fair amount of infrastructure.

JP
Cova da Moura, Lisbon. (Credit: Johny Pitts)

It needs some help, but yeah – it had this natural logic that had been built up organically over the years. It had been disenfranchised, but also there’s a real community and a real culture there, and it really worries me that in the surrounding area they’ve just been knocking things down and building towers, and there’s no transition, there’s no respect at the natural, organic topography of the place.

OH

There’s also a sense in your account that they do remember this forgotten anti-colonial history – you describe there being new murals of Amilcar Cabral in Cova da Moura. The rest of Lisbon has forgotten about this, but they haven’t. 

JP

That was what was difficult in a way about some of these stories. They’ve been pushed to the periphery and they aren’t part of the national narrative. But in many ways in lots of the communities this is stuff that is not talked about lightly. There’s an awareness there of how dangerous these ideas can be for those who extol them. It’s not a game. These were movements that were crushed and destroyed, but there’s also respect for those movements. I started this book feeling as though I had so much confidence, feeling like I knew everything, and I ended up feeling like I knew nothing. 

Afropean is available now from Penguin Books.

About the Author

Johny Pitts is a writer, photographer and broadcast journalist. He is the curator of the online journal Afropean.com and author of the book Afropean (Penguin, 2019).

About the Interviewer

Owen Hatherley is the author of several books on political aesthetics, and the culture editor of Tribune.