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Afropean

Notes From Black Europe

By Johny Pitts
16-minute read
Audio available
Afropean by Johny Pitts

Afropean (2020) is a travelogue tracing the hidden history and culture of Black people in Europe. Exploring cities such as Paris, Berlin, and Moscow, author Johny Pitts reveals the diversity of African-descendent communities in Europe – and shows how they are forging new identities for themselves beyond the continent’s colonialist legacy.

  • Young Europeans navigating questions of nationality, identity, and community
  • Backpackers, wanderers, and other travel addicts
  • People interested in Europe’s hidden Black history and culture

Johny Pitts is a British writer, photographer, and journalist. His online journal, Afropean, which highlights art, literature, and events from the Afro-European diaspora, has become a network for Black Europeans across the continent. Before the eponymous book, he collaborated with author Caryl Phillips on a photo essay about London's immigrant communities for the BBC.

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Afropean

Notes From Black Europe

By Johny Pitts
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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Afropean by Johny Pitts
Synopsis

Afropean (2020) is a travelogue tracing the hidden history and culture of Black people in Europe. Exploring cities such as Paris, Berlin, and Moscow, author Johny Pitts reveals the diversity of African-descendent communities in Europe – and shows how they are forging new identities for themselves beyond the continent’s colonialist legacy.

Key idea 1 of 10

In Sheffield, Johny witnessed his multicultural neighborhood crumble under socioeconomic pressures.

As a kid, author Johny Pitts didn’t think too much about what it meant to be Black in Europe. 

His dad was a Black American singer from Brooklyn, and his mom came from a white, working-class British family with Irish roots. The two had met in the 1960s, when Johny’s father was touring Britain with his bootleg band, The Fantastic Temptations. They eventually settled down in Sheffield, where Johny was born. 

But in Firth Park, the area where Johny grew up, his mixed heritage wasn’t all that unusual.

The key message here is: In Sheffield, Johny witnessed his multicultural neighborhood crumble under socioeconomic pressures.

Firth Park is a working-class district in Sheffield. It started as a housing project for immigrant workers from British colonies in the late nineteenth century. Today, it’s made up of a mix of those workers’ descendants; white working-class families; second-generation immigrants from Yemen, India, and Jamaica; and, more recently, refugees from Syria, Somalia, and Kosovo. 

Johny remembers Firth Park as a rough but vibrant, dynamic, and racially tolerant neighborhood. From the window of his childhood bedroom, he observed many of the multicultural dramas and comedies that played out on the streets below – from Yemeni weddings and reggae parties to gang shootings and drug deals.

It was this atmosphere that, from the 1970s to the 1990s, made Firth Park a hot spot for one of the most important Black cultural movements: hip-hop. His white friend Leon and his Yemeni friend Mohammed introduced Johny to the Black underground hip-hop culture of Sheffield, which included illegal block parties and the pirate radio station SCR. 

But by the mid-1990s, when Johny was a teen, the vibrant social and cultural life in Firth Park had begun to crumble. Globalization and free trade had eroded many of the local industries that the working-class and immigrant communities relied on. Under this increasing socioeconomic pressure, an air of depression and desperation began to creep into life at Firth Park. Many of the friends Johny grew up with found themselves trapped in debilitating poverty and turned to alcohol, drugs, and crime. 

Sheffield had once provided Johny with a proud, multicultural working-class identity. This changed after his studies in London. He increasingly felt that he had neither a place in the Black and Brown communities he’d grown up in, nor in the majority-white country that rejected them. 

He began to wonder what it meant to be Black and European – and especially what it meant to be both at the same time. He decided that the only way to answer these questions was to go backpacking across the continent and find out for himself. 

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