Johnny Bates recalls, “When racism grew in England, I felt less British than ever.” He refers to the stage in which he developed the idea for his book “Afropean. A Journey Through Black Europe” – from the 2008 financial crisis to Brexit.
The British writer told DW: “A lot of the things I was counting on seemed to fall apart. I had to find a way to put it back together.” From searching for it he finally developed the term “Afropian”.
Young men in northern England in the 1990s
Bates is the son of a white worker from Sheffield and African American soul singer. He grew up in Industrial Sheffield in the 1990s, when England felt more European than ever. Bates considered himself a European rather than part of the local Caribbean community.
With “Afropian” Bates wants to expand the idea of blackness and the idea of British identity. This encouraged him to see himself “whole and without a hyphen,” as he explains in his book, “without mixing this, half of it, or another black.”
Blackening in Europe
In his book Bates analyzes the situation of black societies on the European continent and examines the consequences of colonialism and the multicultural approach in Europe today. Speaking of “blurry,” “blurry” affects both those who consider themselves European and those who do not.
Bates quotes the British-Pakistani writer Hanif Qureshi, who wrote in The Buddha of the Suburbs: “I am a true Englishman – at least roughly.” It “almost” blurs it, Bates says, adding that he is more intrigued by the mix of cultures.
He writes about those people who feel they belong to other countries besides their European homeland – for example, the black players on the French national football team who are “French and others”.
Black and British
Bates said that blacks in England are more confident than those in continental Europe. This has to do with cultural diversity, the legacy of the British Empire. Academic theorists such as Stuart Hall and university subjects such as cultural studies could have contributed to the debate about identity and multiculturalism. This aspect is missing, for example, in France, where “the blacks were told: adapt. You can’t be anything but the French.”
Cover of the book “Afropean. A Journey Through Black Europe” by Johnny Bates
Bates describes this situation as “historical amnesia,” in which the imperial history of a country is forgotten and “acted as if it never existed.” According to Betts, this amnesia is ubiquitous in Europe – including England, where, as in France, there are still ceremonies and imperial pomp. “In the UK, the empire is seen as a happy uncle who gets it wrong but is good nonetheless.”
Icons and courage to imperfection
In his book Bates also introduces black Europeans who fought against colonialism, because Europe has “few black symbols. Very different from the United States.” He wanted to bridge this gap with “Afropean”, in which he united the pioneers of decolonization like Franz Fanon and Amy Sezer with the Russian national poet Alexander Pushkin, who had a great African grandfather.
With his book, Johnny Bates Doesn’t Want to Turn Black Europeans into Superheroes. Currently, there is a tendency within society to view blacks as queens and kings. On the other hand, Bates wants to “move away from superlatives.” Ultimately, it’s also about learning to “not be perfect as a black person”.
“We are not ghetto gangsters, nor are we superheroes who have an answer for everything.” Instead, it has to do with the question of what it means to be human.
British essay writer and photographer Johnny Bates will be awarded the Leipzig Book of European Understanding on May 26 – along with Hungarian essay writer, literary critic and art historian Laszlo Voldini, who won it in 2020.
Adaptation to the German language: Philip Giddik