It’s not often that discussions of black identity come away from US-centric narratives, but Black European Lives Matter does exactly that, by giving an insight into what it means to be Black-British, and more widely, Black-European. All the panellists identify as Black-British: Derek Owusu as a black working-class Londoner; Johnny Pitts a black working-class northerner; and chair Gemma Cairney a Scottish-Jamaican.
Pitts’ presence is significant because often British experiences are represented by Londoners, which erases northern English or Scottish voices. Raising northern voices is important given that northern England is so socioeconomically different from the south. Pitts reads a hilarious extract from his book Afropean, an anthology of Black-European stories he collects while travelling across Europe. The extract itself is aptly chosen, since it takes place in Scotland. It’s also relevant since it paints a picture of working class solidarity, which is, according to Pitts, important but difficult given that his own white working class friends in the north don’t acknowledge racism.
Owusu encourages the audience to see past the stereotypes of black men by reflecting on the diversity of Black-British men he talks about in his book Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space. It is a reminder of an obvious but overlooked fact that Black-British men aren’t a monolith but a multitude of people. He rightly proposes that BAME people should be put in leading positions in order to diversity publications. The reasoning being that the dominant narratives are the same old white stories, given that white publishers tend to select pieces that resonate with them and their own experiences.
Cairney chairs the panel well, eloquently summarising main points and timing her questions to pace the event along. Having lived in all parts of the UK, she makes interesting observations of different local views. It would have been even more interesting to know her perspective as a black mixed-race woman navigating different regions of Britain, but because she’s the chair, she takes a step back to allow the other two to talk, and doesn’t actively engage in conversations about racism.
Overall, it is refreshing to hear about Black-British narratives that aren’t just from London, a reminder that there is no one black experience. An hour feels too short to hear about all these experiences, leaving the audience wanting to buy the two books to find out more.
Black European Lives Matter ran as part of the Edinburgh Book Festival
At Charlotte Square
Image: Shin Woo Kim