Written by CS Pinto
I am Portuguese. I grew up in a low-income and racialised neighbourhood on the outskirts of Lisbon. My parents are Portuguese, but they are also Angolan. My father, for example, travelled to Portugal before Angola’s independence in 1975. Yet, Portugal was not as developed as they thought and the people there were not used to ‘difference’. My parents faced overt racism and socio-economic difficulties, besides having to adapt to a new country. Today, more than forty years later, African-descent racialised Portuguese citizens are still not recognised as Portuguese by mainstream Portuguese society. Furthermore, fixed as ‘foreigners’ when we speak up about structural racism vis-à-vis social inequality, we are frequently silenced, accused of being reverse racists, of being ungrateful, or simply told to “go back to our country”.
I have recently finished an essay for a masters in postcolonial theory in which I attempted to answer the following question:
“To what extent can claiming an Afropean culture be a project towards emancipation for African-descent people across postcolonial Europe?”
Among several different perspectives, Ania Loomba explains that postcolonialism does not just mean “coming literally after colonialism and signifying its demise, but more flexibly as the contestation of colonial domination and the legacies of colonialism”. For Loomba, both the “history of anti-colonial resistance and contemporary resistances to imperialism and to dominant Western culture” can be defined as postcolonial. People who have been displaced by colonialism and imperialism living in European countries, such as Britain, are thus identified as postcolonial subjects. Furthermore, discussions about decolonisation are also a key part of postcolonial studies. According to Ilan Kappor (The Postcolonial Politics of Development), decolonisation challenges knowledge/power constructions and leads to “interrogations about history, epistemology and politics”, which entails reinterpreting power relationships and, ultimately, “disrupting power in all its forms”.
I had already started to read John Pitts’ Afropean: Notes from Black Europe, when I chose my essay title. Since we had to pick a case-study, it seemed a perfect fit. The book retells Pitts’ journey through Europe “in search of the Afropeans”. He visits marginalised and racialised neighbourhoods much like the one I grew up in, linking the socio-economic exclusion faced by African-descent populations in Europe with the colonial past. The presence of people of African-descent in Europe can be dated back to thousands of years ago, thus this past is contested. The idea of Afropean challenges, as Paul Gilroy (The Black Atlantic) puts it, any conception of ‘blackness’ and ‘Europeanness’ as mutually exclusive. It likewise places African-descent people as subjects/agents of their own narratives, offering to them, to us, a means for self-recognition and visibility. These were among my main reasons to use this work to support my discussion on the relationship between Afropean culture and the possible full emancipation of African descendants in postcolonial Europe.
I wanted to know if claiming an Afropean identity would empower African-descent populations in Europe to achieve, using Gary Wilder’s words (in Race, Reason, Impasse: Cesaire, Fanon, and the Legacy of Emancipation), “political equality, cultural recognition, and self-determination” and, finally, overcome the legacies of colonialism/imperialism. According to the United Nations, African-descent people are still one of the most marginalised groups in the world. In 2015, the ‘International Decade of People of African Descent (2015-2024)’ was launched so as to create awareness of this fact. In the European Union, Britain included, African descendants experience structural racism in areas such as employment, education, health, social services, justice system, media, policing and political representation. They also face racially-motivated hate crime and police brutality. The European Parliament, likewise, recognises that forms of exclusion and dehumanisation are correlated to “historically repressive structures of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade”. Yet, European nations continue to fail to tackle these issues. The COVID-19 pandemic and the anti-racist waves of protest (in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death) both highlight these ethnic/racial socio-economic disparities across postcolonial Europe.
Pitts can envision a better future for African-descent peoples in Europe. While reflecting about a conversation with Jessica Abreu (from the grassroots organization ‘New Urban Collective’, Netherlands), he writes:
“She reminded me why it was so important for black communities to stretch into the continent beyond their own nations, to offer emotional, economic and political support.”
In my perspective, it is in this idea of uniting black communities across different European nations that is the strength of the book and the general concept of Afropean. By claiming an Afropean identity, Pitts is also envisioning full emancipation of all these communities. It is also a call for African-descent people to look inwards, into themselves and at other black communities in neighbouring European countries. European countries share similarities regarding their colonial histories and atrocities, in relation to the dehumanisation of colonised peoples, and African descendants in Europe share similar experiences of racialised oppression and social exclusion. However, we are more aware about what happens in the United States than in a closer country. Have you heard about the murders of Cédric Chouviat (France), Bruno Candé Marques (Portugal), Willy Monteiro Duarte (Italy), and Kadri Abderrahmane “Akram” Ridha (Belgium)?
For obvious reasons, black people in Europe quickly identified with the hateful crime that Floyd suffered at the hands of the police. They joined the protests all over the world to demand their right to existence, to matter. I witnessed London’s Parliament Square being flooded by demonstrators, under the eyes of a Churchill statue and to the sound of Afro-Brazilian drums, as later I would watch online thousands of protesters on the streets of Paris and Lisbon shouting: “No justice, no peace!”/“Pas de justice, pas de paix!”/“Sem justiça, não há paz”. Vanessa Eileen Thompson, for instance, associates contemporary French black-led movements with the 18thcentury Haitian revolutionaries (the Black Jacobins). The Haitian Revolution ended up becoming a more genuine embodiment of the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality. The researcher writes,
“In taking the ideals of equality and liberty more seriously, the Black Jacobins (James 1963) not only universalized these ideals, but ripped them of their colonial complexion.”
Nevertheless, anti-racist organisations and movements are not only made up of black and/or African-descent people. This year’s global protesters were defended by people from many diverse ethnicities and nationalities. Furthermore, as Pitts also acknowledges, African-descent people in Europe, although sharing similarities, have different backgrounds, cultures, genders, sexual orientations and class positionings. They have different citizenship statuses which make them even more vulnerable to social exclusion. On top of that, not all African descendants identify themselves with the European or the Afropean culture or want to. And vice-versa, many Black Europeans do not necessarily see themselves as Afropean. Culture cannot be fixed. It is situational and circumstantial. As Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy state, cultural identities are continuous producing themselves.
Therefore… Can the Afropean culture be a project towards emancipation? Full emancipation for African-descent peoples in Europe will necessarily involve ‘decolonisation of knowledge’. We need to keep challenging colonial legacies and deconstruct narratives which dispossess Africans/African descendants of rights and position them as inferior. According to Grada Kilomba (Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism), decolonisation is achieved when “One is the self, one is the subject, one is the describer, the author of and the authority on one’s own reality”. The psychologist adds that positive self-recognition allows black people to become subjects. And in this sense, claiming an Afropean identity might be empowering for people of African descent in Europe. On the other hand, decolonisation must equally imply, as George Sefa Dei and Marlon Simmons write, socio-political and economic transformations that can “overcome exploitation, alienation and oppression, and dehumanization”. And even if Afropeans manage to emancipate themselves, especially if choosing to unite forces, that does not necessarily mean that racism, xenophobia and socio-economic inequalities will end. A true project towards emancipation must take an intersectional approach which acknowledges differences and commonalities within Afropean groups and other oppressed groups, and build socio-economic alternatives for all.