Edinburgh International Book Festival
10th August 2019
DeRay Mckesson, the celebrated American Black Lives Matter activist, and ‘officially listed’ chair, quoted from authors Derek Owusu and Johny Pitts before handing his role over to British TV and radio presenter Gemma Cairney. She instigated and sustained a palpably uplifting and celebratory current throughout the talk about defeating white supremacy, yet it wasn’t fully clear until the end why this was so important. Introducing herself not by her full name, but with more general joyful declarations of “I love being mixed-race!” and “I love being British!” statements that audience members will receive differently depending on their experience and political outlook. Those of us ‘complexly British’ often need to stamp our identification forcefully before others intrude in the process. We are part of the nation whether other fellow British like it or not, and a display of patriotism represents a complicated defiance in the face of those who might tell us to go ‘home’ in the openly racist atmosphere to which Britain has now returned. The ensuing conversation between two Black British male authors, Derek Owusu and Johny Pitts teased out the complications and commonalities within the multiplicities of Black European lives, to redress the flattening of lives to two-dimensional caricatures by writers with limited understanding and to acknowledge the effects of enduring legacies of colonialism across the continent.
Derek Owusu, contributor and editor of ‘Safe: On Black British men reclaiming space’, is part of the multi-award winning literature podcast Mostly Lit. He has written essays and poetry for a variety of magazines, and aside from Safe, has recently been working on a book of poetry based on London life. While compiling the podcast content, he observed the dearth of Black British male writers. His close friend Yomi Adegoke, one of the authors of seminal Slay in Your Lane, encouraged and assisted Owusu to bring this anthology to fruition. Pitt’s travelogue Afropean: Notes from Black Europe was born out of an interactive website where commentators’ tips on travel as a Black traveller exchanged knowledge of Black communities across the breadth of Europe. However, a range of influences encouraged Pitts to write the book; from a stranger mistaking him for a traveller on a train to Frankfurt, his connection to Black culture through his Brooklyn-born father and his longing to remain part of Europe rather than be marooned on an island where recession and Brexit are driving his white working-class friends to increasingly casual racism. Interesting, that three people of Black heritage in their 30s, no doubt like many others, have been lulled into a sense of Britain being a ‘post-racial’, happily multicultural society and shocked at the epidemic of virulent racism.
So maybe it was just as well that Cairney insisted on encouraging all of us to focus on the joyous benefits of reading literature by Black British men, to no doubt steer us away from the unspoken shadows of moral duty, aid and charity that hover around efforts towards that much abused and almost meaningless term, diversity. Yet, these are the short cut buzzwords that serve their use at times, and she threw out the challenge to the audience to think of ways to diversify the UK’s reading audience. Caribbean and African families have a strong tradition of encouraging literacy and generally insist on effort and discipline from their children. However, although research shows Black children are the most prepared for school at 5, British schools particularly fail Black boys in a number of ways. Often an early interest in reading begins to wane in a British environment, partly due to the low expectations teachers have of Black boys, but also due to the lack of culturally relevant reading material. Owusu explained that the Black boys he works with will eagerly read self-help books about motivational mindsets and wealth creation that they consider to be useful to their lives, but, as Pitts pointed out, these books come with their own pitfalls of striving for individual success over that of the community and ignoring the realities of structural discrimination.
It took a while to portray a sense of what the books themselves were about, and the conversation took a snaking route to their contents. The puritanical, serious side of me was beginning to feel irritated with what I perceived as a focus on trivialities. “Disco is my religion”, stated the chair. And then I remembered. And listened. Balance is important. Hope is important. Pleasure is important. Maintaining refuges of joy have always been vital to Black people’s survival. Music and dance have always been important, not only as a release, or to the strengthening of community bonds, but also as a link to collective African systems of spirituality that have always been rooted in transcendent rituals of music and dance. As Owusu pointed out, the discrimination at white owned clubs and the criminalisation of Black ones, creeping gentrification and the gobbling up of public space all combine to increase the urgency of creating new ‘safe’ spaces within which to exist. Conversation turned to accessing the publishing industry with its notorious gatekeepers, praising musician Stormzy’s decision to accept unsolicited submissions for his imprint #Merky Books in order to remove the significant barrier of finding an agent. There are serious issues with pigeonholing in the marketing of books by BAME authors which prevents a wider audience from seeing certain stories as ‘universal stories’. Pitts reminded us that keyholes to literature are often in the everyday, as he recalled how the lyrics of Blackstar’s song Thieves in the Night lead him to the work of Toni Morrison.
Owusu has gathered a range of talented writers for his anthology, including the well-known Courttia Newland and Musa Okwonga. Safe will take you on a journey of themes and locations around the U.K., as Owusu was keen to avoid being London-centric. Afropean lends an ear to Black communities right across Europe, as his book blurb states, ‘through council estates, political spaces, train stations, tour groups and underground arts scenes’. I loved the insistence by Pitts that to progress, the overworn individualism of ‘doing you’ or ‘doing me’ needs to reconfigured as ‘doing us’. Owusu and Cairney also paid testament to the boost that comes from generous, inclusive creative networks, similar to those in the Harlem Renaissance. Black authors can utilise friendly criticism from others who share similar cultural references and outlooks. The talk ended unconventionally, which took a few people unawares. Instead of time for the usual Q and A, both authors had a chance to read from their books. Derek chose his own touching tale of moving at a tender age between his foster and biological families, where even his toys berated his stern mother. Johny’s excerpt gave us a glimpse of Jimmy, a Black American man searching for an elusive dream of freedom on a walking tour in Paris. We laughed as Johny recounted Jimmy’s whispered recollections, well out of earshot of his wife, about his life-changing romance with ‘Bey’ey’ as a teenager stationed in Scotland. In his recollection, after a night of passion that followed drinks in the pub, he walks down the stairs of Betty’s family home near Holy Loch. Ready to face an angry white family and ‘to run and get my ass out of there’, he was shocked at being greeted with warm smiles and an invitation to join in the family breakfast. Gemma Cairney is right. Let us embrace one other and feel the joy in togetherness.