Johny Pitt’s Afropean. Notes from a Black Europe renders Europe as such a place. It is a travelogue, in which ›Afropean‹ does not describe a destination but orients the journey. The notion is employed to capture the experiences of those whose lives have been conditioned by the longue durée of Europe’s imperial expansion towards the South. And in this sense, the book is relevant not only in view of Europe’s African presence. It draws attention to its postimperial and postcolonial condition in a more general sense.
Not long ago, I co-hosted a cultural event which attempted to explore this very constellation. Europe’s postcolonial present was explored in a kaleidoscope of literature, music and scholarly debate. The evening took place at a major conference venue in the heart of Berlin and culminated in a dinner which brought audience and performers together. Everything went well, but because of the pandemic preparations had been unusually trying. When I left the venue to catch the cab that I had ordered, I felt exhausted. I found the cabby outside his car, smoking a cigarette. His name (which I new from the app) as well as his appearance suggested that he was one of the many Berliners with Turkish origins, who make up more than 6% of the city’s entire population. He greeted me cheerfully and driving out into the night asked in a brotherly tone: ›Finished for the day?‹
›Yes‹, I sighed with genuine relieve.
›What did you do?‹ he chatted along. ›Kitchen?‹
I was confused. But then it dawned on me: recognising me as a fellow post-migratory German, he had naturally concluded that my place was in service. Where else would someone like me work in a high-brow cultural place like this? My smart clothes and make-up might have told a different story. But I knew that reclaiming an expressive self after hours of invisible labour was important to many women who worked in the lower echelons of service.
Only minutes ago I had been part of a cultural event celebrating Europe’s postcolonial condition with world music, multi-lingual literary readings and fusion food. But suddenly all this seemed illusive. The cabby’s unwitting and compassionate question was a poignant reminder of what was first and foremost at stake in such cultural events: not abstract questions of historical justice, nor theoretical definitions of culture and identity. It was the distribution of life chances in the present. Although formal colonial rule has gone out of fashion decades ago, in the former metropoles it was still much more likely for people like him and me to cook the food or serve the tables at high-brow cultural events than to host them.
While public debates tend to frame questions of race and ethnicity in terms of identity and culture, the cabby’s question drew attention to the class-dimension of these issues. In our event, the latter had been brought up in some of the performances. But in the company of this fellow postcolonial Other who came from a very different walk of life the elitist character of the evening started to haunt me. Would he have felt welcome at this evening’s dinner table? Welcome as an equal?
In Afropean Johny Pitts travels to Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the South of France. In this village James Baldwin spend the last 17 years of his life in a legendarily open house. At his ›welcome table‹ he hosted all kinds of people: not only friends and acquaintances, but also strangers and hangers-on who sought the presence of the famous writer or just a place to crash. Baldwin seems to have practiced what Priya Basil calls ›unconditional hospitality‹: welcoming everyone who appeared at his doorstep without considering consequences first. Pitts recounts how this practice turned Baldwin’s home into a rather unruly place. And he explains how the author’s openness and generosity made him vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Yet, the hospitality practiced facilitated meaningful encounters between people who would hardly have met otherwise. I imagine Baldwin’s dining room as crowded and buzzing with voices in different languages; as a place that defied the idea of a seating order and where nobody was bound by only one particular role; where those who had just worked in the kitchen might stand up and give the next dinner speech. The unruly spaces created by unconditional hospitality destabilise and suspend the conventions which commonly guide social interactions. In this uncertainty, however, the very idea of hospitality can prevail as a major principle of organisation. From the commitment to gather around the same table – as equals – new forms of conviviality can emerge.