Optimism but not delusion: Journalism and the Black diaspora
Award-winning author, broadcaster and University of Manchester sociology professor Gary Younge’s new book, Dispatches from the Diaspora: From Nelson Mandela to Black Lives Matter, is a powerful and illuminating collection of journalism about race, racism and Black life and death. The former Guardian columnist and editor-at-large speaks to Shafik Meghji about covering Nelson Mandela as a rookie reporter, why he doesn’t worry about pigeonholing, how the British media has changed with regards to race, and why Stormzy makes him optimistic.
Your opening piece in the book is about following Nelson Mandela on the campaign trail in 1994. How did it feel to cover such a momentous story at the age of just 24?
It was incredibly daunting. I’d come from university to the Guardian, where I was helping out on the Christmas edition, writing the odd piece and things like that, but [this was] foreign reporting of a major story. I had a lot of help from my senior colleagues – it would have been very difficult to do without it.
The anti-apartheid movement was one of the first organisations that I had been involved in as a young person. Me and my mum picketed the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square. When I went to university I set up an anti-apartheid group.
So this was something I’d been invested in and it was incredibly exciting. I met Nelson Mandela a couple of times. Just the notion that I would be in that kind of proximity was amazing.
It was interesting to read your piece on the first anniversary of the Macpherson report as the Casey report came out: what’s your response to the latest review of the Met?
I think it was Mark Twain who said, ‘History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes.’ What's interesting in the intervening 24 years [between the two reports] is the degree to which institutional racism as a concept is [now] widely understood.
And that’s because the basis had been laid [with the Macpherson report], which meant penetrating a notion that the police can do no wrong, that they're there to protect us and that kind of stuff. That allows for a different group of people – women – to intervene in the space.
What it shows is that, potentially, we can see how our liberation might be intertwined. For many people who are white, that was not an obvious connection they could make until this moment. One wonders if more white women had understood that having a corrupt and untrustworthy, institutionally discriminatory police force is a problem for one group of people then it might be a problem for them [too], that movement might have had more heft.
Not that it didn’t have a lot of heft and didn’t achieve things. But one thinks about how much broader it might have been. Maybe how many lives might have been saved.
‘I don’t control how I’m viewed, I can only control what I do’
Have you ever worried about being pigeonholed as a journalist?
I never worried about it. My politics wouldn’t allow me to worry about it. I understand why young Black journalists would be concerned about being marginalised. And that this category, Black, is not one that’s universally valued, in fact quite the opposite. And so there is the logic that says, ‘Why would I want to attach myself to this category that is not universally valued?’
Well, first of all, it’s not a choice you make, it’s made for you. Secondly, I value it as a category. It’s not the only category I’m part of. This isn’t a slight on your question, just on the way these things are framed. My previous anthology was from America – nobody said, ‘Aren’t you worried you’ll be pigeonholed as a writer about America?’ I could do another anthology about my writing about the left. No one would say, ‘Are you not worried about being pigeonholed as a leftist?’
There’s something about this particular category that worries or unsettles people. There is that quote from Toni Morrison where she says that being a Black woman doesn’t limit her. When I think about the category of Blackness, the music, the culture, the literature, the politics, I don’t feel like it’s a marginalising notion.
Of course, it’s a problem if that’s all that someone can see. But that’s on them. I don’t control how I’m viewed, I can only control what I do.
How do you feel the British media has changed – or not – with regards to race during your career?
A lot has changed. There are a lot more Black people, certainly at the Guardian... I'm sufficiently old that when I started, the internet existed, but wasn’t a primary place for journalism. So that has created a space for outside of the traditional gatekeepers...
All of this is related to political change, obviously. I got my column the year of the Macpherson report, the same year Yasmin Alibhai-Brown got her column. That was the year Steve McQueen won the Turner Prize. Some of this was causal – mine was definitely causal – some of it was contextual. But the truth is that in 1988 British arts and media looked much whiter than it did in the year 2000. There was only one major thing that happened racially during that time...
It is difficult to be understood as relevant by large numbers of people now and still just be white. That wasn’t true before. [But] for all of that when we look at Black people in senior positions, [there’s] not so much. There’s still an emphasis on what I call ‘front of house’ staff: the people who read the news, the columnist, the people you can see. But what about photographers, the schedulers? I always thought it was interesting how diverse the BBC looks on television and how diverse it isn’t in radio. They think well you can’t see them so it doesn't matter...
There is this push to look different that demands a reckoning with whether they are looking different and acting the same or whether they are looking different and actually being different.
‘It’s good when they surprise you because, otherwise, why talk to them?’
You’ve interviewed some remarkable people – from Angela Davis to Desmond Tutu – over the years: who was the most surprising?
Some of the most surprising ones aren’t in the book because they were surprisingly bad. Of the ones that are in there, I didn’t know that Stormzy was as clever and as emotionally intelligent as he is... There was a sharpness and a reflectiveness that is rare among men of his age at the time and of people I've met in that industry.
Maya Angelou was the wildest. We were supposed to talk for 45 minutes; 13 hours [later I] ended up drunk [in her limo]. I had a sense that Tutu would be impish, but I didn't know there would be such a little boy energy about him.
It's good when they surprise you because, otherwise, why talk to them?
You write that you’re ‘by nature an optimist. But I’m not delusional’: while working on the book, was there a particular article that gave you a sense of hope for the future?
No [laughs]. I mean, there were a few. When I read [the piece about] the night of the Obama victory I could soak up the joy, but there was a bit of sadness in me [over the way] that energy was squandered. So much more might have been done. Squandered is a bit strong. But certainly insufficiently leveraged…
It seems invidious to name him again but Stormzy makes me optimistic. To think that this country is producing men like him. That makes me optimistic. But mostly no, not really.
Gary Younge’s Dispatches from the Diaspora: From Nelson Mandela to Black Lives Matter is out now.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.
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Photo © Jonas Mortensen