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Dispatches from the Diaspora by Gary Younge review: anti-racist struggles from South Africa to Black Lives Matter

Gary Younge looks at the power of movements against racism. But he doesn’t shy away from identifying the weaknesses of their leaders’ politics, writes Brian Richardson.
Issue 2853
Dispatches from the Diaspora by Gary Younge book cover

Dispatches from the Diaspora by Gary Younge

For 28 years Gary Younge’s articles were a rare, refreshing, radical read in the pages of the mainstream media. Those who are familiar with his writing, will know that Younge is black and was born in Britain to parents who emigrated from Barbados. 

Like my own parents, they left Caribbean islands that had been or were still British colonies. They arrived in what was lovingly known as the “Mother Country”. But, instead of an unconditionally loving embrace, those migrants were met with hostility—typified by the sign, “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish,” outside rental accommodation. 

In the introduction to his latest book, Dispatches from the Diaspora, Younge recalls the advice he was given at the beginning of his career as a journalist. Numerous white editors tried to persuade him to write solely from a “black perspective”, as if this alone defined him. Meanwhile others warned him about the dangers of focusing solely on race issues. 

Fortunately he gave these advisors the consideration they deserved. Instead, he recalls with approval the answer that Chris Ofili gave when Younge asked him how he dealt with the threat of pigeonholing. “Well, pigeons can fly,” replied the Turner Prize winning artist.

As Younge makes clear, his interests are many and varied. And while he embraces the description of himself as a black writer, he refuses to be confined to it. As it happens, less than half of his writing down the decades has been about race. Nevertheless, it’s his articles about the black diaspora that the book draws on. 

Younge’s breakthrough came when the Guardian commissioned him to cover Nelson Mandela’s presidential election campaign in South Africa in 1993. It was undoubtedly an exciting, but ominous challenge. Opposition to the white supremacist regime was one of the great campaigns of the second half of the 20th century. 

A mass movement of people from across the world mobilised against apartheid. The student union at my old university, Manchester, was renamed in 1979 in honour of Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness leader murdered by the regime in 1977. Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 after 27 years was one of the struggle’s greatest moments. I vividly remember watching that event down the road from the Biko Building in a packed hall at the then Manchester Polytechnic’s Winnie Mandela Building.

As a teenager Younge had attended Anti-Apartheid Movement protests outside South Africa House in London with his mother. And he went on to set up an anti apartheid organisation as a student at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. He keenly felt the responsibility of writing the article. 

Dispatches from the Diaspora is divided into five sections, with titles which will be familiar to students of black history and culture. They reflect the fact that Younge is very well connected. Having started out by catching lifts with Mandela’s own bodyguards on that first assignment, he subsequently hung out with many others. They include Angela Davis, Maya Angelou, Mamie Till-Mobley, Desmond Tutu and Stormzy. 

He is also extremely well read, quoting widely from Frederick Douglass to Harriet Becher Stowe, from EH Carr to Mayakovsky and Malcom X—to name just a few. The one section that isn’t named after a well known book or song is entitled, Ways of Seeing, which recalls the work of the great art critic John Berger. But the titles are not chosen at random or simply to show off. Instead, they focus attention on a number of key themes. So for example, the first section A Change Is Gonna Come considers “transformative moments which promise, but don’t always deliver, significant progress.” 

A critical consideration of leaders and leadership in those moments has been a consistent theme of Younge’s journalism. He had an obvious admiration for Mandela. But Younge wasn’t afraid to address the shortcomings and weaknesses of the man who’d founded the African National Congress’ (ANC) armed wing Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation). “A freedom fighter he was, but he was never a revolutionary in a sense that is commonly understood. If anything, he is quite conservative,” he wrote. 

Noting that “consensus building is Mandela’s stock in trade”, Younge anticipated that an ANC government would not live up to the hopes people had invested in it. It’s strategy was based on truth and reconciliation, rather than radical redistribution and transformation. And so it proved, leading to the disillusionment and division that has followed. He talks about it in the book’s second section, Things Fall Apart. 

By Mandela’s death in 2013, the sense of demoralisation had reached a point where ANC president Jacob Zuma was “roundly booed” at the memorial service in Soweto. Younge’s description is of an event that was reverential, but did not quite live up to expectations. He noted, however, that one speaker was “singled out for a particularly warm reception” and “spoke fluently and compellingly”. That person was the then US president Barack Obama.

By 2008, Younge was married to an American and based in the US. As with Mandela, he witnessed Obama’s ascent at close hand. Younge accompanied his uncharacteristically enthusiastic mother- in-law Janet to hear Obama’s nomination speech in Chicago in 2008. He was in a bar on the South Side surrounded by jubilant black voters on election night. 

“Yes we can!” was the slogan Obama rode to office on. “Yes he tried,” was the most Younge was able to conclude as his second term drew to a close. Again, as with Mandela, Younge anticipated that Obama would fail to deliver.  

To be fair to Obama, he never promised radical change. And Younge argues that given the institutions he was embedded in meant he was never going to be in a position to deliver much. He notes, “You don’t get to be President of the United States without raising millions from very wealthy people and corporations (or being a billionaire yourself), who will turn against you if you don’t serve their interests.”

But Younge quite rightly goes on to say, “This excuses Obama nothing. On any number of fronts, particularly the economy, the banks and civil liberties he could have done more, better.” It should be added that Obama recognised the mobilising power of grassroots organisation. He happily relied upon them to get elected, only to marginalise them once he had captured the Oval Office.

It was of course during Obama’s administration that Black Lives Matter (BLM) first emerged on the political scene. It erupted into a fully fledged movement after the hashtag’s adoption on social media, following the acquittal in 2013 of the vigilante who assassinated teenager Trayvon Martin. One of the shorter pieces in this collection is an angry tirade that Younge wrote in the immediate aftermath of that atrocity.

The best journalists do not claim to be objective. Younge’s writing is passionate and committed. One of his previous books, Another Day in the Death of America, is a powerful attempt to expose the brutality of US society and restore the humanity of some of the young victims of the violence it foments. An earlier, smaller book, The Speech, focuses on another key black figure—the Civil Rights leader Dr Martin Luther King. It dissects his famous address at the March on Washington in 1963. The arguments advanced in that book were rehearsed in one of the longer pieces called, The Misremembering of I Have a Dream. It’s included in this collection’s Ways of Seeing section.

Younge is a great admirer of that speech and recognised the radicalism that marked King’s final years. He seeks to rescue the reputation of a fearless fighter, who’s been unfairly characterised as a sellout or mythologised as a liberal in the decades since his assassination in April 1968. 

But, once again, Younge is not prepared to give King a free pass simply because he is black. The section “Express Yourself focuses on interviews he conducted with a range of black figures. One of them was Claudette Colvin, a teenager who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in March 1955. Younge is critical of the way King and others ignored and ostracised the pregnant youth. They preferred to wait until Rosa Parks performed the same act nine months later. 

The Ways of Seeing section suggests that “issues aren’t always black and white”—and that “sometimes it is important to shift our gaze”. It includes a number of interesting pieces that challenge conventional anti-racist thinking—for example about Becher Stowe’s famous book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The article about the popular Netflix TV series Bridgerton suggests that it is not as progressive as its proponents would have us believe.

Arguably though, the most challenging contribution is the article Riots are a Class Act—and often they’re the only alternative. This is a thoughtful and provocative piece, which showcases Younge’s brilliant use of language. Questioning the very use of terminology he asks, “What were the French and American revolutions but riots, endowed by Enlightenment principles and blessed by history?” When commenting on the ultimate weakness of young rioters, he observes, “Many of these French youths may have had a ball last week. But what they really need is a party—a political organisation that will articulate their aspirations.” 

Elsewhere in the same section, he challenges the notion that simply promoting a few black faces into high places will deliver substantial change. He suggests that this is “to trade equal opportunities for photo opportunities, whereby a system looks different but acts the same.”

The final section, “Me, Myself and I” is a selection of “personal essays on experiences that have shaped” the author’s “life and thinking”. It includes a touching tribute to his mother, who died aged 44, and a reflection on what she and the island of her birth instilled in him.

Younge clearly witnessed, researched and wrote about a lot in those 28 years. He is well placed to observe that, while some things have clearly changed, far too little progress has been made. Having seen BLM emerge in the US, his journalistic career ended as the movement burst back onto the streets in 2020. The size of that global explosion was all the more remarkable given that we were in the midst of a pandemic.

He remains hopeful about change, but not through misplaced optimism. As he noted in his final Guardian column, he believes as Karl Marx that human beings have the capacity to make our own history if not in circumstances of our own choosing. He therefore signed off with the words,

“Things look bleak. The propensity to despair is strong but should not be indulged. Sing yourself up. Imagine a world in which you might thrive for which there is no evidence. And then fight for it.”

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