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Euromight: A Quest to Capture the Afro-European Narrative

Khalil Abdullah
Euromight: A Quest to Capture the Afro-European Narrative

Olive Vassell

In March 2012, the British Library — the equivalent of America’s Library of Congress — announced its decision to include in its archive of websites that contribute to the understanding of British society. The website, which was selected from among hundreds of thousands of websites in the country, records the history and ongoing evolution of Afro-Brits and the emergence in other European countries of an African diaspora still struggling to define its identities. The site’s founder and managing editor, London-born Olive Vassell, called the honor “a huge boost, an external recognition of the work that we’re doing.”

Research by Dr. Allison Blakely, the leading scholar on the black presence in Europe, shows that England’s identifiable 1.5 million people of black or African descent is second only to France’s 2.5 million. In most countries, the percentages are small, with populations numbering in the thousands.

However, gathering accurate data on the African presence in European countries is complicated by differing census classification systems. Does “African” include someone from Morocco or refer only to the Sub-Sahara? Additionally, as Blakely has pointed out, the discourse on immigration and other contemporary social issues has somewhat obscured the rise of black European identities — a rise similar, in some ways, to the path of self-definition still being trod by African Americans.

Vassell spoke with New America Media’s Khalil Abdullah about Europe’s ever expanding multicultural landscape and her vision for

What was your initial motivation for founding

I spent a lot of time in and around Europe and I was fascinated with people who were from different places in the world in terms of origin but living in Europe. I would see people like me, but speaking another language. I began to realize there were groups of people from the colonies, from other colonies all over Europe. Why isn’t somebody telling this story? I had all the skills to do it. So I said, “I’m just going to get down to it. I’m going to create the forum.” By then, the Internet was really well-developed and allowed me access to the information I needed to create Euromight.

When did your family come to London?

After the Second World War. Essentially, Britain put out a call for people in its colonies to come to the Motherland, to England, to help the country rebuild. There were some people who were there during the war to fight, but many came afterward, mainly to rebuild.

My family came from Jamaica, but there were those from other parts of the Caribbean and Africa going to the U.K. as well. Large communities of black immigrants settled in London, Birmingham, and Manchester. Those in Liverpool came during the 1600s and 1700s; they’re the oldest community.

Growing up, we had a very, very strong black community in the United Kingdom, and it was the second largest in Europe. Only France’s was larger.

You mentioned Andrea Levy’s book Small Island, about the arrival of African and Caribbean immigrants in England. How was that an accurate depiction of the post-World War II era?

It talks about the lives of people of color arriving and being confronted by signs, “No Coloreds Here” — you know, the usual. And these were people coming to what they thought would be a welcoming place, a place they had read about, a place that they learned about in schools in the Caribbean and in Africa as if it was their backyards. But when they arrived, they were at best ignored and at worst abused. Their credentials weren’t recognized. Some who were teachers in their birthplace, for example, had to work menial jobs.

What makes a distinctive site?

We started working on the concept in early 2009 and launched later that year in September. I wanted to attract a cross-section of people on all levels, from people who were interested in hard news and politics to those who were just interested in the Ghanaian guy who won the Italian version of America’s Got Talent, Italy’s Got Talent.

I wanted to be able to have this hub, this repository, this living positive information for people. The site has a section called “People Watch,” which features various political figures in different countries. We have an Afrocentric City Guide to many capital cities in Europe that you’d never think of as having an Afrocentric component.

What is an example of a European capital city you feel the world sees through only a Eurocentric lens?

Rome. We just put the new City Guide on the site. There are areas in Rome where a lot of African people live. There are restaurants, there are bookstores, there are traders. You’d never know unless you had some kind of information — information that we have.

Paris is well known. Obviously there are a lot of places in Paris, markets where there are African, Caribbean people, and there are whole neighborhoods. I found a hotel in Paris, owned by a Jamaican woman, where I stay whenever I go.

The adventure is really finding what the contribution is on every level. And I know when I go to a city in Europe, I want to know where people of color live. That’s part of my experience. We wanted to be able to do that work and, of course, it’s fun. I get to have this thrill. I get information; I’m learning as I go. One of our contributors might discover an Afro-Belgian writer I’ve never heard of, or somebody doing a TV show who is Afro-German. It’s mind-boggling, our contribution and our invisibility — not only to the world outside of Europe but also to each other.

Why did you select Euromight as the name for your site?

I wanted to convey two ideas: one, the European connection. The other one was “might,” which I thought dealt with two things: the power and also the possibility of the collective.

I think it’s only now beginning to dawn on us that we can talk to each other. If the European Union, as a whole, talks to each other with all these differences, all these languages, why shouldn’t we? There are often commonalities that we face, oppression, being on the bottom of the social pile — I mean things that we face en masse, similar to what black people in America face. We’re beginning to understand.

What has changed in Europe since your childhood?

The ability to move around Europe freely and live in Europe. I mean, I can live anywhere in Europe, being part of the EU. I can literally say, “Tomorrow, I want to live in Rome.” That never used to happen.

In addition to travel, how is the Internet fostering communication throughout Europe?

I’ve presented papers about the impact of the Internet, including a presentation in Spain on how the Internet is beginning to revolutionize the Afro-European story and the connections between Afro-Europeans, because now we can literally talk to each other in ways we couldn’t before. We have blogs from all over Europe by people of African origin who are living in Germany, in Spain, in Sweden, you name it. And they tell their story online of what their lives are like. The Internet has had a profound effect.

Are you still teaching journalism at the University of the District of Columbia?

Yes, I live a truly transatlantic life. I teach at University of the District of Columbia during the school year and have included UDC students in my work. Some have contributed to Euromight. When I’m not teaching, I head back to Europe to visit as many countries as possible and I focus on specific countries. I find contributors there because they need to be able to write or contribute in their own language. We can translate into English, but there needs to be a network within their own communities. I mean, I can’t write from outside. I don’t understand their communities and their issues quite the way they do, what their stories are. We also aggregate, so we link other sites.

There are so many stories that sometimes I am dazzled by the information. People are living these lives, generation after generation, with no recognition and no knowledge of them outside of their immediate community.

Do you have formal training as a journalist?

I had studied languages as an undergrad and intended to be an interpreter and work for the United Nations or the EU, but I went to BBC radio. I became smitten with journalism while in Egypt and then went on to journalism school at the City University London. I was in one of their first cohorts of the international journalism program there. We had hands-on experience with top reporters and editors from all over the world. With that degree in my tool belt, I said, “I’m good to go.”

How did you get to America?

I had a pen pal whom I met in France. She moved to South Carolina and then to Washington, D.C. She used to walk past The Washington Afro-American Newspaper’s office on the way to work every day. I was coming to visit and she said, “Why don’t you see if they want any volunteers over there?” It was through that lens at The Afro that I learned about Washington, about America — the real America — not the America I had read in the books from thousands of miles away. That America wasn’t glamorized really, but it was idealistic. It was the iconic, larger-than-life America.

From what country does most of the Internet traffic to Euromight originate?

Most of the traffic comes from the United States, and I’ll tell you why. We have found that people of color in the United States, African Americans, are interested in black people everywhere. And they’ve got very distinct definitions of what is black and of what needs to be done. In Europe, it’s a lot trickier, and this is part of the scholarship that’s going on. There [are] all these thoughts and theories about whether an Afro-European even exists and how you would define them. Who would be an Afro-European?

For example, in France last year they had the first Miss Black France competition, the first ever. There was a big controversy, both in the general community and within the black community. The school of thought for some people was, “We’re French. We’re not black French, so why do we need a Miss Black France?”

This sounds like the old debate about the concept of Négritude advocated by Léopold Senghor in the 1930s.

Exactly. And every country in Europe has a slightly different version of that. “Am I Italian or am I Afro-Italian?” “Am I British, English,” or as they like to call people in the U.K., “Afro-Caribbean,” which has no “British” in it — nothing to do with the country where you are. They are literally called Afro-Caribbean. That’s how you talk about somebody who is a black British person.

So, it’s enough to complicate what I’m doing because, obviously, the debate is still out on how we should define ourselves. Are you talking about people who have been there since the 1700s versus recent immigrants? Are they the same group of people? Do they have the same interests? Do they have the same connections? So our story is very, very complicated and defined by the fact that we were colonized by so many different people with different philosophies.

Remember, the French did not do what the English did. They didn’t make African immigrants “other” in the same way. They intermarried, and were “French,” even though in reality they weren’t necessarily treated in the same way other French were, but that’s made it very difficult for Afro-French people, French people of color, to raise the debate about discrimination, because, “What are you talking about? You’re French. What’s the problem?”

So, trust me, this is why this is going to be a lifelong work. There are so many pieces of it. As a scholar, I address some of them. As a journalist, I address other pieces, and then as a person of African descent from Europe, I had to jump in and begin to tell my story, our story. My contribution is to make sure that we are a part of the story, part of history. I’ve found my raison d’être.