The list of people of African origin who continue to bring victories and glories to their adopted European countries continues to grow but how integral are they in the largely white societies? Do they really belong? By Clayton Goodwin.
One of my most poignant memories of last year was standing for the German national anthem, played in honour of an African athlete representing the home nation at the European Athletics Championships in Berlin. It was in the same stadium in which Adolf Hitler had taken the salute at the contentious Olympic Games of 1936. The bones of the departed Führer would have turned in their grave – if only it could be found.
The recipient, Malaika Mihambo, gold medallist in the long jump, had been born in Heidelberg to a Tanzanian mother and a German father. She was far from being alone in her heritage: this was the Championship in which African athletes came to Europe, representing a range of European countries, and conquered. They made Europe their own.
Their names trip off the role of honour. Do you remember Sifan Hassan, born in Ethiopia and running for the Netherlands, whose triumph in the 5,000 metres crowned a successful year which had started with victory in the World Indoor Athletics Championships at Birmingham and included winning the inaugural Millicent Fawcett Mile in London?
The media, especially British television, will not let us forget telegenic Dina Asher-Smith, the 22-year-old sprinter, who was the star all-round performer of the competition. She won the 100 metres on the opening evening, picked up the 200 metres gold medal along the way, and closed as a member of the victorious 4 x 100 metres relay team (all members of which were of African heritage).
Her country has lost a legend in the recently-retired Mo Farah, but has found another one in the making. There was an African medal winner in almost every discipline – heptathlete Nafissatou Thiam from Belgium, high-jumper Marie-Laurence Jungfleisch from Germany, long-distance runners Lonah Chemptai Salpeter from Israel, and Meraf Bahta and Yasemin Can representing Sweden and Turkey respectively, with a cluster of young lady sprinters from Switzerland spearheaded by veteran Mujinga Kambundji.
Among the men were Zhanel Hughes and Matthew Hudson-Smith from Great Britain & Northern Ireland, triple-jumper Nelson Evora from Portugal and hurdler Pascal Martinot-Lagarde from France. Morhad Amdouni in the 10,000 metres and Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad in the 3,000 metres steeplechase each represented France from a North African heritage.
These examples should be sufficient to establish that Africans are at the heart of Europe – and not only in athletics or even sport generally (I won’t start to enumerate the African footballers who grace the stadiums of the continent).
But many of these same athletes will be coming to the United Kingdom for the European Indoor Championships in Glasgow from 1–3 March. At that time there will be heightened talk about Europe – and not all of it in the track and field athletics context. Then there will be less than a month before this country is set to leave the European Union. It’s the dreaded Brexit, a subject that I cannot avoid any longer.
A colleague, a cricket author who has a varied Caribbean heritage, told me that he had voted Remain in the referendum of 2016 – but he did so as the lesser of two evils – the devil you know being better than the angel you don’t. He didn’t feel that people of his background could ever feel part of Europe, emotionally or culturally. Many others have spoken in a similar vein.
Europe is considered widely to be a white man’s club. That is a failure in the manner in which the concept has been presented. Africans have been integral to the European framework from just as far back as you care to look. For several years from 193 AD, the political leader of the Roman Empire, Septimius Severus, then the heart of the ‘Western world’, and the spiritual leader, Pope Victor I, were both North Africans. Then the Mediterranean brought nations together, not kept them apart.
Airbrushed out of achievements?
What of today, when black people have been airbrushed out of many of the achievements of this same Western world? Do Africans belong there today?
You need only go in the rush hour to the main railway stations throughout the continent – whether it be the Gare Midi in Brussels, the Gare du Nord in Paris, Amsterdam’s Centraal station, or just about any metropolitan thoroughfare – to see thousands of Africans (office staff, factory workers, or those in the service and caring industries) making their way through the turnstiles on their way to keeping their country’s economy buoyant.
The Kwakoe festival formerly held in the shadow of the Ajax Arena in the Bijlmer district of south-east Amsterdam attracted hundreds of thousands of African and Caribbean visitors (was it really a million, as the promoters proclaimed?). My wife, who was born and raised in Jamaica, said that she had never seen so many people of African heritage gathered together in one place.
You would have difficulty in convincing an objective observer otherwise than that Africans do belong in Europe.
Of course, Europe is a white man’s/woman’s continent. That is determined by demography, culture and history. It is not to say that Africans have no part in its past, its present or its future. Every tune has a dominant theme, and, I suppose, that as such, it could stand alone, but the melody would not be as fulfilling and enriching as it is when other rhythms are interwoven.
The right to belong should be asserted particularly when the benefits of that right are often withheld. Even if Africans do not participate in the decisions which affect them, others will do so for them – and not necessarily to their advantage. Make no mistake, immigration is at the heart of the Leave campaign: Prime Minister Theresa May says so almost every time she speaks, and others on the fringe of accepted political activity, even more so those beyond, are blunter still.
It is little comfort that today, anti-immigration rhetoric is directed primarily against East Europeans and Muslims rather than those from the so-called ‘new Commonwealth’. Friends and relatives who came to the UK in the late 1950s and early 1960s, living through Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech in 1968 and the rise of the National Front the following decade, bear witness that, just when they thought that they had been accepted in British society, the recent talk of a “hostile environment” for immigrants has raised fearful memories of those troubled times.
Honi soit qui mal y pense
Mrs May, the daughter of a clergyman, should know the biblical quotation about “those who live by the sword shall die by the sword” and surmise that those who wish a “hostile environment” on others should not be surprised when that “hostile environment” is visited on themselves.
The French saying for this is: Honi soit qui mal y pense or “Shame be to him who thinks evil of it”.
The Olympia Stadium in Berlin, where this story started, is approached by way of Jesse-Owens-Allee. This avenue is named after the African-American athlete whose victories in three sprints and the long-jump shattered the Aryan-ascendant aspirations of Adolf Hitler.
Of the dictator, however, there is no memorial – neither at the stadium, nor in the city, nor anywhere in the world that I can find. Politics and politicians, however persuasive and powerful they may appear to be at the time, pass away. It is the participation of the people and their interaction with each other which endures.
Africans and ‘native’ Europeans will continue to compete and co-exist in this continent whatever is said and done: the melody provided by their actions will still draw on the harmony of its component rhythms. And, surprisingly, it has been possible to get through an article of this length mentioning the B-word only once! Oh, that it may continue. NA