Gary Younge on race, politics and pigeonholing
At 24, Gary Younge was sent to report for the Guardian on South Africa’s first democratic elections. Thirty years on, he reflects on his career, how the world has changed – and what still needs to be done
On the eve of South Africa’s first democratic elections I slept at the home of a family in Soweto so I could accompany them to the polls the next day. A thick fog hung low over the township that morning and was only just beginning to burn off as they went to cast their ballots. Beyond those closest to you, all you could see were shoes and trouser hems, the number of ankles growing with every step and every block as more joined us on our way to the polling station. Dressed in Sunday best, nobody was talking. Nelson Mandela had described his political journey as “the long walk to freedom”. This was the final march.
It was a huge day for me personally. As a 17-year-old I had picketed the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square with my mother, calling for Mandela’s release; as an 18-year-old I had set up an anti-apartheid organisation at my university in Scotland. And now here I was, watching the mist burn on the moment.
But it was important for me professionally, too. The Guardian had sent me to South Africa, aged 24, to “try and get some of the stories white journalists couldn’t get”. I had stayed in Alexandria township for several weeks, and travelled to Moria, near Polokwane, in a minibus with members of the Zion Christian Church for their Easter pilgrimage. But my main assignment had been to follow Mandela on his campaign trail.
There was just one catch: I couldn’t drive. Mandela’s campaign took him to far-flung areas of a country with precious little public transport. To get the job done I had to organise an elaborate network of favours. I got lifts to rallies with journalists, paying for their petrol and keeping them company. Once there, I would then ask if anyone was heading back to the nearest big town and do the same again. During one of those trips a film crew dropped me off at a petrol station and told me they’d arranged for others to take me the rest of the way. The people who picked me up were Mandela’s bodyguards. We got chatting. They found me amusing (more accurately put, I made it my business to amuse them). We had things to talk about. I had studied in the Soviet Union (my degree was in French and Russian), as had many of them; I had been involved in the anti-apartheid movement; and I was from England, where a number of them had spent some time in exile. They let me hang around with them on a regular basis.
So there I was, an occasional extra in Mandela’s extended entourage, with a ringside seat on history. The trouble was, I still had to write the article. It was to occupy the most coveted slot in the paper at the time, and I felt the pressure keenly. Just a day before I had to file I was still lost in the piece and couldn’t pull the various strands together. I’d never felt so out of my depth.
I gave it to David Beresford, the Guardian’s senior correspondent in South Africa at the time, who went through it slowly, giving precious little away. He handed it back with “&” signs where he thought I should expand it and “£” signs where I should shorten it. “It’s all there,” he said. “There are some wonderful bits. But you’ve been working on it so long you can’t see them. You need to take a break from it.” I had to file it the next day. “Let’s go and get something to eat,” he said, “and talk about something else, and then you work on it overnight, and it’ll be great.”
I don’t know if he really believed that. But I didn’t. I spent all night on it, moving things around, chop-ping bits out and adding information elsewhere, as he’d suggested. When morning came, I sent it over to the paper, convinced I had delivered an incoherent mess and that the notion of sending a young Black journalist to cover a huge story would be forever tarnished. Then I headed for Soweto to stay with a family for the night before going to the polls with them.
Communications back then were relatively basic. I didn’t have a mobile phone, so I had no idea how the piece had been received. I spent the day with the family as they went to vote. It was only when I went to file that story that I began to receive a number of internal messages, each one coming up separately on my computer, as though on ticker tape: first peers, then desk editors, then the deputy editor and finally the editor (a first), all complimenting me on the article. And so it was that I sat in a house in Soweto with my eyes welling up, feeling a mixture of relief, accomplishment and regret that my mother, who had stood alongside me on those night-time pickets, was not there to read it.
This was the article that launched my career, and within a few months I was offered a staff job. Originally I had wanted to be the Moscow correspondent. But in 1996 I was awarded the Laurence Stern fellowship, which sends one young British journalist to the Washington Post every year to work for a summer on the national desk. I fell in love with an American. Within three years I had written a book about travelling through America’s deep south; within seven I was the Guardian’s New York correspondent.
I have covered six UK general elections, seven US presidential elections, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Tea Party and Brexit. I have reviewed books, films and television shows and commented on the wars in Bosnia, Iraq and Libya, the Arab Spring, migration, gay rights, terrorism, Islamophobia, feminism, antisemitism, economic inequality, social protest, guns, knives, nuclear weapons, the Roma in eastern Europe, Latinos in America, Turks in Germany and Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. I have examined the impact that McDonald’s apple-dippers will have on the agricultural sector and why children love spaghetti.
I’ve also focussed on issues emerging from the African diaspora, including the Caribbean, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone and Europe, as well as Britain and the US. This is a path that, from the very outset, I was warned not to take. To become too identified with issues of race and racism (Black people, basically) would, some said, see me pigeonholed.
That advice, which came from older white journalists (pretty much the only older journalists available when I started out), was rarely malicious. They thought they were looking out for me. A fear of being “pigeonholed” is one of the most common crippling anxieties of any minority in any profession. Being seen only as the thing that makes you different by those with the power to make that difference matter really is limiting.
There were other, older, white editors (pretty much the only editors available when I started out) who wanted me to write only about race. One of the first columns I wrote for the Guardian, about the Nato bombing of Bosnia, was spiked because the Comment editor at the time thought I should stick to subjects closer to home. “We have people who can write about Bosnia,” he said. “Can you add an ethnic sensibility to this?”
The problem with both of these requests is that they didn’t take into account the fact that I might want to write about the things I was interested in and knew about. Race in particular, and Black people in general, were a couple of the subjects I wanted to focus on. They weren’t dealt with particularly well or at all comprehensively at the time, so there was lots to write about and improve on. In almost three decades of reporting, no Black person has ever approached me and asked me to write about them less, even if they weren’t always in agreement with what I wrote.
But Black people and race were never the only things I was interested in. (Looking back, they are covered in fewer than half of my articles.) My advice to young Black journalists has always been to write about the things they are interested in and passionate about because that’s what they’ll write about best. If it’s race, great. If it’s fashion, finance or travel, that’s great, too. They’ll still be Black.
In his 1926 essay, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, Langston Hughes writes about a young Black poet who insisted he wanted to be known as a poet, “not a Negro poet”. “And I was sorry the young man said that,” reflected Hughes, “for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself.” Or as the artist Chris Ofili told me, when I asked him during an interview how he responded to the threat of pigeonholing: “Well, pigeons can fly.”
I have no problem being regarded as a Black writer. It’s an adjective, not an epithet. It’s not the only adjective available, and I have no interest in being confined by it. But I’m not in flight from it either. In the words of the late Toni Morrison, when asked if she found it limiting to be described as a Black woman writer: “I’m already discredited. I’m already politicised, before I get out of the gate. I can accept the labels because being a Black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination, it expands it.”
The Black diaspora has indeed provided an incredibly rich source to write from and about. I got drunk with Maya Angelou in her limousine on the way back from a performance. (“Do you want ice and stuff [with your whisky]?” her assistant asked her. “I want some ice, but mostly I want stuff,” came Angelou’s reply.) I had Archbishop Desmond Tutu nearly fall asleep on me, speech slowing and eyelids drooping, punished by a schedule that would wear out a much younger man. I have had the privilege of chatting to Stormzy in his living room, Angela Davis in her office, and of counting Andrea Levy as a close friend.
It has at times been heartening, such as spending election night with African Americans in a bar in Chicago’s South Side as Obama emerged victorious, or watching the St Louis suburb of Ferguson rise up in protest against police brutality. At other times it could be incredibly distressing, such as when witnessing the effects of civil war in Haiti and Sierra Leone, or entering New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
At times I’ve written not reportage but analysis – attempting to momentarily shift the reader’s gaze – so that we might understand the world differently; imagining, for example, how Boris Johnson would fare if he were a Black woman, or what a good White history month might look like. I’ve written both in defence of Uncle Tom, the much-maligned 19th-century fictional character, and for the right to riot against state oppression and structural inequality.
Sometimes it’s about bearing testimony to the moment. The article I wrote about the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin was written at an angry, late hour, filed quickly in the hope that it would help shape whatever discussions came afterwards; the account of the night of Obama’s victory was written in the early hours of the morning, after no sleep, and as the results were still coming in. But it took me three years to find Claudette Colvin, who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1955 – nine months before Rosa Parks – but who had not been championed until relatively recently, and I spent a year shuttling to and from New Orleans after Katrina.
In many ways, the world I write in now is hugely different to the one into which the piece about Mandela’s campaign was published. South Africa has been a stable multiracial democracy for almost three decades; the US has had a Black president, now has a Black vice-president, and has trebled the number of people of colour in its supreme court. There are almost eight times the number of Black MPs in the UK parliament than there were then, and Black actors, artists and writers who would once have struggled to gain a platform are now far more prominent. Meanwhile, almost a decade of intermittent Black Lives Matter protests, which crescendoed after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, have raised popular awareness about the issue of racism, to the point where two-thirds of Britons are aware of the terms “institutional racism” and “systemic racism”. The language has changed; the conversation is better. We are not where we were.
And yet despite all that has changed, what is most remarkable is how much has remained the same. South Africa is still the most unequal society in the world, while the gaps in both wealth and unemployment between Black and white Americans rose during Obama’s tenure, as did the Black poverty rate. In Britain, the Windrush scandal saw Black citizens deported or deprived of their basic rights because they could not prove they were British to a sufficient threshold. Black incarceration grew and young Black men, in particular, found themselves persistently and disproportionately at risk of being stopped and searched in the streets by the police.
The disproportionate number of Black deaths across the globe during the Covid-19 pandemic exposed the degree to which racism remains a hardy virus that adapts to the body politic in which it finds a home, developing new and ever more potent strains. We are neither where we need to be nor have we travelled quite as far as some think. Indeed, if those protests have taught us anything, it is how little has changed, beyond the urgent realisation that so little had changed for so many for so long.
I am by nature an optimist. But I am not delusional. Over more than two decades spent reporting from the frontline of the Black diaspora, I have seen how much change is possible and the potential of humanity to rise to those changes, but I have also witnessed the power systems have to thwart those aspirations, openly and covertly. The progress we seek will not come about through benevolence and enlightenment, but by will and resistance. It will come, as Mandela arrived and as thousands poured on to the streets to protest more recently, because we demand it.
This is an extract from Gary Younge’s Dispatches from the Diaspora: From Nelson Mandela to Black Lives Matter, published by Faber.