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Gary Younge
Temples for tomorrow

Those who believe that I should have trusted my instincts and not bothered may have a point. My aim here is neither to justify what I have done one way or another, but to say goodbye.

As I vacate this fortnightly slot - I may still appear in this space from time to time, but am more likely to be found elsewhere in the paper - to become the Guardian's New York correspondent, I am glad I took up the challenge.

Having a protected and discrete place in which to pursue a line of thought has given me the rare opportunity to explore issues or arguments for their own sakes - such where does anti-Zionism stop, and anti-semitism start; or the difference between realism and fatalism in politics. Having to do so on a regular basis has led me to territory I might not have encountered otherwise - whether to Prague to assess the quest for a Roma nation, or Redcar to examine the argument for a regional parliament.

But most of all I have been grateful for the encouragement of readers - people whose buttons I may have pressed, and who, whether they agreed or not, were prepared to engage with my writing. Not least, the words of support from black and Asian readers, often isolated where they work or live, who may share a perspective without necessarily sharing a conclusion.

All of this has been important, because along with the support has come hostility from those who object to my very existence - racist hate mail that has been so intense I have had to go the police, but, at times, has been difficult to distinguish from the plain hateful. At one stage I received a letter from a Telegraph journalist accompanied by an article by Paul Johnson from the Daily Mail, stating: "You clearly know nothing about your country." The same Johnson article had arrived the day before with racist epithets scrawled over it from a BNP supporter. The link between the benign and the brutal is not as tenuous as one might think.

From the outset, before I had written a word, I was advised by many, most of whom I believe genuinely had my interests at heart, not to dwell on race. "You'll get yourself pigeonholed," they warned. A conundrum because, as the very phrasing made clear, while the responsibility for this perception would be mine, those actually doing the pigeonholing remain invisible and elusive.

Moreover, with the occasional exception of Jewish colleagues, I doubt any other columnists are asked to stay away from areas where they have knowledge, which are of interest to readers and the public and are key issues in political discourse - particularly those that are covered so poorly. In the words of Steve Biko, the late black-consciousness activist murdered by the apartheid regime, "I write what I like."

In doing so I have discovered just how accurate those initial warnings were. The desire to stereotype and pigeonhole is strong - and, for some, almost irresistible. All too often I have been asked: "Do you consider yourself a black columnist, or a columnist who happens to be black?" The question presupposes that you cannot be both black and a columnist, but must chose between one and the other.

Being black is not a vocation. If it is I would have to go on strike, because the hours are long and the pay pathetic. It is one of the things I am, it is not any of the things I do. Race does not define me. Nor does it shape my worldview any more than it does white columnists. The fact that I am aware of it means it is more likely to inform the subjects I write about.

Just under a third of these columns have been about race. For a period that spanned the racially motivated bombings in London, rioting in the north west, the triumph of Le Pen and the BNP, and the asylum and immigration bill, this does not seem excessive for a writer with an interest in the subject. But for some, who have pilloried and pleaded with me "to stop banging on about it", even this has been too many. All I can say is that, while many black and Asian people have expressed delight that I write about issues other than race, none of them has ever said: "Why do you keep writing about us all the time? We are so well covered everywhere else."

The sad fact is that, given how few black political columnists there are in Britain (after today there will be one left in the national broadsheets, and another in the mainstream magazines), you can't be both black and a columnist at the same time. Not because your race intrudes on your critical faculties, but because racism impedes your advancement. The talent is there. It is the will, within the British media, to find it, nurture it and use it, that is lacking.

For the few who do make it there is what the African-American essayist James Baldwin termed "the burden of representation". The pressure to use a position of relative influence to place concerns and issues in the mainstream has been considerable and understandable. It is not a coincidence that most of the space for columnists emerged in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence report, nor contradictory to draw a link between commentators and the community whose struggles helped earn them their space.

But there is no way the few who have a platform can begin to reflect the diversity of the many who don't. So while I have been sympathetic to that pressure, I have been resistant to it too. Nobody elected me, and I am accountable to no one. That is not a flight from responsibility, but a reflection of reality. We do not need our handful of black journalists to ape our handful of black MPs. We need more black MPs, and more black journalists, free to map their own agenda.

If this column has inspired, irritated, frustrated or fascinated you, then I'm delighted - so long as it made you think. If it did none of those, never mind - I look forward to the day when you can turn the page or pick up an other publication and find lots of other black columnists to agree or disagree with.

Until then, I will follow the manifesto of Langston Hughes, published in 1926, who made his name as the poet laureate of the Harlem renaissance in what will soon be my home town: "We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual, dark-skinned selves without fear or shame," wrote Hughes. "If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on the top of the mountain, free within ourselves."

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The following correction appeared in the Guardian's Corrections and Clarifications column, Tuesday December 10 2002

We may have given the impression in the heading of this article, that Gary Younge was leaving the Guardian, journalism or the comment pages. In fact he is going to the US and his column will begin again in February - but on a monthly rather than a fortnightly basis.

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