Journalist, author, sociology lecturer and former Editor-at-Large at The Guardian, Gary Younge is heading to our city in March to discuss his sixth book. Ahead of his visit, we sit down with him to delve deeper into his fascinating career…
Back in 2015, you inspired the artistic work of a Nottingham-based artist called Chiara Dellerba. She created a piece inspired by your book, Who are We? How important do you think the connection between your work, which is very hard-hitting political writing, and the more artistic manner of communicating political thought is?
I think all these things are interconnected. My work is influenced by music and literature and other people’s work. One hopes that your own work will leave its mark on others, but you very rarely know what impact you have. I think of intellectual work as being like pollination. It lands in all these different places and then people take it and spread it and it lands somewhere else. It’s essential for everybody. My work is non-fiction, but we know that is not the only way that you get a message across. Quite often, it may be the most obvious but it's rarely the most effective - if we think of the role that music and theatre have played in political change in the past.
You have spoken about being politically active from a very young age and your experience as a seventeen-year-old boy going to Kassala, Sudan, with Project Trust to teach English in a UN Eritrean refugee school. How do you think this experience has impacted your work?
That experience came out of my political passion. I was raised by my mother and two brothers and my mother was a very political, with a small p, woman. So, we grew up with a sense of Britain and its colonial past, issues of race and discrimination more broadly, issues around the Holocaust and antisemitism. I grew up in a very politicised household.
When I was sixteen, I went on pickets to support the miners and so on. My mum and I used to picket the South African Embassy every Friday against apartheid. By the time I went to Sudan I was a very politicised individual - it was a very traumatic thing to do but, in some ways, it was one of the less political things I did. For as long as I can remember, my life has involved that kind of critical element to it. When you’re seven or eight that’s not going to involve a whole lot of action. Growing up black in seventies Britain meant that you had to constantly be critiquing. You were in a constant state of inquiry, which led me to a kind of political analysis. There was a real logic to it.
I think of intellectual work as being like pollination. It lands in all these different places and then people take it and spread it and it lands somewhere else
Focusing more on your upcoming book, the subtitle is From Nelson Mandela to Black Lives Matter. Why did you choose this name?
I’ve been lucky enough in my career to have a ringside seat at some amazing historical moments. My first break in journalism was following Nelson Mandela on his first election after coming out of prison, and I was 25. I couldn’t drive and so I ended up getting lifts with his bodyguards and we got on very well. I was involved in the anti-apartheid movement and I have studied in the Soviet Union and they invited me to come along with them, so I did. This was the very beginning of my career and the piece of work that got me my job which is why the book starts with that. It starts with Mandela and ends with this moment. The last piece that I have written is an interview with Lewis Hamilton and he’s talking about the impact that Black Lives Matter has had on him as a racing car driver. The subheading shows the bookends really. All the interviews and personal essays in the book are issues around race which I think have been very poorly reported.
Obviously, the book explores this in more depth, but what are the main similarities and differences between Nelson Mandela’s movement and BLM?
The key difference would be the ANC, which Mandela led, an organisation with very clear demands and a structure from top to bottom. The ANC was a prescribed organisation and by Mandela saying “we should be equal” he was put in prison. Well, we don’t have that anymore if you look at BLM, but what we do have is the legacies of that kind of racism all over the world. If for 200 years you say to people, you can’t walk and if you try to walk, we’ll shoot you. And then after 200 years you said, “Okay everybody can walk now,” the people who haven’t been walking for two years are going to struggle.
So even when you get rid of the laws, you still have to deal with the legacy and history. BLM is about this, but it doesn’t have an organisation. BLM has no clear set of demands. It’s been a consciousness raising moment and it’s been very effective as this but, in many ways, one could argue because of social media - which is much more powerful and quicker to respond. The institution or organisation doesn’t exist and so it’s cleared a lot of space in terms of how we think about race. So, they are very different and I’m not saying one is better or worse than the other.
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