What Black America Means to Europe

A Justice for Black Lives protest, London, June 2020
Neil Hall/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
A Justice for Black Lives protest, London, June 2020

In September 1963, in Llansteffan, Wales, a stained-glass artist named John Petts was listening to the radio when he heard the news that four black girls had been murdered in a bombing just after Sunday school at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

The news deeply moved Petts, who was white and British. “Naturally, as a father, I was horrified by the death of the children,” said Petts, in a recording archived by London’s Imperial War Museum. “As a craftsman in a meticulous craft, I was horrified by the smashing of all those [stained-glass] windows. And I thought to myself, my word, what can we do about this?”

Petts decided to employ his skills as an artist in an act of solidarity. “An idea doesn’t exist unless you do something about it,” he said. “Thought has no real living meaning unless it’s followed by action of some kind.”

With the help of the editor of Wales’s leading newspaper, The Western Mail, he launched an appeal for funds to replace the church’s stained-glass window. “I’m going to ask no one to give more than half a crown [the equivalent of a dime back then],” the editor told Petts. “We don’t want some rich man as a gesture paying the whole window. We want it to be given by the people of Wales.”

Two years later, the Alabama church installed Petts’s window, flecked with shades of blue, featuring a black Christ, his head bowed and arms splayed above him as though on a crucifix, suspended over the words “You did it to me” (taken from Matthew 25:40: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me”).

Europe’s identification with Black America, particularly during times of crisis, resistance, and trauma, has a long and complex history. It is fueled in no small part by traditions of internationalism and antiracism on the European left, where Paul Robeson, Richard Wright, Audre Lorde, and others found an ideological—and, at times, literal—home.

“From a very early age, my family had supported Martin Luther King and civil rights,” the Northern Irish Catholic author and screenwriter Ronan Bennett, who was wrongfully incarcerated by the British in the infamous Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, told me. “We had this instinctive sympathy with black Americans. A lot of the iconography and even the anthems, like ‘We Shall Overcome,’ were taken from Black America. By about ’71 or ’72, I was more interested in Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver than Martin Luther King.”

But this tradition of political identification with Black America also leaves significant space for the European continent’s inferiority complex, as it seeks to cloak its military…

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