Journalism in the service of society

‘I have no problem being regarded as a Black writer, but I won’t be confined by it’: 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

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.

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.

Gary Younge
Nelson Mandela campaigns at a rally before the first democratic elections in South Africa, 1994. Photograph: Louise Gubb/Corbis/Getty Images

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.” a-black-writer-but-i-wont-be-confined-by-it-gary-younge-on-race-politics-and-pigeonholing

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