Jessica Bowen tells us the importance behind Johny Pitts & Roger Robinson’s new book ‘Home Is Not a Place‘
Last week I had the pleasure of attending a poetry event hosted by writer, poet, and artist Malika Booker at the Manchester Poetry Library. The event was in admiration of Home Is Not a Place, a photography and poetry book curated by Johny Pitts and Roger Robinson.
Johny Pitts is an accomplished writer, photographer, and musician. His 2019 award-winning book Afropean: Notes from Black Europe explores the past and present residence of Black people throughout Europe and the challenges they face as Afro-Europeans.
Co-curator of Home Is Not a Place, Roger Robinson is also an award-winning writer. In 2019, he received the T.S Eliot prize for his book A Portable Paradise – making him the second writer of Caribbean descent to do so.
These two artists have come together to make a beacon of Black-British artistry with Home Is Not a Place. The pair travelled the UK in a Mini Cooper, listening to the Soulquarians and eating fish and chips. They visited places such as Glasgow, Blackpool, and Bristol to capture people of the African diaspora in cities where there is not a large population. Speaking about how they captured the moments that feature within the book, the duo says:
Johny: “I’d always head to the outskirts of town, it’s that kind of that Toni Morrison (Afro-American novelist) idea of standing on the border and claiming it centre that’s where I find the truth of the place.”
Roger: “I would walk around and observe the city. At the end, we had all these poems and all these photographs. We kind of threw them up in the air and we wanted to see how they would land. We would ask people questions about their lives they have never been asked before.”
From this, we see how our culture thrives outside big cities and larger populations, where it often goes unnoticed. The book shows our beauty and our hardships. Johny says he wanted to capture “a real everyday-ness” and to “work with the notion of a photograph as a window.” His photos along with Roger’s words illustrate a story on each page, making the book so skilled and thought-provoking.
The book is a love letter to black working-class Britain and the Black people who were the subject of this project. The photos capture them, while the words tell their story. We see every day British living, such as a group of schoolchildren exiting a boat at a dock, people commuting on the London tube, and Roger eating fish and chips. All inherently British things are carried out by Black people.
Johny: “This book was powered by the generosity of the Black community.”
Roger: “The way we saw the coast was not just true Blackness, we saw Britain through a prism of Black eyes. However, as good as things get, some things remain. Sometimes Black people do this thing called code-switching to try fit in with the dominant lingo to try and make them seem less dangerous”
The Interview is a soul-touching excerpt from the book. It shows the ins and outs of a Black man code-switching to try to get a job within a white-dominated space. The way Roger writes makes you feel like you are inside the man’s brain, in a frantic state and trying to distort himself to be suitable enough in the eyes of a white man:
“The Blackman had an interview. He grabbed a pair of glasses to look less threatening. He felt silly (there was nothing wrong with his eyes). He thought perhaps a tweed jacket, something more traditional. No, no jewellery. He would not have bothered, but he needed this job. A short afro was the best he could do. He was trying to present himself in a way that was unthreatening (though he knew that there was no threat there).”
The piece later paints the picture of the man’s struggle for fair treatment equal to his white counterparts. The man is so eager to be on time as he, a Black man, knows, tardiness is a stereotype he does not want to be associated with. He shows up on time and is told his name is not on the list. He knows his name is on the list and asks them to “check again.”
When his tone slightly changes out of sheer anxiety, the security tackles him, trying to throw him out on the assumption he does not belong. Then, his name is called to be interviewed. At this point, his jacket ripped, his glasses cracked, and his dignity stripped, yet he must go in for his interview.
Unfortunately, this represents the sad reality for many Black people across the world, trying to assimilate as much as they can just for equal opportunity, and it does not pay off. From this excerpt, we gain insight into the perspective of a Black man who is often perceived as dangerous. This excerpt would be beneficial for white people to read. It gives them an idea of what many Black people go through daily and could make them question their preconceptions of Black people.
This book is so well-rounded. It envisions Black life from every angle, with struggle just as much as joy and love. We see Black love in photos of couples, friends, and family, which is evident throughout the book.
Not only from the book do we witness this Black joy from the people, but we also feel the joy of the creators who made it. From going to this poetry event, I felt a strong friendship between Johny and Roger. I felt like the audience were also going around the UK with them in their comically small choice of transport. They talked us through the creative process behind the book, and the fun and joy of doing it, while also explaining some of the excerpts in such detail I could envision each story perfectly. The photos and poems take you to each city, and each coast without even being there physically. The book is a journey, beautifully portrayed through poetry and photography. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone.