16 March 2023

Gary Younge on the shaping of political consciousness

Posted by Gary Younge

Dispatches from the Diaspora brings together three decades of Gary Younge’s journalism on race, racism and black life and death, from Nelson Mandela’s first election campaign to the Black Lives Matter movement. In this blogpost, Younge reflects on how our political consciousnesses are shaped.

While interviewing Stormzy for GQ shortly before the 2019 election I asked him where he got his politics from. Given his strident support for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn I assumed there must have been a person, book or a celebrity that had shaped his consciousness. But he couldn’t think of anything.

It was only when I traced all that had taken place during his formative years that time, or rather timing, had done the work all by itself. ‘Stormzy is a child of crises,’ I wrote. ‘He was nine when the Iraq war started; 15 when the financial crash hit; 17 when austerity started; 18 when riots spread through Britain like a bushfire, with young people looting and confronting the police in several English towns. He could not avoid it. His intervention is authentic. This is not the story of a musician who is getting into politics but of politics coming out of a musician.’

Discussing my most recent book with a 25-year-old this issue of formative events at a formative age came back to me. This anthology of my work from the black diaspora, which starts with me following Nelson Mandela during South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 and ends with Black Lives Matter, of course spans my politically conscious life. But that’s not her politically conscious life. It was realising that the young woman in question would not even have been in primary school for Hurricane Katrina, the Macpherson Report or Mandela stepping down – let alone being in jail – and may have only faint memories of Obama’s first election victory that it dawned on me how many of the reference points I take for granted would send another generation to rushing to Wikipedia.

On the most banal level this is, of course, a reflection on the fact that I am getting old. But it also forces a reckoning with the degree to which our age shapes our politics. It doesn’t determine them of course – how could it when myself, James Cleverley, Ed Miliband and Sajid Javid were all born in the same year. But it informs your understanding of what is possible and what is necessary. And until I saw it all written down, I had not been fully aware of how distinct my formative influences are from so many of my colleagues: a realisation that makes me feel not so much wise as weary.


Dispatches from the Diaspora: From Nelson Mandela to Black Lives Matter is published by Faber, priced £14.99.

Books mentioned in this blog post