What We Like to Forget

The Nature of Blood

by Caryl Phillips
Knopf, 212 pp., $23.00

Frantz Fanon, Martiniquan psychiatrist and interpreter of the black condition, used to recall the advice of one of his teachers: “Whenever you hear anyone abuse the Jews, pay attention, because he is talking about you.” Taking these words to heart, Caryl Phillips, in his new novel The Nature of Blood, follows a winding path through space and time to connect the ages-old persecution of the Jews of Europe with the sufferings of people of African descent. The result is a somber but powerful work of fiction, bolder in conception and more accomplished in execution than anything Phillips has done thus far.

Phillips is a Briton, but he also belongs to the African diaspora, with family connections that go back to the Caribbean and, beyond the Caribbean, to West Africa. (One cannot fail to remark that the three sources of this genealogy are also the apexes of Britain’s triangular transatlantic slave trade.) Some of his fiction falls into what we can call Caribbean literature, some does not; but behind all of it looms the dark history of slavery and its consequences.

Over the course of three centuries the slave trade shipped some eleven million unwilling people from Africa to the New World—the greatest forced population movement that we know of before our own century. Two fifths of them went to the plantations of the West Indies, which made up what Gordon K. Lewis calls “the hard-core area of slavery in the Americas.” By comparison, the English-speaking North American mainland received only 5 percent.

Britain (as well as Spain, France, and Holland) transported Africans to the Caribbean to work its colonial plantations, sending out its own people, many of them undesirables or misfits, to oversee their labor. Planter society became notorious for its dissoluteness, its indolence, its philistinism, and its snobbishness—a snobbishness that turned on money and on race. It left behind a legacy of racial prejudice based on minute gradations of skin pigmentation. “The West Indian…divided people into the white, fusty, musty, dusty, tea, coffee, cocoa, light black, black, dark black,” writes V.S. Naipaul in The Middle Passage, quoting a familiar Caribbean color-litany (Phillips re-quotes it in his book The Final Passage).

Out of plantation practice and the rationale that sustained it, there grew a corpus of colonial lore about black mentality and the black body that we can properly call racist. The Trinidadian historian Eric Williams may go too far in claiming that, far from slavery being born from racism, racism itself was a consequence of slavery—nineteenth-century European ethnography and racial science would make their own huge contribution to the theory of racism—but Williams is certainly right to point to the Americas, and the West Indies in particular, as a forcing-bed for racist thought. In that sense, as the West wrestles today with its racist inheritance, it continues to live in the long shadow of slavery.

The slave ships sailing to the New World bore the first wave of …

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