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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.”1 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.”2 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).3

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.4 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 the African diaspora. Then, as the sugar-based economies of the islands began to falter in the early nineteenth century, and as the European powers emancipated their slaves, that wave was succeeded by a second, more complex set of migrations that continues into the present: from one island to another; from the islands to the American mainland; from the islands to the former metropolitan (“mother”) countries; from the islands to Africa; and from America or Europe or Africa back to the islands. (The spectacular migrations of Cubans and Haitians to the mainland during recent years have obscured the fact that shifts of population have long been a feature of Caribbean demography.)

It is against this historical background of unsettledness and unsettlement, of Eurafrican hybridity and minutely fractured racial consciousness, of incomplete independence and ambivalence about models to follow in the future (“Eventually, the masters left, in a kind of way,” writes the Antiguan novelist Jamaica Kincaid; “eventually, the slaves were freed, in a kind of way”5 ), that the preoccupations of many of the great Caribbean writers of our age, including Aimé Césaire, V.S. Naipaul, and Derek Walcott, need to be seen, as well as the fictional project of the younger Caryl Phillips, which at first focused, with a mixture of nostalgia and exasperation, on island life, but has subsequently come to follow a much more British, and even European, direction.

Phillips was born in 1958 on the tiny island of St. Kitts (population 45,000) but was taken to Britain as a child. St. Kitts was then, and still is, a typical migration society, its economy depending on remittances sent home by the labor it exports. Phillips calls such islands “Third Worlds within the Third World.”6

Britain of the 1960s was rife with anti-black feeling; in 1962 legislation with a transparently racist basis was passed to make immigration from the ex-colonies more difficult. In an autobiographical essay, Phillips has described the contradictions of growing up “feeling British, while being constantly told in many subtle and unsubtle ways that I did not belong.”7 His first novel, The Final Passage (1985)—for an unsettled West Indian the title reverberates with irony—draws upon the immigrant’s multifarious experience of cold-shouldering behavior, subtle and unsubtle, conscious and unconscious, on the part of the natives. Of a white social worker, for instance:

When she talked to Leila in that high Scots voice, she always swallowed either just before or just after the word coloured, as if ashamed of it…. [The word] always got caught just beneath the centre of her tongue and created more saliva than the rest of the words in the sentence put together.

Yet Phillips has also written sensitively about white characters, most notably in the story “Higher Ground” (part of the novel of the same name) and in the novella “Somewhere in England” (in Crossing the River, 1993). In the latter, the central character is an Englishwoman living through World War II in the obscurity of the provinces, coping with a domineering mother, a petty crook of a husband, neighbors who ostracize her when she falls in love with a colored American serviceman, and a social welfare bureaucracy that removes their child from her on the grounds that it is a “GI baby.” In her levelheadedness, loyalty, competence, and independence of mind (she sees through the patriotic war propaganda with which the British are deluged and particularly dislikes “that fat bastard Churchill”), she exemplifies the heroism of daily life at its most muted; but there is a solitariness, a bleakness, an untouchableness to her as well that is a feature of Phillips’s more fully evoked women.

Even the novel Cambridge (1991) is not unsympathetic toward its white central character, opinionated and prejudiced though she may be. Cambridge is set on an island that looks suspiciously like St. Kitts, in the first half of the nineteenth century. Emily Cartwright is sent out from England to report on conditions on her father’s sugar plantation. She records her observations of plantation life in a journal, hoping, on her return to England, to lecture to ladies’ associations, rebutting the antislavery agitators.

Emily starts off with a rosy picture of slave life as “happy [and] hedonistic…, with ample food, much singing and dancing.” As she is absorbed into planter society, she comes to admire what she thinks of as the energy of the plantation managers, and to develop typically colonial nightmares of being cast adrift in “an ocean of negroes.”

After a reckless and sordid affair with one of the managers, however, followed by a stillbirth, her mind begins to unravel. The prim, careful language of her journal loosens up as the structures of control and self-control within her—the embedded patriarchal order—crumble, and by the time the novel ends she is balanced on a knife-edge, between madness on the one hand and a potentially real psychic engagement with the Caribbean on the other.

Cambridge is not a particularly good book—the last sections are schematically plotted and show all the signs of hasty writing—but it does show Phillips, by 1991, extending the compass of oppression to include the white woman, particularly the white daughter figure.

Phillips has written a number of stories set in the slave era, marked—though not in all cases—by a finely judged balance between, on the one hand, linguistic and historical immersion in the period, and, on the other, a retrospective modern awareness of what was at stake.

The best of these pieces is “The Pagan Coast” (in Crossing the River), set in the 1830s. “The Pagan Coast” takes off from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the role of Kurtz being played by a naive house slave, Nash Williams, who is set free by his Southern master on condition that he go to Liberia and preach Christianity to the natives. Nash’s optimistic vision of Liberia (“the beautiful land of my forefathers…the star in the East for the free colored man”) gradually gives way to disillusionment. Missionary work is futile, he finally declares: he discards his Western upbringing, takes three wives, becomes, in effect, an African. His ex-owner, sponsor (via the American Colonization Society), and onetime lover travels to Liberia to reclaim him for civilization, but arrives too late: “Nash Williams is dead,” he is told (the words echoing Conrad’s “Mistah Kurtz—he dead”). Like Kurtz’s trading post, Nash’s upriver mission station is squalid and overgrown, reclaimed by Africa.

The American Colonization Society in effect asks Nash Williams to live out a hypocritical white project in which Africa will take back to her bosom her troublesome New World children. In its vision of Africa as the solution to America’s race problems, the Society comes ironically close to the Pan-Africanism of Edward Wilmot Blyden and Marcus Garvey—both West Indians—who saw the black man as spiritually grounded in Africa and advocated a return to African roots. In “The Cargo Rap” (in Higher Ground, 1989), Phillips satirizes the Pan-Africanist elements in the Black Power movement of the 1960s, unveiling a deadpan sense of humor and a talent for unobtrusive comic mimicry that one would not have suspected from his early novels.

The Cargo Rap” is the monologue of a young African-American jailed for armed robbery and suffering under a punitive regime of detention. Phillips uses as his starting point the prison letters of the Black Power activist George Jackson, collected as Soledad Brother, but balances admirably between caricature of the prim didacticism of the revolutionary (“I think the African man does not masturbate enough…. Masturbation is safe, quick and can be practised with little danger to self or others”) and compassion for a young man of considerable intellectual passion growing more and more frantic as he sees he may never leave jail alive (“Is there not an attorney who would agree to one day being paid in African crops and fruit?” he writes desperately).

Though it played a large part in the creation of Liberia, the real-life American Colonization Society had little success in repatriating freed blacks to Africa. Its greatest opponent was Frederick Douglass, who denounced it as a tool of the slaveholders. “Individuals emigrate, nations never,” he asserted.8

  1. 1

    Quoted in Caryl Phillips, The European Tribe (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987), p. 54.

  2. 2

    Gordon K. Lewis, Main Currents in Caribbean Thought (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), p. 24.

  3. 3

    The Middle Passage (London: André Deutsch, 1962), p. 68; The Final Passage (Faber and Faber, 1985), p. 52.

  4. 4

    Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (London: André Deutsch, 1964), p. 7.

  5. 5

    Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988), p. 31.

  6. 6

    Living and Writing in the Caribbean: An Experiment,” Kunapipi, Vol. 11, No. 2 (1989), p. 48.

  7. 7

    Phillips, The European Tribe, p. 9.

  8. 8

    Quoted in O.E. Uya, editor, Black Brotherhood: Afro-Americans and Africa (D.C. Heath, 1971), p. 36.

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