The Atlantic Sound
In his first book of travel, The European Tribe (1986), Caryl Phillips revealed that it was after reading Richard Wright’s Native Son on a California beach that he decided to become a writer. Since Phillips was then a student at Oxford University, it is odd that he should have discovered his literary ambition in California. But then, growing up in the Britain of the 1960s and 1970s had given Phillips no “coherent sense” of who he was and where he came from. For immigrants from the remote outposts of the British Empire like Phillips, who came from St. Kitts, it was the special vitality of American black culture that came to support their own rather lonely struggles for dignity and selfhood in Britain. Things appear to have changed little for younger British writers such as Gary Younge, who was born in 1969, and who acquired his own bearings through an obsessively pursued interest in the American South. Growing up in the Home Counties, Younge “longed for the heartfelt affinity that both blacks and whites in the South seemed to have with their environment.” It seems a romantic idea of the South; and, up to a point, it is. But Younge here is hinting at a profounder fact about the tormented history of black– white relations in the American South: the centuries of suffering and conflict had bound the two peoples so tightly together that neither could deny the existence of the other. Nowhere else were the lives and self-images of white people so dependent upon the existence of a minority as in the South. Black people couldn’t be ignored in the way they were, and still are, in the small, relatively homogeneous and closed world of Britain. The “collective and selective myopia” about slavery that Younge thinks Britain has couldn’t have been maintained with the same undisturbed ease in the South.
Black people, who had been part of British history for centuries, were absent from the books Phillips was assigned at the “white-dominated middle-class schools” he went to. Most of the black people in Britain at the time were recent arrivals from embarrassingly burdensome imperial holdings: Phillips, for instance, was only three months old in 1958 when his parents went, as part of a large West Indian migration, to live and work in England. As Younge points out it was easier to erase the West Indians from the history books since their numbers were so few and their own reference points “so well-hidden,” unlike, say, immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, which was part of a longstanding British romance.
“When you are being forced into a vacuum,” Gary Younge writes, “you will take your oxygen from wherever you can.” C.L.R. James, the Marxist writer from Trinidad, was probably one of the first immigrants from the Caribbean in Britain to grasp the revivifying potential of America. He had written at least one considerable book—about the late-eighteenth-century slave uprising in Haiti—before he went to America. During …