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 his fifteen years there, from 1938 to 1953, he often traveled in the South, and came to see the organized degradation of the black community as the central contradiction in American life. At the same time he remained enthusiastic about what one might term the culture of white America: Herman Melville, B movies, detective novels, and comic strips.
But then James was a cosmopolitan, a connoisseur of civilization, in the way of old-fashioned Marxists; and he was also a colonial. He claimed to have no time for Black Studies, and he detested the small-island parochialisms of the Caribbean. Not surprisingly, James was much taken by the American idea of the pursuit of happiness. It contained for him an altogether new and egalitarian conception of the individual and society—something that he felt the decaying “bourgeois civilization” of Europe could no longer provide.
To look now at James’s many intellectual journeys—for instance, his attraction to and subsequent disenchantment with Trotskyism and, later, anticolonial movements in Africa and the Caribbean—is to have a sense of the ceaseless search for identity and security people like him were forced into, people with no clearly defined societies or traditions of their own. It is also to note much inconsistency in what they do and say from one moment to the next. But the contradictions—and what may appear as self-deceptions—have to be set against the constant change, both political and personal, that ruled their hectically improvised lives. They tell you something about the world they moved in, and the ambivalent status they occupied in it.
Caryl Phillips was saved from many of the illusions of Black Power and Pan-Africanism simply by growing up when and where he did. He early found out that the history and culture of the Caribbean could not offer him the kinds of self-knowledge he looked for, or help him disentangle his own complex inheritance as a black British citizen: the “contradiction,” as Phillips puts it, “of feeling British while being constantly told in many subtle and unsubtle ways that I did not belong.” It was what inspired The European Tribe, which he published a few years after his discovery in America that “it was possible for a black person to become, and sustain a career as, a writer.”
The European Tribe is a short book, although a whole year of traveling went into it, and it is concerned primarily with the racial attitudes of Europeans. A visit to Venice sparks off a meditation on Othello (which Phillips has recently worked into a novel, The Nature of Blood); Amsterdam leads him to think about Anne Frank. Europe, Phillips concludes, is “blinded by her past” and “does not understand the high price of her churches, art galleries, and architecture.” He considers it necessary for Britain in particular to “perform a historical striptease,” which would expose the history of colonial greed and rapacity that forced, and still forces, many black people in damaged countries around the world to move to Britain.
In an afterword to a paperback edition published in 2000, Phillips acknowledges that today black people are “increasingly regarded as a permanent and visible part of British life.” He looks forward to a truly multiracial and multicultural Europe as well, even though he now has “alternatives to Europe”: primarily America, where he is a teacher of literature. Phillips doesn’t mention it, but the fact that a black immigrant like himself can now sustain a career as a writer is part of a change that has come over the West in the past twenty years. We are at last beginning to assess the special journey and contributions of C.L.R. James, who died in 1989, as old as the century, with his work then still generally unknown, except in left-wing circles. Writing from India and the Caribbean is today much more widely published and reviewed in the West. For people from the colonies the literary vocation is now a possibility in a way it wasn’t just two decades ago. The desire that seized Phillips after reading Native Son—the desire to “express the conundrum of my own existence”—has already moved him to produce, at the relatively young age of forty-two, several highly regarded books. The themes of slavery that most of his novels are preoccupied with are an important part of the large academic reckoning with the historical injuries inflicted by the West upon the rest of the world. Phillips himself lives in New York City, part of the diaspora of writers from the former colonies who are now found writing or teaching in the very heart of Western metropolises.
The Atlantic Sound is principally an account of a journey to the major points of call—Liverpool, Ghana, South Carolina—of the old transatlantic slave trade. When the book begins, Caryl Phillips is about to board a cargo ship that will take him from the Caribbean to Britain. His plan is to relive the long terrifying journey that his parents made with him in the late Fifties; and perhaps it is apt that Phillips appears exhausted and bored even before the ship leaves Guadeloupe: “Already I am eagerly calculating how many days I have to endure until I return to Britain.” He is content to sit alone at his table in the dining room, avoiding the possibility of conversation with the British, German, and American people on board; later, he takes to eating alone in his cabin. He longs for room service and television. A retired lawyer from Connecticut, who like the rest of the passengers is only named and not described, brings to Phillips’s attention the possibility that the Burmese waiters serving them dinner each evening are being treated as “slaves.” Phillips is taken aside by the captain and told that the boys “live like kings” in Burma on their $50 a month. The captain clearly doesn’t want to give Phillips the wrong impression. But Phillips is not interested in him, or in speculating about the presence of men from a closed, repressive society like Burma on a ship in the Atlantic—in itself, a cause for wonder. The captain along with the Burmese and the other passengers fades into the drabness of Phillips’s life on board. The mornings are particularly difficult:
As I witness the sun rising on the vast unresponsive expanse of sea and sky, the bleak sight only serves to remind me that there is no prospect of land for days, that there is only the prospect of another day, and the undoubted difficulty of trying to endure another night.
The tones of melancholy and exhaustion are unmistakable; and at one point Phillips wonders about the loneliness his parents would have felt on their journey out. But as Britain approaches, with its promise of comfort and familiarity (“taxi in Dover”; “black cab to West London”), Phillips confesses to feeling none of the “sense of nervous anticipation” his parents would have known. “I fully understand,” he claims, “the world that will greet me at the end of the journey.”
Until this point, and for long stretches afterward, The Atlantic Sound reads like a travel book. Phillips slips almost frictionlessly into the role of the established writer on tour: his sense of familiarity with the West, his impatience, and his detachment form partly a persona that is recognizable from the travel books published each year in London and New York. But by choosing a serious theme for his journey, following the trail of the slave trade, Phillips clearly intends The Atlantic Sound to be more than just a travel book.
It is worth remembering here that very few writers from India or the Caribbean have published travel books. This is probably so because while a novel can be written anywhere, the modern travel book is a primarily metropolitan genre: part of the knowledge that a powerful culture accumulates about its less privileged others or adversaries in the world. It is usually difficult to write one without the support of a trade publisher and there is also the problem of tone and perspective. The exuberant persona of, say, Bruce Chatwin is not easily worn by a writer from the colonies, no matter how anglicized he is; the certainties of the great power and wealth of the West that protected Chatwin on his adventures are not available to him.
Furthermore, the Indian or Caribbean writer has no “home” audience curious for news of the great exotic world; and to go as a half-native among the natives, reporting on behalf of a predominantly white audience, is often to subtly distort his own ideas and self; it is to pretend to embody the attitudes most widely shared by his audience in order to highlight the strangeness of the worlds and people he encounters. In some of Ved Mehta’s reportage about India in The New Yorker, you sense the writer trying hard to maintain a fastidious distance from his setting, to preserve his special status as a traveler from a great metropolitan city, while suppressing his instinctive understanding of his subjects, as well as an uneasy partial identification with them.
Nevertheless, the best kind of writing often gets done when the half-native writer remains unsure of his audience’s interest in his subjects, when the travel commission becomes for him a private opportunity to sharpen his vision of the world and of him-self: the almost unbearable intensity of An Area of Darkness, V.S. Naipaul’s first book about India, the land from which his indentured laborer ancestors came to Trinidad, or of James Baldwin’s reportage from the South, is owed to precisely that relentless urge to transform the physical and psychological discomfort of travel into not “travel writing” but what is, for both reader and writer, new and unsettling perception.
In The European Tribe, Phillips mentioned, but didn’t probe in any detail, the nature of the cultural confusions he says he experienced as a black British citizen. In fact, we learn very little about him through the course of the book. So one expects a keener sense of the writer and his vision of the world in The Atlantic Sound, particularly as Phillips reaches England. But the travel narrative is broken off here. The next seventy pages take place in Liverpool, where he gives an account of a young African man from the Gold Coast named John Ocansey, who has been sent out in 1881 by his father in order to discover why the English trader he does business with hasn’t sent him the boat he ordered at some expense. The trader turns out to be a fraud. Ocansey spends some weeks in Liverpool, following the trader’s trial. The trader is convicted, but Ocansey receives no compensation. He then goes back to Africa. Phillips mentions how the businessmen in Liverpool, of the kind Ocansey deals with, had grown rich on the slave trade. These and other historical facts in Ocansey’s story point to its basis in real life, although Phillips doesn’t reveal its sources, and the description, however brief, of Ocansey’s emotional state brings the story close to being fiction.
Toward the end of his book, Phillips offers another, though much shorter and unambiguously historical, story of J. Watics Waring, a white American judge in Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1940s and early 1950s. Waring was ostracized by the white community for his fair-minded decisions in cases of discrimination against blacks: among other things, he made it possible for black voters to participate in the South Carolina Democratic Party primary in 1948. He and his wife were threatened and stoned; he was left with no friends, apart from a black couple.
Phillips’s account is gripping; unlike in the story of Ocansey, the author is present in the narrative as an inquisitive traveler to South Carolina. But the black South he describes remains the familiar setting of “unbending resistance, uncompromising dignity and undeniable faith” that Gary Younge pointed to—the setting of such well-intentioned Hollywood films as To Kill a Mockingbird and Mississippi Burning.
Both Ocansey and Waring could have appeared in one of Phillips’s novels, where very different kinds of stories are frequently found juxtaposed: Higher Ground (1989), for instance, contains within itself the situations of a Jewish woman in postwar England, a black American convict in the 1960s, and a native collaborator in an African slave garrison. Here Phillips also employs the modernist technique of cutting and pasting letters and journal entries and press clippings. The intention is that by this device a certain similarity of theme—the effects on his characters of organized exploitation, discrimination, and violence—will make itself obvious to the reader.
But this technique, useful in the novels, makes for abruptness in a book of nonfiction. Ocansey’s encounter with Liverpool’s traders and lawyers and some devout Christians in the late nineteenth century doesn’t strike one as especially eventful or significant; Ocansey himself remains an indistinct figure, and Phillips doesn’t explain the reason for the large presence he has in a book about the slave trade. He uses the long account merely as a lead-in for his own visit to Liverpool. But Phillips in Liverpool is much more detached than Ocansey could have been. His observations of Liverpool are summary and severe, almost exclusively dictated by his sense of the city’s slave-trading past. He remarks on the “satanic quality” of the railway station. He finds Liverpudlians to be “clinically depressed” and speculates that this might have something to do with their being so out of touch with their city’s history: “It is,” he writes, “disquieting to be in a place where history is so physically present, yet so glaringly absent from people’s consciousness.” The town hall, built out of the slave trade, arouses a “strange feeling of disgust” in him.
After a day of walking around the city center he wonders why he hasn’t seen a single black man. The opportunity comes later that same day, when his guide in Liverpool, the only person Phillips actually has a conversation with during his visit, drives him around Toxteth, Liverpool’s predominantly black and run-down suburb. But then Phillips doesn’t get out of the car. He feels a “palpable sense of menace in the air.” He notes that the “sidewalks are peopled with scruffy individuals who loiter aimlessly.”
Arriving in Ghana some unspecified weeks later, Phillips is reluctant to leave his international-style hotel in Accra and begin what he calls “the negotiation of the third world,” which involves dealing with the heat, with vendors, money-changers, and the “limbless beggars” that “block one’s path and arrest one’s conscience.” He spends most of his time at a cultural festival organized by the Ghanian government in order to attract cul-tural tourists from America and the Caribbean.
The festival is being partly held at Elmina Castle, the seaside encampment, much-visited by African-Americans, where thousands of slaves were kept the night before being transported to the Americas. Phillips is exasperated by the dress and demeanor of the visiting African-Americans and West Indians, who have resolved to treat Africa as “home.” He often escapes from them to the beach or to his hotel room, where on one occasion he turns on the television to find a report of the festival:
Then an African-American man named Sonny, who is dressed in the requisite African gear, makes a speech in which he asks that “those of our ancestors who are still enslaved in the Americas should not be forgotten.” Who on earth is he talking about? This continual rush to overstatement is causing me to suffer from diasporan fatigue. I crawl into my African bed and pull the cover over my head.
Phillips’s mood of rejection deepens as the festival goes on. Kate, the manager of his hotel, is fed up with the Jamaican guests who not only cook in their rooms but invite Ghanian villagers, “dirty, barefoot people,” according to Kate, to stay with them. Phillips is sympathetic to her because he too has had it with “people from the diaspora who expect the continent to solve whatever psychological problems they possess.” “Do they not understand?” Phillips asks. “Africa cannot cure. Africa cannot make anybody feel whole. Africa is not a psychiatrist…. What on earth do these people want?”
This sounds fair enough. You could say the same about India in relation to the affluent white spiritual tourists it receives. But Phillips assumes too quickly that “psychological problems” alone would have prompted the African-Americans and West Indians to visit, and in some cases stay on in, West Africa. The history of diasporan blacks returning to Africa began as early as the eighteenth century, when the British government together with white philanthropists and blacks made an attempt to resettle freed slaves in what is now Sierra Leone. That history is full of interest in what it tells us about the shaping, through cross-Atlantic movements of people and ideas, of political and cultural identities in both Africa and the Americas. It may be perhaps more rewarding now to ask why many diasporan blacks continue to look to Africa, even after the disappointments of Pan-Africanism, or to explore how the emergence of postcolonial Africa in the Fifties and Sixties became a source of strength to blacks in the Americas at a difficult time in their history.
Certainly, Africa still offers, if only through such rare figures as Nelson Mandela, and perhaps in inadequate and absurd-seeming ways, a kind of balm to the historical wounds of a long-suppressed people, whose injuries, which may manifest themselves as personal problems, are, in fact, the outcome of a long history of political, economic, and cultural subjugation.
The history of slavery on the Gold Coast, as Ghana was once called, is more complicated. It offers one of the more vivid instances of Africans actively complicit with slavery: the first Europeans to trade in human beings, the Portuguese, were kept in business by the local demand for slaves on the Gold Coast in the sixteenth century, more than a dozen decades before the transatlantic slave trade began and enriched, among others, the great Gold Coast kingdom of Ashanti. The deceptions of postcolonial African nationalism are also more evident in the career of Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, for whom, as for many other African and Asian leaders, the noble task of nation-building soon degenerated into a private quest for despotic power. Phillips’s reluctance to engage with these tangled histories makes Ghana appear more and more like a generic third-world country with some vaguely spiritual-historical component, to which deluded Americans travel in order to find, or lose, themselves.
Not surprisingly, and perhaps because of the “stubborn predictability” of third-world travel Phillips speaks about, the only person Phillips gets to know well in Ghana is his guide and driver, Mansour, who wants to leave Ghana as soon as he can. Mansour was deported from Britain after having spent eight precarious years in a futile attempt to educate himself and become a writer. He now wants to go to America to study creative writing—an ambition that Phillips disapproves of, probably because it breaks faith with Ghana, which Phillips describes, somewhat hazily, as “a democratic country of 18 million people with a diversified economy.”
As it happens, Mansour is not your usual skilled third-world emigrant, abandoning the country that has educated him at great cost for the protection and comfort of another society. The skills he seeks are not available in Ghana; and he says that he wants to return to his country after acquiring them. Phillips is not convinced:
He [Mansour] considers my suggestion of getting on the bottom rung of the ladder and working his way up within Ghanian society as simply laughable. “The only way up in Ghana is out,” he exclaims. “And then you come back with money and a degree. That is how you progress in Ghana. You leave.”
This sounds true—or at least will be plausible to anyone acquainted with the underdeveloped postcolonial societies of Asia and Africa. In any case, Mansour’s perception of his situation in Ghana is unlikely to be as persua-sive to others as it is to himself. Phillips remains suspicious. “Able-bodied, smart Mansour,” he concludes, “presenting himself as ‘third world’ victim.” Phillips has already told us about Mansour’s wasted life: his father died when he was still at school, leaving behind four wives and twenty-six children; Mansour stumbled from one menial job to another in Nigeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Britain. All through this time, he remained determined to get a degree at a foreign university. It is a hopeless dream perhaps, as Phillips seems to imply; but it is the one thing the meanness of Mansour’s life has entitled him to. To say that he is presenting himself as a third-world victim, although in a way he is one, seems a bit harsh, even cynical, particularly since Phillips doesn’t offer a complex account of his own status in the first world—the world from which Mansour, in his confused way, is hoping to steal some kind of miraculous light, and which has given Phillips, though not without struggle and pain, the assurance and authority to judge people like Mansour.
A fuller exploration of the intimacy and familiarity that Phillips clearly feels with that world becomes imperative at this point. Two thirds of the book are over by now and Phillips has not so far introduced himself to the reader, beyond mentioning that he had traveled as a three-month-old baby with his parents across the Atlantic. This information doesn’t make up for the many associations and ironies Phillips misses. One of the larger ironies is that the remote men who had transported his ancestors across the Atlantic had then gone on to create an artificial society of slaves and indentured laborers in the Caribbean, a society so chaotic and deficient that people like Phillips who sought to recover their identities could do so only by appealing to the same civilization that had destroyed their pasts.
That America replaced Britain as the great Western power in this century is of little consequence here. The white world continues to hold the means—education, security, status—through which dispossessed people can understand the extent of their dispossession. It is what lends irony to Phillips’s claim in the early pages of his book that he, unlike his parents, is traveling to Britain with “a sense of knowledge and propriety”; it is what complicates his relationships with not only white Americans and Britons, but also black Africans.
James Baldwin wrote more than once in his painfully honest way about the “unspeakably dark, guilty, erotic past” that American blacks facing Africans were made unavoidably aware of. It is not easy to imagine the anxiety and torment of a black writer traveling in Africa and meditating on the slave trade and its consequences. It is also what makes The Atlantic Sound of particular interest: that Phillips, a highly regarded novelist, should choose to examine in the more self-revelatory form of the travel book a delicate subject he has explored so far largely in fiction.
But the preference for oblique statement, when carried over into nonfiction, begins to look like evasiveness. Phillips’s serenely fictionalized nar-ratives and his cool detachment and impatient dismissals throughout The Atlantic Sound appear to be as much a defense against awkward knowledge as his international-style hotel is a defense against the clamorous realities of the third world. These qualities are constantly at odds with his chosen subject and form, which demand a much intenser engagement with the self and the contemporary world.
His experience left largely unexamined, Phillips gives in to the more simple imperatives of travel writing: he lapses into the “postures of metropolitan cynicism” that, as Derek Walcott once shrewdly observed, “must be assumed by the colonial in exile if he is not to feel lost.” The virtue of The Atlantic Sound comes to lie in what it tells us—if only inadvertently, without the author’s own quickening self-awareness—about the ambiguities and ironies in the situation of a black writer working in a world still run by white men.
April 26, 2001