In singling out three “mavericks of black literature” for his new book Out There, Darryl Pinckney, who has written much on black literature in these pages, perceptively and with the animated brilliance of a passionate reader (he is also the gifted author of the novel High Cotton), has employed a working definition of “maverick” that includes the phrase “a striking eccentricity of purpose.” They are words that are as good as any and more apt than most to describe the work of the Jamaican journalist J.A. Rogers, the expatriate American memoirist Vincent O. Carter, and, perhaps to a lesser degree, the contemporary British novelist Caryl Phillips. These are, at any rate, the three writers whose literary lives inform the pages of Pinckney’s collection, and though their work and biographies are treated with Pinckney’s own eccentricity of approach (the essays were originally lectures given at Harvard and will seem, perhaps, brief for those readers seeking comprehensive details of a writer’s childhood or formative romances), they are full of great personal feeling, intellectual curiosity, and original, groundbreaking research.
J.A. Rogers was, according to Pinckney, a kind of through-the-looking-glass Kipling, documenting those spots around the world “where the white and the nonwhite are not in their ordained places.” Born in Jamaica in 1883, and emigrating as a young man to the US, Rogers became a kind of popular historian of black achievement and was thought of as the first black war correspondent (though one wonders why George Washington Williams, who was born almost thirty-five years before and by 1890 was reporting on the Belgian Congo, has not been given that title). Rogers’s purpose was black pride and moral restitution for the Negro, and in his three volumes of Sex and Race he became obsessed with compiling a kind of historical Believe It or Not of people of color, even going out on a limb and including the swarthy, brooding Beethoven—and if not Beethoven, well then Beethoven’s accompanist—to prove that race-mixing is the reality of history. Rogers desired to serve the black community, as was the wish of many subsequent literary radicals, but he worked within white-defined categories of history and culture.
As Pinckney writes, “We don’t need to claim Beethoven.” Rogers was considered half-nuts by some, including his fellow countryman Claude McKay, who came to doubt very much Rogers’s stubborn accumulation of “Amazing Facts.” Rogers was especially interested in such things as Warren Harding’s reputed African-American blood (Bill Clinton may imagine he is the first African-American president, but he may be simply the first to boast of it). The part-disparaging, part-prideful parlor game of ethnic naming (the Polish genius—Conrad, Chopin; or the Jewish sex symbol—Paul Newman, Kirk Douglas) engages in any minority some group feeling of unjustified insecurity and a suspicion of cover-up in the mainstream culture. But in such a game of self-esteem, which is the project Rogers was interested in, one must walk through the room of bias and prejudice, noting the insulting stereotypes, before attempting to demolish them. The well-intentioned racial archaeology that seeks (for purposes of celebration and accuracy) any hidden drop of African blood sometimes seems a weird inversion of the racist’s similar preoccupation. “Africa is everywhere, both the nightmare and the dream proclaim,” writes Pinckney.
Rogers’s restless cataloging led to overstepping and guessing and digressive blind alleys. Pinckney says,
The experience of reading Sex and Race is one of embrace and recoil as Rogers indiscriminately loads us down with the provable and the forever dodgy, the serious and the frivolous.
Rogers even fudged slightly his own entry in Who’s Who in Negro America?, apparently dissatisfied with his own many achievements and listing a book he never actually completed. Perhaps the only writer who made his living entirely within what was then known as the Negro press, Rogers remained virtually unknown in the white world, but his sheer energy (he toured and lectured tirelessly, selling his books as he went) seems an amazement now. He died leaving many of his own questions (most hinging on Europe’s proximity to Africa) unanswered:
What images were removed from churches and museums in Italy following the declaration of the purification laws of 1938? Are all the images of the Black Madonna in Eastern Europe the result of centuries of smoke?
Rogers claimed that a painting by the Belgian artist Charles Verlat “depicts the blackest, most Negroid Christ he’d ever seen.” That Rogers felt he needed not just Cleopatra but Jesus and Mary as well for his encyclopedia shows the persistent allure of these questions. It also shows the odd fierceness of Rogers’s character, the idiosyncrasy of his intellect, and the poignant grandiosity of his life’s work.
It is with Out There’s last two writers, Vincent Carter and Caryl Phillips, that Pinckney offers a closer examination of place and home as it affects the black artist—especially those who have broken away and become exiles or migrants—and in so doing he begins a conversation with Phillips himself, whose new collection of essays, A New World Order, is largely concerned with these themes. Pinckney’s discovery of Vincent Carter, who lived in Switzerland for most of the Fifties, came about, he says, when he received Carter’s The Bern Book as a present from Susan Sontag and Robert and Peg Boyers. Part novel, part autobiography, “The Anatomy of Melancholy for this century,” it consists of such Tristram Shandy–style chapter titles as “A Little Sham History of Switzerland, Which Is Very Much to the Point, and Which the Incredulous or the Pedantic May Verify by Reading a Formal History of Switzerland, Which I Have Certainly Never Done, and Will Probably Never Do.” Though he desired the “romance of Europe in the era of the GI Bill Negro,” he perversely settled not in France, as Richard Wright and James Baldwin did, but in Bern, Switzerland, Pinckney surmises, paraphrasing Baldwin, because he did not want to spoil “another black man’s hustle in a room of white people.”
In this, his only published book, Carter—who later became a physical fitness fanatic—seems bemused if not stunned by his own choices. He is called “Wince” by the locals, and even though he is the first black man they have ever met, the Swiss regale and irritate him with their racial presumptions and faux-expertise on all things Negro, especially jazz. Despite Carter’s unwillingness to let paying work get in the way of his writing, which gathers dozens of rejection slips, he humbly—“with much mock heroism,” Pinckney suggests—gives English lessons. Carter refers to himself as “a hypersensitive nigger” who sends himself out into the streets for experiments in “lacerating subjective sociology”: in The Bern Book Carter’s helpless wit has extended even to the pun of his title.
Pinckney writes with sorrowful, almost exasperated eloquence of Carter’s experience in Bern:
The Bern Book isn’t a work of memory. It is a work about ambivalence, escape, evasion, and the expatriate’s creed of noble procrastination, noble withdrawal. Carter is that familiar, defensive figure in the café, the man who refuses to be practical, the artist with impossibly high standards, the stranger who is difficult to help, the black man who attacks the white friends who have just fed him or from whom he has just borrowed money.
The social type to which Pinckney is referring is not a racial one, and so it seems at first disconcerting to see the words black and white toward the end of his description. But Pinckney wants to find out what happens to the defensive expatriate when race is involved, and he is simultaneously sympathetic, skeptical, and analytical.
These qualities are engaged, too, in Pinckney’s view of the British writer Caryl Phillips, who was born on St. Kitts in 1958, raised in Leeds, and who has just published his own essay collection A New World Order, which deals with many of the same issues explored by Pinckney—issues of place and home for the artist of color. Pinckney and Phillips are roughly contemporaries, their first names are near rhymes, and their books are often shelved side by side alphabetically in bookstores. One can imagine—and not only fancifully—that the books of these two men have been in conversation with each other for some time.
“He does not go to Du Bois’s grave in Ghana,” writes Pinckney in a moment of judgment on the journey to Africa that Phillips writes about in The Atlantic Sound. “He refuses to make his trip a pilgrimage. He has a right to stand outside of that feeling, but it is as though he cannot afford to be moved.” In Phillips’s new book he visits the grave, but he is still not explicitly moved:
It is over a decade now since I followed the austerely dressed young Ghanaian man around the W.E.B. Du Bois Centre in Accra. He showed me Du Bois’s study, his books, his living area and then of course Du Bois’s final resting place in the grounds of the centre.
The novelist in Pinckney admires Phillips’s art but seems at times to suspect him of coolness, coyness, impersonality—“By temperament,” writes Pinckney,
it would seem, Phillips is opposed to what in his prologue he must do as a first-person narrator, especially a black one: explain, identify himself. Who am I? I am none of your business; but you, they, it are my business. Perhaps this tone is his way of saying that nothing is more personal than an individual’s ideas.
One of Phillips’s ideas is the predicament of the African-American artist in his home country, and the first section of A New World Order, entitled “The United States,” is in many ways his best (the others are called “Africa,” “The Caribbean,” and “Britain”). In this first section he includes pieces on Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and the singer Marvin Gaye—all of whom exiled themselves to Europe—and on John Edgar Wideman, who, perhaps more boldly, Phillips suggests, did not. The American oppression of the black man—both subtle and overt—is hardly lost on Wideman, however, and Phillips quotes a searing passage from Wideman’s Fatheralong that sums up the cost of staying and the privilege (however spurious), unavailable to most, of not:
And we ain’t talking here about middle-class angst cause no taxis stop for your black ass in Rockefeller Center. Nor existential maundering when you ride the commuter train in from Scarsdale and the only seat white people ain’t occupying is the one next to your brown ass. All that’s part of the problem, but the bedrock issue raised by the paradigm of race …is whether you can be someone other than a white person in this society and stay healthy, stay alive.
As a black man who saw bananas thrown at the nonwhite soccer players of 1960s and 1970s England and who witnessed the violence in London’s Notting Hill during race riots two decades apart (a neighborhood that now resides in the American mind as a Hugh Grant film), and as the grandson of a Portuguese Jew, Phillips has no illusions about racism in Europe. (He is equally unromantic about Africa as a diasporan homeland, implying, as many African-Americans have, that cultural attachment to it may be a sentimental folly.) But the innocent optimism with which black artists have fled to Europe (Gaye, Baldwin, Wright) suggests to him that the psychological, sociological, and artistic burdens on the African-American artist are somehow more intense and restrictive in the US and that Europe poses a greater (even if illusory) freedom from artistic expectation (race as a part-time job, race as glorious/tedious obligation, race as coauthor of one’s work). Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, written in France, had no black people in it at all. Marvin Gaye often wanted nothing more than to sing “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Me and My Shadow,” yet in the States was asked to keep up a certain kind of black image for the Motown label. And if one looks at Wideman’s editorial selection in the Best American Short Stories of 1996, one sees he has chosen love story after love story—all strong and haunting, but scarcely a one concerning race.
To unburden oneself aesthetically from race is, of course, impossible even if it were advisable. The artist necessarily creates not just from whom but also from what he is. But it is Phillips’s point, of course, that a person is always many things, and that a society that does not recognize that will prove parochial and stifling for an artist. The saddest tale he has to tell here is of Marvin Gaye, who in his escape from the pressures of the African-American recording industry fled to Belgium to pursue his art in obscurity and effacement—an annihilation of sorts. Although “like American artists before him, he was able to enjoy the freedom of not feeling any responsibility to comment on European society, including its racism,” the price he paid was profound loneliness. Phillips cites a scene from a documentary film made about Gaye:
…Marvin enters a working-class bar which is full of Belgian workers enjoying a beer at the end of the day. They look quizzically at this American black man, and ask him if he’s from Paraguay. Marvin confesses to being a singer from Los Angeles and they laugh at him. Then Marvin attempts to play darts. He is not very good and again they laugh at him…. Here, in Belgium, Marvin is neither a star nor is he an American. He has no viable role to play, not even the role of black American sex symbol which he considers so demeaning. The creases of worry on his forehead suggest that he knows what he is in Belgium. He is simply a black man.
At the time of his death at forty-four—he was shot by his cross-dressing Pentecostal minister father in a family squabble—Gaye was attempting to use comedy to send up his professional quandaries, and his final, satirical songs include one entitled “Dem Niggers Are Savage in the Sack.” For a man who, as his father did before him, liked to dress in women’s wigs and lingerie in private, such songwriting was a reaction to ideas of African-American manhood and the “burdensome public role of ‘Sex God'” he felt the record business had foisted upon him. And here Phillips’s usually sturdy phrasing grows soggy as it does sometimes, oddly, when he’s passionate. “The days when he could write and perform socially committed, yet heart-wrenchingly sensitive work seemed to have receded into the distant past.”
Phillips’s essay on V.S. Naipaul may be the strongest in his section “The Caribbean.” Here—despite the melancholy spin he has previously given American expatriation—he speaks of the “gift of displacement,” a sometimes advantageous and energetic creative condition he feels is complained of unfairly by Naipaul, as if it were unique and bitter medicine, a price Naipaul alone paid for art. (That there are inconsistencies in Phillips’s own thinking on these matters, depending on whom he is writing about, makes this book seem no less rich or deeply considered.) Surprisingly it is just the opposite. Naipaul’s sense of his own rootlessness, to Phillips’s mind, is accompanied by a contempt for third-world culture and people. “Already comfortable with his prejudices, sure of his judgement and determined to write, there is something alarming about young Naipaul’s lack of self-knowledge.” But Phillips writes approvingly of Naipaul’s 1994 novel A Way in the World, calling its great accomplishment “making art out of displacement and despair.” He sees Naipaul as “beginning to make peace with his homeland of Trinidad” only to return later to generally dyspeptic antipathies, beginning with Among the Believers, his book about his travels in the Islamic world.
Naipaul’s family lost their status as Brahmins with their migration to Trinidad, and one might suspect this condition (in addition to Naipaul’s own temperament) may be partly responsible for what Phillips sees as Naipaul’s misanthropy, his intolerance, and the “wall of self-regard between himself and the people who produced him.” But Phillips’s last criticism, the one that says Naipaul has sacrificed in his art “any real expression of affection for his homeland or its people,” seems intellectually spurious, since here Naipaul is being held to standards to which no serious literary critic would consider holding Sinclair Lewis or Flannery O’Connor, for instance. Nor does Phillips himself always hold it against others, including J.M. Coetzee, about whom Phillips writes well here, never, however, emphasizing what might be thought of as Coetzee’s own misanthropy. That one must withhold contempt for one’s homeland is not a literary idea at all. That one cannot make “outlandish, racist, unscholarly, inaccurate statements in books and in interviews, and still be taken seriously”—Phillips’s charge against Naipaul—of course is. But Phillips has conflated these two things in his arguments about Naipaul. And when he gives way to strong feelings Phillips can sound maudlin and fond of fondness for its own sake. He insists that Naipaul has turned away from his earlier work and his true subject matter: “Caribbean life—the people, the music, the heat, the flora, the fauna, the sunrise, the sunset, the history.” The sunrise? The sunset? Phillips is partial to horizons and sometimes seems to be listening to music when he writes of them (“for as they stood on the deck of the ship and stared out at the white cliffs of Dover, they carried within their hearts a dream,” Phillips writes of the early Caribbean immigrants to England).
Naipaul’s father’s own failed literary career, and what Phillips takes to be Naipaul’s quiet sneering at it, is at the heart of the issue, Phillips thinks, though he also demonstrates that he may have underestimated the son’s real love and admiration for this Trinidadian journalist father who encouraged his newly British son in every way, but also encouraged him to write sympathetically about his homeland (which Phillips himself, of course, wishes Naipaul had done). At his father’s death (of “a broken heart,” Phillips suggests in another treacly moment) Naipaul sent his family a mournful telegram that read in part, “He was the best man I knew.” Surely there was some part of him that was listening. His response to Elizabeth Hardwick that the red dot in the middle of an Indian woman’s forehead means “my head is empty” doesn’t seem necessarily a cultural slur, but may be more complicated in its ironies; perhaps it serves as a commentary on the oppressive aspects of Hindu marriage, though Phillips will give it credit for being nothing but “idiotic.”
A New World Order is a largely brilliant and persuasive book with which one will quibble occasionally. But then Phillips quibbles with himself. He closes the introduction to his section on the United States with a statement to which the remainder of his book too often gives the lie. “Race matters,” he writes (as if paging Cornel West). “Sure it does, but not that much.”
Not that much? Well, it’s an idea.
October 10, 2002