Land of the Lost

Everybody, or at least everybody Black and conscious, talks about the Middle Passage, but nobody ever does anything about it. In The Atlantic Sound, noted Black British novelist Caryl Phillips endeavors to prove himself an exception to the rule. Conceived as a series of inquisitive travelogues—revisiting the primary ports of the notorious triangular trade between Liverpool, Africa, and the New World—the book begins with Phillips traveling between Guadeloupe and Britain on a cargo freighter, as his parents did 40 years before, and ends with his journey to Israel to visit the 2000-strong community of African American Hebrew Israelites. Between those landmarks Phillips provides an impressively researched bevy of bittersweet tales about the places and people haunted to this day by the moral and psychological consequences of the European trade in Africans.

To his credit, Phillips is an astute and engaging narrator who uncovers some startling new wrinkles in the record of African bondage. Notably, he resurrects the saga of a Reverend Phillip Quaque, a Christianized West African who served as chaplain at Cape Gold Castle, the slave-trading fortress through which literally millions of his brothers and sisters were sent off to New World bondage. Who knew?

When Phillips goes to Charleston, South Carolina, he dredges up the voluminous story of one Judge Waring, a man who suffered extreme contempt from his Caucasian fellows for daring to love Negroes more than whites and for writing legal briefs damning American apartheid and, worse, the Southern social contract. This chapter is a fascinating rendering of the intimacy and intrigue that characterized black-white relations in the South then, machinations of a kind more familiar to readers of romance fiction than to viewers of Eyes on the Prize. His novelist's instinct to unveil the savagery behind social graces, a tenet of his fiction, has never been more right on. Unfortunately, he never resolves his research, anecdotes, and vignettes into any kind of summary thoughts—in fact he seems rather evasive on what all the dislocation, relocation, and alienation mean to him. You don't need a thesis to go on a journey, but you should be gracious enough to offer the reader a summation when your subject is as large as the existential legacy of slavery.

Caryl Phillips uncovers some startling new wrinkles in the record of African bondage.
photo: John Biggins
Caryl Phillips uncovers some startling new wrinkles in the record of African bondage.

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The Atlantic Sound
By Caryl Phillips
Knopf, 275 pp., $25
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Though never explicitly stated, Phillips's driving obsession is exile and how it bedevils cultural nationalists of African descent and their sympathizers. But Phillips—a well-educated and successful first-generation Black British intellectual—never gives a sense of where he falls on the matter of Black folks' assimilation blues within English society. There is a kind of bloodless and disembodied quality to his reportage, a sense that he's on the outside looking in on other people's refugee camps, never investigating his own.

The people Phillips conjures up via his diasporan mouthpieces are not so much in exile as in limbo, adrift between Africa, Europe, and the New World. Phillips's guide in Liverpool, for instance, is Steve, a young Jew-baiting nationalist who sees slave profits all over his native city where Phillips sees only architectural magnificence. But because Steve is Phillips's only contact in Liverpool you leave this section feeling as if you've just wandered out of a ghost town, having heard nothing from the old families who loathe postwar latecomers like Phillips's parents, or some sense of whatever angst Phillips's parents may carry as Caribbean émigrés.

These absences beg for a chapter on what tribe Phillips belongs to—no matter whether it's academics or a favorite aunt whom the author feels comfortable to let it all hang out with. Without such self-examination, Phillips's dispatches seem issued from a kind of literary Flying Dutchman—albeit an observant and sardonic one, as he proves in this bit of uproarious cultural reportage from a Pan-Africanist festival.

Suddenly to the chaotic sound of drums, whistles, cowbells and the random firing of rifles, the "royal procession" arrives. They are led by the ''warriors," who appear to be badly dressed unemployed youth and old men. After the "warriors" come the more formally dressed and dignified "elders." Suddenly every white person in the audience seems to own a video camera. The more bold among them are jumping and dancing.

In the Ghana section there is, crucially, the story of Phillips's driver, Mansour, an ambitious, resourceful young man who wound up prey to England's immigration system before being deported. Phillips guides us down the grueling and labyrinthine paths by which Mansour escapes Africa by his wits. When Mansour asks Phillips for $5000 so he can leave Ghana to pursue a work-study plan in the U.S., Phillips snidely upbraids Mansour for presenting himself as a " 'third world' victim." But a victim of his third world status Mansour certainly is, because no British or U.S.-born Black citizen with Mansour's grit, perseverance, and intelligence would be subject to draconian deportation laws for daring to work and study at the same time.

Phillips's concluding section about the Hebrew Israelites seems hasty by comparison, reading more like snapshots than detailed portraits. He also seems incapable of fathoming the African Americanness they've held on to in their conversion to Judaism. What's so strange about Black Jewish girls twirling batons in the land of Jesus' birth? Or their mothers and fathers listening to soul and jazz? If history has shown us anything, it's how relentless Black Americans can be in funkatizing whatever they come in contact with. Phillips seems to have confused the Hebrew Israelites' desire to escape from white America with his sense that they want to run out of their African American skins. In critiquing their Americanness he fails to recognize that nothing could be more American than lighting out for the frontier and starting your own apocalyptic religion.

Phillips should know how consistent such a move is with the improvisatory nature of Black American identity. In what appears a syncretism as profound as any of Duke Ellington's, the Hebrew Israelites have developed a religious community that sees no contradiction in sustaining Black American cultural practices as orthodox holy-land Jews. You can only wish there was as much judgment-free detail on them as the author provides on Judge Waring or the slave fort chaplain, and that his revised Middle Passage accounts came without an ax to grind about quixotic American Africanists.

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