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Caryl Phillips and the Figure of the Black European

Louise Yelin





“I saw only one other black man in Venice,” writes Caryl Phillips in The European Tribe (1987), a collection of travel pieces that, taken together, describe the black European in the mid-1980s. Phillips himself might be considered an exemplar of the black European; his nomadic trajectory – born in St. Kitts, he grew up in Leeds and now lives and works in New York – underwrites a transnational, diasporic, black European identity. In this paper, I examine the representation of the black European in Phillips’s work and explore what his writings suggest about the history of black Europe. Focusing on characters in the novels (and historical personages discussed in his essays) who exemplify four “moments” in black European history, I look at the ways that Phillips helps us to place this history in a larger, trans-European matrix.

The first moment, loosely, that of the early modern era, is epitomized by Othello, one of the main characters in The Nature of Blood (1997), whose first-person narrative tells the story of his movement in and around the Mediterranean. The title character of Cambridge (1991) is an inhabitant, like Olaudah Equiano and Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, among others, of “black London” in the late 18th century. His narrative, like Equiano’s, points to the diasporic character of black European identity on the eve of the abolition of slavery in the British empire. Leila and Michael Preston, the protagonists of The Final Passage (1985), represent the post-1948 migration of West Indians that brought Phillips himself to Britain. Finally, Solomon Bartholomew, one of the main characters of A Distant Shore (2003), is an African asylum-seeker who raises the kinds of questions about immigration and citizenship differently addressed by philosophers such as Etienne Balibar and Seyla Benhabib. Setting the stories of his black protagonists in the larger context of the African diaspora and articulating their narratives with the narratives of Jews, Italians, and Britons, Phillips helps us to think about migration and belonging and about what it means to be European from the 15th century to the present.

Most of my scholarly work has focused on questions of national and transnational identity. I have recently written on literature and globalization (for a special issue of Signs on women and development). The paper is part of a new project on immigrant writing in and about Britain from the 1930s to the present, a project that began with an essay (forthcoming) on the articulation of Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean in the fiction of Phillips and Jean Rhys and with my own earlier work (both published and presented at conferences) on Phillips. I think my paper would fit best into workshop topic 1, Representing Black European History. I am particularly interested in discussions of historical and contemporary modes of black European self-representation and of the relationships between black Europeans and other ethnic minorities and between black Europe and the African diaspora more generally.

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