Caryl Phillips is an interesting writer. He writes in a confident, polemical way about the ‘black experience’ on both sides of the Atlantic. As Caryl Phillips points out in newspaper and magazine articles that make up his new book A New World Order, many black people, in both the US and the UK, have never felt quite ‘at home’. Phillips’s writing is all about not quite belonging, and is divided into the four corners of his world – the US, Africa, the Caribbean and Britain.
The first section contains a very interesting article about the US black writer James Baldwin and the way in which he lived a lot of his life in self imposed exile in Europe (Phillips has gone in the other direction – brought up in Leeds, he now lives in Greenwich Village, US). Phillips describes how in the 1950s Baldwin refused to be pigeonholed as a ‘Negro author’, and how his publisher tried to get him to change his book Giovanni’s Room because it had homosexuality as its subject matter. In another essay Phillips defends the black US Communist novelist and activist Richard Wright from charges that Native Son, his incendiary novel about the corrosive nature of racism, was ‘too political’. Wright, like Baldwin, also emigrated to France from the US to escape the ‘race label’. One of the best essays in the book is about the degraded descent into the gutter of soul singer Marvin Gaye – dragged down by the racism of US society that branded the black man a purely sexual creature.
I found the section on the Caribbean the most successful in this book. Phillips hits on the unique nature of those islands – shaped by people from across the globe who were flung together through the historical process of slavery and imperialism. Phillips describes how the ideas of Trinidadian Trotskyist CLR James was constructed on ‘two guiding principles. First, he believed in the power of reason, which was a clear legacy of his classical British education in early 20th-century colonial Trinidad… Second, he believed in the inventive potential of the masses when engaged in social movement’.
In his essay on recent Nobel laureate VS Naipaul, Phillips rightly castigates the author for his outrageously bigoted views, but praises him for his early stories, such as the classic A House for Mr Biswas and The Mystic Masseur.
The section in the book on Britain is also very good – especially the piece on Jamaican poet, musician and activist Linton Kwesi Johnson. He goes to see Johnson in Paris, and finds the man feted as a hero by the French (another example of a black intellectual in a sort of exile). Phillips captures well the poet’s impatience with those former black activists who have abandoned the struggle. LKJ is asked by Phillips, ‘What happened to the black radicalism of the 1970s and early 1980s?’ Linton shakes his head and sighs, ‘They’ve all gone to Channel 4 or parliament, or got a television show. They’re part of the establishment that is saying it’s alright, no problem. Tell that to Stephen Lawrence’s parents’.
I don’t agree with all that Phillips says in his book, and there are inaccuracies (for example, his take on Trotsky’s conversations with CLR James), but his writings have much to offer. One warning – many of the essays are written as journalism and follow a formula that gets a bit tiring. But his central preoccupation of ‘belonging’ is an important one. As he writes, ‘We are all unmoored. Our identities are fluid. Belonging is a contested state. Home is a place riddled with vexing questions.’
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