Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Restoring a Ruptured Relationship: Barnard College's Caryl Phillips' Senior English Seminar Focuses on Broken International Connections and Culminates with a Trans-Atlantic Journey

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Restoring a Ruptured Relationship: Barnard College's Caryl Phillips' Senior English Seminar Focuses on Broken International Connections and Culminates with a Trans-Atlantic Journey

Article excerpt

Millions of African people who were captured, kidnapped and shackled for sale as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade first passed through Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, West Africa. They stepped through the doorway that set them on a horrifying journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Men, women and children were taken by force, leaving their loved ones, languages and their claims of humanity behind in this instance of involuntary migration to enter what has become known as "The Door of No Return."

In a month or so, 16 Barnard College seniors will stand in the same corridor and peer out through the same door over the same waters that carried approximately 12 million Africans to an unfamiliar country.

"I want them to actually physically be put into a place where they cannot look away," says Barnard professor Caryl Phillips about the students from his senior English seminar who will journey with him across the Atlantic to Ghana as part of his fall course, "The Literature of the Middle Passage."

"This is a rare, rare opportunity," says Phillips, the Henry R. Luce Professor of Migration and Social Order, professor of English and director of initiatives in the humanities, about the opportunity his students have to travel to the coast of West Africa. "When l went in my 30s, it changed my life. It was a profound experience."

Europe, Africa and the Americas, Phillips explains, were intertwined in economic exploitation established through the exchange of movements of people, capital and ideas during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In the 20th century, however, as African countries began to gain independence, they were no longer the concern of those countries that once occupied and exploited them. Since World War II, he contends, Europe and America have continued to progress while Africa is no longer part of the modern-day configuration of exchange.

"Africa has kind of been abandoned," Phillips says. "It is seen as a place of hopeless barbarity." He adds that the problems the continent faced fostered a "we-told-you-so" attitude and response from Europe and America even though the wealth, privilege and status of those entities stems directly from African unpaid labor. A full understanding of this past, he says, would make arguments like those waged over affirmative action more nuanced and sophisticated.

"Africa to me is key to unlocking a greater problem," he says. "There is an increasing unawareness of one's own history. It is embarrassing and uncomfortable." Yet regardless of possible unease and embarrassment, he says, the history of those trans-Atlantic and other international relationships established with the slave trade are essential.

Phillips hopes his course and the travel to Africa will ultimately change the lives of his students as it did his. His senior seminar that includes a racially diverse mix of Black, White and Asian female students from the disciplines of art history, French and other areas of the humanities, focuses on what he describes as broken connections between the three continents.

RESTORING INTERNATIONAL CONNECTIONS

Born on the island of St. Kitts in the West Indies, growing up in Leeds, England, and teaching in the United States, Phillips' extensive body of work largely explores the international aspects of culture and identity.

Described as "one of the major British writers of his generation," he is the award-winning author of seven novels, the latest of which, A Distant Shore, was recognized with the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize. He is also editor of the Faber Caribbean Series, as well as a noted playwright, screenwriter and essayist, who balances his writing and teaching careers by teaching during the fall semester and writing during the spring.

Phillips earned a bachelor's with honors at The Queens College, Oxford University, and, after a reading of his work in Stockholm, Sweden, was invited to teach for one year at Amherst College in Massachusetts where he remained for eight years and initiated the college's creative writing program. …

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