Caryl Phillips. the Atlantic Sound

By C, John | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 31, 2002 | Go to article overview

Caryl Phillips. the Atlantic Sound


C, John, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


(New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), ISBN 0-375-40110-5.

Beginning in the 16(th) century, the African slave trade deposited Africans in numerous locales on the Eastern coast of the so-called New World. After the end of slavery and colonialism, they became a part of the nations that had once enslaved them, viewing themselves as a part of the African diaspora. Caryl Phillips, the distinguished British novelist of West Indian ancestry, succeeds brilliantly in The Atlantic Sound in introducing us to the indomitable courage and perseverance of Black people everywhere to find a place of sanctuary and peace. Melding three genre -- history, travelogue, and fiction -- Phillips contrasts interesting stories of personalities and places out of the Diaspora past with his own contemporary experiences in the same places.

Retracing the triangle of the Atlantic slave trade, Phillips begins in the Caribbean, visiting Martinique, Costa Rica, and Guatemala, while traveling on a German freighter whose captain repeatedly characterizes each country as a "f....ing banana republic." Next, he journeys from the Caribbean to Liverpool, England, once the world's largest and richest slave trading port. Here, in the still prosperous Liverpool, John Emmanuel Ocansey, arrived from the Gold Coast in 1881 to investigate why a steam launch his father had commissioned and paid for with the very large sum of 2,678 pounds, had not been delivered. Ocansey soon discovered that the English agent had bilked his father. His unsuccessful attempts to recover his father's money through the British courts, the support provided by his landlady and the minister of the neighboring church, and the strange sights and sounds of nineteenth century Liverpool, Phillips relates with such deft narrative touch that one feels the depression of this young African, abroad in a strange land, where so many of his expectations of Christian fairness proved false.

Phillips finds modern Liverpool very much like it was in Ocansey's time. Besieged by the unsavory history of the place, a history he relates dispassionately and with easy grace, he flees Liverpool, "where history is so physically present, yet so glaringly absent from peoples' consciousness."

In Ghana, he meets Mohammed Mansour Nassirudeen, his chauffeur. No ordinary driver, Mohammed has been to England where in trying to work and get a degree so he could join the privileged class back home, he ran afoul of British law for violating his student work permit. His desperate attempt to avoid deportation failed, and he is back home, unable to return to Britain, but with strong hopes of one day emigrating to the United States. Phillips also encounters African Americans who have "come home" to Ghana, but who, though at times ambivalent in their new home, find relief from the racism back home. As Dr. Robert Lee, an expatriate African American dentist explains, "You see, back in the states they can call me a nigger all they like, but nobody can insult me anymore. …

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