Africa and Black British Identity
Africa and Black British Identity
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the idea of Africa as a lost homeland for diasporic black Britons and the attempts to reconnect with the continent. Pan-Africanist political ideals originated in the twentieth century and have remained effective in the 1980s, as reflected by the popularity of such resistant movements as Rastafarianism. Two influential late twentieth-century books that tackle black identity draw heavily on W. E. B. Du Bois: Cedric Robinson's Black Marxism and Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic. In his authoritative survey of Afrocentrism, Stephen Howe describes a negative form of Afrocentrism and how it differs from a pride in ‘shared African origins’ and ‘an interest in African history and culture’. However, sustaining his distinction may seem problematic because Africa is central to various articulations of black British cultural politics. Due to Africa's affective power, Howe's empiricism cannot fully explain its full weight within contemporary antiracism.
Reviewing what they saw as the increasing politicization of young black people in Britain in the early 1980s, the educational theorists Frank Reeves and Mel Chevannes identified five ‘traditions’ that provided ideological and practical resources for the articulation of political activity. These were: Black Power; Pan-African Socialism; Rastafarianism; Garveyism; and ‘Race Today-style Marxism’.1 The relative popularity of each of these traditions and the extent to which they coherently can be separated from one another are open to debate, but it is instructive to note that each of the first four listed relies on forms of political discourse that originate outside of Britain. Further, at least three of them rely on an emphasis on African ancestry, and, specifically, on the physical invocation of the African continent. Crucial to both Garveyism and Rastafarianism is the idea of ‘return’ to Africa, and, while this ‘return’ is not strictly required within a philosophy of Pan-Africanism, the necessary focus on the figure of the continent as the defining heart around which black unity must be expressed foregrounds the material importance of the landmass. We find the following in the manifesto of a black British political organization in the mid-1980s:
We state very clearly that we are not a part of this ‘British nation’ […] we believe that the African people in Britain must break out of the idea of being an isolated community in Britain, and build strong political, cultural and social links with other Africans throughout the world.2
In the United States, the tradition of turning to Africa has been embraced most enthusiastically by the Afrocentricity movement. This group, spearheaded by such scholars as Maulana Karenga and Molefi Kete Asante, has enjoyed less success in Britain than America,3 but nonetheless provides an example of this model of a racialized subject, intrinsically connected to Africa. For Asante, black people who refuse to accept the importance of African ancestry or ‘center’ themselves around the continent are doomed:
(p.20) Unable to call upon the power of ancestors, because one does not know them; without an ideology of heritage, because one does not respect one's own prophets; the person is like an ant trying to move a piece of garbage that will not move.4
The Afrocentric viewpoint relies on the beliefs that the individuals must understand their experiences through reference to models inherited from an ancestral past, and that the descendants of Africans in lands outside of Africa are too often estranged from these models and bound to ‘images, symbols, lifestyles, and manners [that] are contradictory and thereby destructive to personal and collective growth and development’.5 ‘European’ codes of meaning will forever exclude the African person and, Asante argues, therefore must be wholly rejected in favour of systems appropriate to their racial lineage. He finds the apposite terms of existence in what he dubs the African Cultural System, in which ‘all African peoples participate […] although it is modified according to specific histories and nations’.6 All black people, therefore, already exist in some way within this system but it is only through an Afrocentric acceptance of the magnitude of this realization that a positive self-identity can be established.
The assumptions of racial essence by such figures as Asante can seem extreme, but can be located as part of the tradition of Pan-African thought for at least a hundred years: Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued that ‘the father of pan-Africanism’, W. E. B. Du Bois, ‘responded to the experience of racial discrimination by accepting the racialism it presupposed’.7 Here ‘racialism’ refers to a belief in ontologically separate races and implies that the experiences of a racially oppressed community can incubate a level of acceptance of the unifying characteristics that are ascribed to them by the dominant group, even as they are inverted as the basis for communal resistance to this subjection. For thinkers such as Du Bois, Appiah suggests, the values assumed in this adoption of an upturned racialized discourse found their definitive focus in a concentration on Africa. Through venerating the continent as the point of origin for black people, the foundation of an alternative ethical understanding could be achieved
At least two influential late twentieth-century discussions of black political identity draw heavily on Du Bois for part of their arguments but look to sidestep his romantic essentialism and instead concentrate on those features of his work that may allow them to develop historically sensitive accounts. Interestingly, Africa takes on radically different degrees of importance within these books. Instead of approaching the connection to pre-slavery African ideologies through the tropes of spirituality and (p.21) psychology that are employed by Asante, Cedric Robinson's Black Marxism (1983) tackles its subject through the methodology of the materialist historian, announcing as its goal the attempt to ‘map the historical and intellectual contours of the encounter of Marxism and Black radicalism, two programmes for revolutionary change’.8 In particular, Robinson's detailed economic and intellectual histories are intended to demonstrate the inadequacies of Marxist models in understanding the traditions of resistance in black cultures. He presents an alternative account of modernity to that found within classical Marxist models in order to demonstrate the importance of racial divisions in the making of the contemporary world and to attest that the radical consciousness that powers black resistance must be understood outside of traditional models of class awareness.
The crux of Robinson's arguments can be found in his discussion of Caribbean slave rebellions. Throughout his study he insists upon the unique character of these revolts, and their difference from the European traditions of working-class resistance that provide the material for the assembly of the Marxist framework. For Robinson, the insurgences represent ‘the renunciation of actual being for historical being; the preservation of the ontological totality granted by a metaphysical system which had never allowed for property’.9 Rather than simply rejecting the burden of their immediate circumstances, the revolting slaves were asserting a retained ontology that rejected wholly the logics of their situation. The ‘revolutionary consciousness’ expressed in these rebellions cannot, for Robinson, be explained solely through reference to the ‘social formations of capitalist slavery or the relations of production of colonialism’ but must rather be understood as the manifestation of ‘an African tradition which grounded collective resistance by blacks’.10 Ultimately, Robinson finds the ‘raw material of the Black radical tradition’ in the ability of diasporic Africans ‘to conserve their native consciousness of the world from alien intrusion’ and ‘to imaginatively recreate a precedent metaphysic while being subjected to enslavement, racial domination and repression’.11 In his materialist awareness that elements of this ontology must actively be brought into being in order to perform positive functions, Robinson reveals a key contrast to Asante's assumption of unproblematic inheritance, yet it remains clear that his historical survey reaches the conclusions that not only should Africa centrally feature within any black political movement, but also that it is fully in keeping with past tradition that it should do so. The imperative toward Pan-Africanism with which Robinson concludes his work is not one that requires the idea of physical return to the continent (any more (p.22) than is Asante's), but it is certainly one which positions Africa as indispensable to any coherent politics of black liberation.12
Paul Gilroy's influential study, The Black Atlantic, has many affinities with Robinson's book, not least in the chapters each of them dedicates to the works of W. E. B. Du Bois and Richard Wright, but it is in their dissimilarities that many of the most interesting facets of these works are best located. Gilroy describes Robinson's conception of a ‘Black Radical Tradition’ as ‘in turns both illuminating and misleading’. He accepts the sense of a specific formation implied in the term ‘tradition’, but is insistent that the term must be complicated irrevocably by the realization of the shifting and multiple natures of its manifestations. Continuity, for Gilroy, cannot imply homogeneity or absolute fixity across time. Tradition must be understood as ‘a changing same that strives continually towards a state of self-realisation that continually retreats beyond its grasp’.13 The Black Atlantic has this imperative to rethink the nature of tradition at its heart.
Like Robinson, Gilroy is keen to stress the pivotal role played by black people in the development of modernity, yet within his reading of this past, the effects of Western modernity on an African psyche are profound to a degree that Robinson is unwilling to accept. When Gilroy argues that tradition should be invoked ‘neither to identify a lost past nor to name a culture of compensation that would restore access to it’,14 he gestures towards his preferred spatial and temporal model of the dynamics of black political cultures: that of diaspora. Within this model, different manifestations of resistance to racial prejudice, as well as positive affirmations of identity, can be read as being linked contingently by nature of the common resources that are drawn upon; yet they remain distinct and specifically formulated in relation to extant political and cultural conditions. Gilroy finds the definitive expression of black Atlantic diaspora aesthetics in what he terms the ‘slave sublime’: the artistic recreation of the horrors of slavery which serves to reveal history behind specific experiences of black modernity, which is
founded on the catastrophic rupture of the middle passage [and] punctuated by the processes of acculturation and terror that followed the catastrophe and by the countercultural aspirations towards freedom, citizenship, and autonomy that developed after it among slaves and their descendants.15
He characterizes his ideas through the chronotope of the ship, reiterating the focus on the ontological and epistemological breach of the middle passage as well as on the subsequent strivings toward reconnection and transnational circulation of ideas.16
(p.23) Gilroy worries about what he sees as a contemporary ‘transformation in the moral basis of black Atlantic political culture’; he characterizes the veneration of Africa and pride in African history as aspects of a willing amnesia that obfuscates the actual experiences of black people and registers deep concern that ‘Michael Jackson's repeated question “Do you remember the time?” (of the Nile Valley civilisations)’ is now seen as more valuable to the construction of political identity than ‘Burning Spear's dread enquiry into whether the days of slavery were being remembered at all’.17 Gilroy is dismissive of those who would assert ‘the power of the African heritage […] as if interpretation were unnecessary and translation redundant’.18
But, in this dismissal, there is a danger that he sacrifices the ability to document the actual appeal that Africa continues to hold within the specific articulation of resistant black ideologies. Despite Gilroy's attempts to classify diaspora as rhizomatic – ‘a stream without beginning or end that undermines its banks and picks up speed in the middle’19 – it nonetheless remains a concept that necessarily requires the conception of a homeland from which initial migration has occurred.20 Kadiatu Kanneh has perceptively noted that in The Black Atlantic ‘Africa remains as a perplexity beyond the text’;21 while Africa inevitably is present in its tacit function of making sense of diaspora, it cannot adequately be explored within the confines of the black Atlantic framework within which Gilroy works.
Stuart Hall contends that ‘the African diasporas of the New World have been in one way or another incapable of finding a place in modern history without the symbolic return to Africa’.22 The presence of Africa within the formation of black political cultures has exercised continuing influence on the individual and communal identities developed within black British political communities as they articulate a response to structural, institutional, and individual racisms. Hall recognizes that the more self-aware of these movements appreciate to some degree that ‘it was not the literal Africa that people wanted to return to, it was the language, the symbolic language for describing what suffering was like’, and that the Africa striven towards ‘was a metaphor for where they were, […] a literal and a symbolic register’.23 The literal fact of ancestry is here regarded as only part of the appeal of Africa to the black diaspora; at least as important is the role of Africa in providing the basis for cultural models of self-comprehension. The material reality of the continent is perhaps less significant than the enabling function it can play within a progressive discourse of identity.
(p.24) However, Hall fails sufficiently to account for the tension that inevitably comes into being between these imagined and actual Africas. The fact that a genuine continent with a discernible history and present continues to exist regardless of the uses that are made of its evocation must complicate these strategies of symbolic reconstruction. Africa is not solely an instrumentalist concept conceived in order to aid the construction of coherent black identities in Europe and the Americas. The very materiality that makes it such a potent focus for antiracist political identity creates an impediment between the utility of claiming Africa and the actual circumstances in which diasporic black people may find themselves.
Stephen Howe's authoritative survey of Afrocentrism ends with his lament that ‘the group which has been perhaps the most consistently oppressed of all victims of racial thinking’ has often resorted to an inverted model of the racial essentialism under which their oppression is justified.24 He refuses to allow for any real value in the Afrocentric philosophies that would bestow upon Africa and the descendants of Africans a position of special privilege and argues that no one possibly can benefit politically or culturally from a belief in ‘false and mythicized ideas’ about Africa.25 He is, however, keen to distinguish this negative form of Afrocentrism from a pride in ‘shared African origins’ and ‘an interest in African history and culture’.26 Yet Howe's distinction may not so easily be sustained. Africa is a vast and diverse continent but nevertheless remains vital within many articulations of black British cultural politics. The affective power of Africa is such that Howe's empiricism is ultimately insufficient to explain its full weight within contemporary antiracism. The spiritual and political investment in Africa is complex to the extent that questions of truth and falsity are perhaps less relevant in examining the reckoning with Africa than Howe would like to imagine.27
Ferdinand Dennis, Duppy Conqueror
Ferdinand Dennis's Duppy Conqueror can be read as ‘nothing less than a history of the twentieth-century, seen through Afro-Caribbean spectacles’.28 The novel explores the tropes and legacies of Pan-Africanist ideologies and especially the idea of return to the African continent as a way of circumventing the alienation suffered by the diasporic African subject. The idea of return is prominent in much Pan-Africanist thought and continues to influence contemporary black British antiracist (p.25) consciousness. In Dennis's novel allusions are made to traditions of black activism both directly (there are references to the deaths of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King) and obliquely (phrases that originate in the works of figures as diverse as W. E. B. Du Bois and Bob Marley are scattered throughout the novel), but most commonly through parallels that exist between his fictional world and the real people and events that comprise the history of twentieth-century Pan-Africanism. While Dennis's respect for this archive is obvious, Duppy Conqueror also functions to provide a critique of the shortcomings of the Pan-Africanist groups and their philosophies.
The novel is a quest narrative, following the life of one man, Marshall Sarjeant. Born in Jamaica, Marshall is forced to migrate to wartime Britain in order to fulfil a familial obligation. Having failed in this quest, he becomes a successful nightclub owner in London and involved with the struggles for African decolonization. When his business collapses, he relocates to the fictional African republic of Kinja where he lives through the turbulent political climate of independence. When he is finally deported for falling out of favour with the Kinjaian authorities, he returns to Jamaica and is finally able to dispel the family curse, though at the cost of his own life. In funnelling a history of black activism into the story of one life, Dennis makes concrete the possible abstractions of intellectual history. Events and movements that might be considered disparate are brought together in this central narrative figure who, as his name suggests, is able to ‘marshal’ their various consequences into the coherence of an individual consciousness. Pan-Africanism is assessed as a not always coherent set of philosophies that may perhaps be best understood in exploring how they are experienced by a single person.
For Dennis, the central burden under which Afro-Caribbeans and black Britons suffer is the sense of a divided self brought about by their unique historical experience. Within the novel, the duppy conqueror is he or she who is able to lay the ghost of history and negotiate an identity free from the constraints that past events and discourses have imposed upon him or her; but these bonds are not easily slipped and persist within the internalized models through which people understand themselves and the world around them. This difficulty is encapsulated by Pharaoh Sarjeant, Marshall's relative and mentor: ‘it's the worst kind of war any soldier has to fight. The enemy is both within and without. It's a war with the self, to bring peace to a divided soul.’29 For Pharaoh, conscious struggle against material oppression may never be sufficient to achieve genuine black liberation; (p.26) a spiritual growth and understanding must also be cultivated.
Dennis has elsewhere elaborated the necessary engagement of black people with issues of culture and history that is required to achieve a fuller sense of situatedness in the contemporary world. He explores the predicament facing mixed-race black Britons as a metonym for all first-world black experience, arguing that living in a racist society may encourage mixed-race Britons develop a strong and lasting hatred for white people. Yet the person who formulates this reasoning is then faced with an insurmountable difficulty: ‘his mother is white, a member of the oppressing group. To despise her is to despise himself.’30 Dennis insists that a similar impediment affects the development of the Afro-Caribbean psyche: ‘the harrowing process […] that transformed the African slave into a West Indian colonial’ involved the absorption of several elements of the dominant European set of beliefs, including the supposed inferiority of black people, and it is the residues of this ‘violent and divided culture’ of slavery and colonialism that lead to the ‘divided personality’ of the Caribbean and black British individual.31 Trapped within a racialized discourse that stresses the incompatibility and varying worth of differing races, they are tied to a culture of self-denigration. The very possibility of a coherent subject position in the post-slavery era Caribbean is inextricably complicated by this troubled history. To accept the racist anti-black discourse that formed the societies on the islands lessens the worth of any black individual, yet to try to invert the terms to attack the bearers of the ‘whiteness’ that is employed to maintain power relations is similarly masochistic: ‘by definition, it is also directed inwards. For like the person of more immediate mixed-blood white hatred is tantamount to hating part of oneself’.32 No matter how immoral the ideologies that established Caribbean society may have been, they cannot be eliminated from the historical archive. To insist on purity and dichotomous oppositions is deliberately to ignore the facts of the past.
Dennis presents his own youth as a gradual process of realizing this bind. Initially attracted to the Black Panther movement, but increasingly dissatisfied with its seeming essentialism, he then observed what he perceived as a similar emancipatory philosophy offered by Rastafarianism. In this movement, though, the focus on Africa as the source of black identity seemed more pronounced, ‘giving a whole generation a view of Africa as a source of cultural redemption’.33 For the children of Caribbean immigrants to Britain, doubly displaced from a ‘homeland’, Rastafarianism gave a sense of self-awareness and dignity that seemed to transcend the alienation (p.27) brought about by the history of slavery and colonialism as well as by the racism experienced within the transactions of British culture and society. As the visionary Rastafarian, Ziggy, puts it to Colin, the protagonist of Dennis's first novel, The Sleepless Summer (1989):
We're looking to throw off this cloak of whiteness that prevents us from seeing the real strength of our blackness. And the way to do that is to know where we come from, to re-connect with our history.34
Yet, while Rastafarianism was a movement that proved effective in mobilizing Britain's young black communities in the 1970s and 1980s, its political core can be seen as having a much longer pedigree: Horace Campbell argues that, while media and academic portrayals of Rastafarianism have concentrated on its spiritual and stylistic aspects, it can equally be read as the inheritor of a tradition of resistance that can be traced back through the Pan-African movement, to Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, and even to the Maroon rebellions in Jamaica.35 While The Sleepless Summer explores the specific appeal of Rastafarianism in late 1970s Britain, Duppy Conqueror works to trace its genealogy across the twentieth-century traditions that informed it.
The novel begins with Marshall Sarjeant experiencing disillusionment with a boyhood fantasy he held regarding his home of Jamaica. The old fisherman, Blyden, tells a story of the creation of the island but, for the first time, Marshall experiences the myth as ‘maddeningly untrue’ (6). He is forced to begin a search for an alternative explanation for his roots on the island. A friend offers the first suggestion to him: ‘Sarjeant's curse. That's the real truth about Paradise’ (7). The story of Marshall's plantation-owning ancestor, Neal Sarjeant, his affair with one of his slaves, and the subsequent curse that his wronged wife put on all of the descendants of that coupling, provides the impetus for the novel's plot. The curse, marked by the physical deformity of almost all of the Sarjeant offspring, appears as a symbol of the divided personality that can afflict the Caribbean individual. The historical violence suffered by the people of Paradise is mirrored in the congenital abnormalities that the Sarjeants have displayed on their bodies.
Marshall's own alienation is triggered by the blindness that affects him during his teenage years. At this formative stage of his life, he is denied a ‘normal’ development and instead driven into a selfhood in which the defining intellectual and spiritual narratives he had tried to adopt remain as ‘just fragments’, forced to coexist with other irreconcilable truths (30). It becomes apparent that, although Marshall's sight will return, this split in (p.28) his consciousness will haunt him for the whole of his life, as he remains largely unable to unify his experiences under the auspices of a single defining narrative. When Marshall's sight returns, Nana Sarjeant, the family's connection to the days of slavery, tells him, ‘Now you must learn to see properly’ (46). He is sent to his relative, Pharaoh, to receive an education. Pharaoh is a political radical, a man who had tried to raise racial consciousness in Kingston by speaking ‘in apocalyptic tones of an international race war between Black and Whites and warn[ing] dark-skinned Jamaicans that they faced annihilation unless they stopped collaborating in their own oppression’ (49). However, Pharaoh's attempt at shortcircuiting the alienation of Jamaicans by freeing them from their ‘mental slavery’ had enjoyed little success among the islanders who ‘if they thought about race at all, they were proud of being subjects of the British Empire, the mightiest empire in the world’ (49). The ingrained discourse of the colonizers was difficult to shift. Pharaoh's attacks on the symbol of this rule, the statue of Queen Victoria, made little difference to the people's opinions.
Pharaoh reveals that the inspiration for his protest came from the time that he had spent in the United States and from Cornelius Delancey, the head of the International African Advancement Organisation. Pharaoh became involved with Delancey and with a scheme to purchase land in Liberia to enable repatriation of African Americans. The scheme failed and Delancey and Pharaoh were imprisoned. Delancey's name evokes that of Martin R. Delaney, the African American who tried to arrange a repatriation scheme to Liberia in 1859–60, but Delancey's organization seems more closely to resemble the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which was run by Jamaican Marcus Garvey. Indeed, Garvey experienced the failure to purchase land from the Liberian government in 1924, and was subsequently arrested.36
The allusions to Delaney and Garvey as important influences on Pharaoh's political experience, and, subsequently, on the education that Marshall receives, show Dennis importing the political history of the ‘back-to-Africa’ movements into the narrative structure of Duppy Conqueror. But these movements remain contextual, rather than directly motivating the young man; it is a personal and spiritual rather than public and political matter that sends Marshall on the next stage of his quest in the novel. Nana Sarjeant's death is followed by a religious ceremony in which Pharaoh entrusts Nana's ka to Marshall with the instructions that it should be buried in the African soil and thereby put an end to the (p.29) Sarjeants' curse (99).37 The implication appears to be that this referential aspect of Nana can be returned to the continent from which her ancestors came; not quite a physical return, but a spiritual return in the fullest sense that will heal the psychic damage that her Jamaican descendants have inherited from the initial forced migration. The dictates of back-to-Africastyle politics and the Sarjeants' personal crises here reach toward the same goal, yet Dennis is careful to keep them separate, emphasizing the divide between this political heritage and Marshall's own needs. He focuses on the personal experience of the ‘divided’ black individual, rather than reducing his protagonist to a pawn in diasporic political discourse. Marshall's decision to accept Nana Sarjeant's ka is complicated by his resolution to continue wearing a crucifix. The African spirituality suggested at Nana's burial ceremony seems no more fully endorsed by Marshall than are the radical politics espoused by Pharaoh. His faiths remain eclectic and contingent. However, in the description of both ‘his ancestor's spirit and the symbol of his uncertain faith’ hanging ‘from the chains around his neck’ (105), there is a suggestion that these fragmented and contradictory belief systems are burdens to the young man and lay upon him the encumbrances of an onerous history.
Marshall's next stays are in Toxteth, the centuries-old black community of Liverpool, and in London. Various senses of black community are explored in this part of the narrative set in Britain. In Liverpool he meets men from Africa and the Caribbean who greet him as ‘bro’ (109) because of their shared experience of British racism. Their community is formed on the understanding that ‘were they […] not all the victims of a white man's world?’ (112). The solidarity in this community is created by the mutual material disenfranchisement that each feels they have suffered. It becomes clear that the Sarjeants' curse requires Marshall to achieve a more meaningful way of belonging than that found in wartime Toxteth: caught in a Blitz bombing, he loses each of the symbols of faith that he carries and is plunged back into the alienated state that characterized his blindness.
Through Marshall's subsequent life in London, Dennis challenges the terms of belonging offered to black people in Britain. Arriving in Britain five years before the Empire Windrush, Marshall is a successful man, a ‘somewhat princely-looking restaurateur and nightclub owner [who] also owned the roofs under which [the new immigrants] slept’ (161). He offers a clear contrast to those representations of the postwar black presence in London which concentrate on the state of the housing in which the Windrush generation of immigrants lived, and especially the many sociological (p.30) and journalistic accounts of the time that translated the reality of the terrible living conditions into a metaphor for the alien nature of black people.38 If Marshall comes to question his belonging in London, it is not because of the poverty he suffers when his business collapses, but rather is inspired again by the dual forces of international Pan-Africanist politics and individual spiritual division.
The success of the Island Club in London, the ownership of which provides the money for Marshall's financial support of the Pan-African cause, has echoes of Ras Makonnen's escapades in Manchester in the 1940s and 1950s.39 Many black intellectuals and activists from the Caribbean and the Americas (Makonnen was from Guyana) offered not just financial, but intellectual, direction to the cause of anti-colonial nationalism in Africa.40 The fight for African independence became a channel for the expression of diverse political impulses. These people's efforts to help an African cause must, at least partly, be understood in terms of their own situations and the specific benefits that may accrue from identification with this continent's liberation and unification.
The version of Pan-Africanism found in Duppy Conqueror functions as Dennis's exploration of some of the questionable aspects of the movement's legacy, and, not least, the suggestion that diverse issues affecting black people are subsumed within it. His portraits of the Pan-Africanist leader, Martin Mayini, and his nation, Kinja, are fictional collages of several historical facts about African nations: Mayini himself is in several ways modelled on the Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah, notably through his avowed belief in African unity, his subsequent abuse of power, and his final exile in Guinea.41 His imprisonment for links to terrorism (173), however, suggests the experience of the Kenyan Jomo Kenyatta at the Mau Mau trials.42 The flag of Kinja – ‘three horizontal bands in red, gold and green’ (148) – is reminiscent of the flags of Guinea, Ghana, and Ethiopia while the story of ‘a new capital city, one located in the mathematically exact centre of the country, so no ethnic group could make special claims on it’ (277) is taken from the history of the Nigerian city of Abuja.43 This synthesis of a variety of sources both grounds Dennis's fictional nation within the plausible bounds of historical narrative but can also be read as presenting a satire of the aims of the Pan-African movement. The important divisions that exist within the geographically and ethnically diverse continent are brushed over by the imposition of a philosophy of unification brought in from outside. In conflating particular moments and trends in the history of African decolonization (p.31) that arose in different places and from different traditions, Dennis intentionally echoes the totalizing narratives employed by the diasporic Africans who misread the nature of the African continent. Marshall, a West Indian who has never been to Africa, nonetheless begins to feel that the affairs of Africans could be helped by his intervention, ‘that their cause could also be his, a route to some kind of redemption’ (135). His decision to become strongly involved in the Pan-African movement seems primarily to be made in the light of his awareness ‘of failing to become a duppy conqueror’ (135). It seems that it is still the effects of colonialism on his own divided self, rather than its continuing presence in Africa, that most shape his actions.
Marshall's vision of Pan-Africanism rejects a reductive anti-colonial essentialism and instead inclines towards a utopian goal of liberation for all. He is particularly concerned that a future society should not reproduce through inversion a sense of incommensurable racial difference and holds that this can only be achieved through ensuring that the means of bringing about this society are equally free from racial violence. In this he is opposed by another of Mayini's London supporters, the Guadeloupian psychiatrist Rudolph Lacoste, who believes that ‘the oppressed needed to inflict violence on his oppressor, not simply to liberate himself from political and social oppression but also to free his mind’ (178).44
Again, though, it is not Marshall's expansive political idealism – inspired now as much by Patrick Boyle's pacifist communism (120) and Constance Castle's humanitarianism (139) as Pharaoh's anti-colonialism – which sets him on the next stage of his journey, to Africa itself. It is still his personal demons which drive him most strongly: ‘I've lost something, […] somewhere in my past I was severed and displaced and in the process lost something’ (139). He is not alone in his hope that Kinja may offer redemption: Eko, the capital, teems with returning diasporic Africans, serving for them as ‘a symbol of the African spirit, vanquished and humiliated over four centuries, and now rising in the early afternoon of the twentieth century’ (218). Of course, for Marshall as much as these others, the use of Africa as symbol seems to return again to racial essentialism, and the notion of the continent as recuperable homeland perhaps requires a degree of wilful historical ignorance. The discrepancy between Africa as symbol and as reality becomes increasingly noticeable as the climate of optimism that accompanies independence begins to sour.
The healing offered by Kinja may be seen when Marshall becomes manager of the Brighton-Lisbon Hotel in Eko, in earlier times the house (p.32) of a Dutch slave merchant (222). The descendent of slaves lays claim to the location where the initial severance took place, suggesting that the alienation of the Middle Passage is short-circuited by the fact of return. The diasporic cosmopolitanism that the hotel comes to signify is best demonstrated when it plays host to the events of the Pan-African Arts Festival (312–313). Nonetheless, it becomes clear that the festival is unable to mask the widespread corruption in Kinjaian society. Similarly, the supposed cosmopolitanism of the Brighton-Lisbon is unable to mask the deep divides that still mark Kinja. Marshall's hotel offers a palimpsest inscription of a new, liberated Pan-African identity but it ultimately cannot mask deeper currents of division that persist despite Marshall's search for resolution. The histories of slavery and colonialism cannot be built over with such ease. The Kinjaian politician who calls Marshall ‘this son of a sugarcane cutter, this son of a cottonpicker’ and argues that the hotel ‘rightfully belonged to a Kinjaian and not a foreigner’ (233–234) highlights the failure of the imposed unity of identity to delete fully older trajectories of meaning and sources of value.
Kinja succumbs to civil war as ethnic divisions come to the fore despite Mayini's attempts to foster unity. The Pan-Africanists had misunderstood the extent to which the ideals of a united racial consciousness, articulated outside of Africa, could aid the continent. Marshall begins to realize exactly the nature of the cognitive failure of these diasporic black people:
He came to recognise the naivety of the foreign Africans who gathered in Eko. They were here looking for an Africa that they could never find because they had irrevocably lost it. Exiled in the West for centuries, bereft of tribe or nation, they had claimed their race. But to the Kinjaians race and nation were abstract notions, mere ideas beside the everyday experiences of being members of a tribe. (244)
It becomes clear that Mayini's whole project is flawed; both the unity of Kinja and the wider unification of Africa are based on premises formed in other lands, alien to the circumstances of the locality.45 Marshall reflects on the similarities between the destruction of Mayini's statue in Eko and the previous attacks on Queen Victoria's image in Jamaica (246). The implication is clear: the colonial rulers may have been guilty of the imposition of an unpopular and unworkable set of ideas but the new African rulers are doing the same. It is significant that Mayini resurrects a colonial law to exile the belligerent Fon of Onaland (245). Just as the hegemony of the colonial power was always subject to failure and frequently supplemented by excessive coercion, so too in this new system do ‘the agents of (p.33) government speak the language of pure force’.46
Duppy Conqueror can then be read as a cautionary tale, warning against a simplistic understanding of the psychological reparation effected by the ‘return’ to Africa. But, despite being forced to leave Kinja hurriedly, Marshall ultimately seems to find redemption, overcome the Sarjeant curse, and become ‘the man they called the duppy conqueror’ (346). If Duppy Conqueror has throughout used Marshall's life to focus a tradition of black political identity, the eventual means through which he achieves his deliverance from postcolonial alienation seem crucial. While Marshall's years in Africa may seem only to show the failure of the Pan-African dream, he seems nonetheless to have benefited from the spiritual return, as most clearly figured in his acceptance of the African name conferred on him by the babalawo (271–273).
Yet, although this spiritual reconciliation with Africa shows Marshall reconnecting with an element of his ancestral past that history has cleaved from the Caribbean individual, Dennis is concerned to ensure that the novel does not simply advocate a replacement of the Caribbean sensibility with an ‘African’ one. Rather, he insists on the preservation of a pluralist perspective. This is clearest seen when Marshall's son, Martin-Johann, who has previously sought solace in the ‘sense of community’ offered by Rastafarianism (318), decides to take the Ghanaian name of Kwesi in order to augment the awareness of reconciliation he has achieved both with his father and with Africa. However, he is counselled by Marshall to ‘not abandon the names given him at birth because they represented five hundred years of history that could not be and should not be erased from his identity’ (321). In keeping his European names in conjunction with the new African appellation, Martin-Johann accepts that his roots have been complicated by history and that his identity cannot be understood through reference to a historical narrative that argues for a permanent separation of different racial and cultural legacies. For Dennis, the recognition of a plural heritage is crucial in avoiding the dead ends reached by what he sees as the Manichean tendencies of Pan-Africanism and Rastafarianism. He argues that ‘the unfortunate Afro-Caribbean, four hundred years removed from the continent, searching for a cultural identity […] claims an Africa of the past, a stagnant Africa, an Africa trapped in antiquity. And he does all this by denying non-African influences in his culture’.47 Marshall is instead required to understand the very disparate nature of his origins and reconcile them into a coherent conception of his life. Finally back in Jamaica, Marshall is able to formulate a ‘vision of the future, which was (p.34) not just about going back to an ancestral source, but also accepting the richness of the island's historical legacy, a richness that placed its inheritors in a privileged position’ (334). In this knowledge that comes to Marshall at the end of his life, Dennis suggests a necessary supplement to the ideologies of Pan-Africanism that have previously been rendered as lacking the resources fully to heal the ‘divided soul’.
Marshall's arrival at a full grasp of syncretic cultural and historical identities allows his divided soul to find some unity and he is able to dispel the Sarjeant curse. The curse is beaten finally through Marshall ‘sacrificing his life’ (345). This suggestion of sacrifice can be read in more than one way: although Marshall certainly dies after his battle with the malevolent spirits at Arawack rock, the sacrificed life equally can refer to the years he spent in exile. Indeed, it seems to be these years in particular that furnish him with the strength to achieve the final release as it is precisely his conferred African name that halts the attack of the ghoul Alegba.
While Marshall is still in Africa, he again begins to wear a gold cross ‘because the sign of the cross was for him the most comforting symbol of faith in the possibility of redemption’ (315): Dennis establishes an explicit parallel between the Christian notion of collective redemption achieved through individual sacrifice and the deliverance from the historical curse that Marshall offers to successive generations of Sarjeants. Ultimately, this seems to be the intention behind the condensing of history into a single figure. Like Christ, Marshall simultaneously acts as bearer of the offences of the past and symbolic surrogate through the painful process of deliverance.48 However, in examining how this parallel falters under scrutiny, a problem in Dennis's novel becomes apparent. In the Christian faith, the Eucharistic ceremony recaptures the meaning of Christ's sacrifice either through its iteration in another act of sacrifice, or by way of its remembrance through symbolic re-enactment. It seems difficult to revisit the gains made by Marshall throughout his period of exile in either of these ways. Following his successful battle, he finds a book that recounts the story of his life but he lowers it back into the hole in which it was found (345). The text is denied the ability of facilitating communion between Marshall and the generations that come afterwards. Equally, the reader of the novel may find it difficult to reconstruct the imaginative reconciliation with Africa realized by Marshall, as his epiphanies mainly occur in mystical moments that evade description. Far from enacting the sacrifice that can save a future community, Marshall eventually seems to save only himself.
Dennis suggests that a spiritual embrace of African inheritance can be (p.35) combined with a historical sensitivity that recognizes diversity, but the logic of Marshall's salvation in Duppy Conqueror suggests that it is exactly, and only, the physical return that can sooth the pains of racially aggravated alienation. Ultimately the figure of Marshall fails to act as surrogate for the mass of alienated Afro-Caribbeans and conversely seems most profoundly marked by the very particularity of his experience. The mystical solution that Marshall finds might, in fact, seem far more naive and reductive than the suggestion of community mooted by the Pan-Africanists, whose reclamation of Africa as symbol provided the means to formulate communal imperatives for political resistance to material inequities. In Dennis's explorations of Rastafarianism, he argues that this communal force is precisely what seems able to confound the selfcontempt fostered by a racist society. Marshall's self-discovery through exile, on the other hand, seems only to allow an individualist and apolitical resolution of the alienations wrought by racism. Duppy Conqueror perhaps ultimately fails to enact its own imperative of articulating the relevance of Africa to contemporary black Britons.
Mike Phillips, The Dancing Face
While Dennis is concerned with examining the traditions of black political thought that run through the twentieth century, Mike Phillips's The Dancing Face takes the contemporary as its focus. Less interested in mapping the historical use of the figure of Africa in political and cultural discourses than in interrogating its invocation in contemporary black Britain, The Dancing Face offers a critique of movements that construct political capital in Britain through reference to a powerful signifier of elsewhere. Bruce King has contrasted the author to such writers as Caryl Phillips, Fred D'Aguiar, and David Dabydeen, who look to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the historical legacy of slavery: ‘With Mike Phillips that history does not exist; he is writing about West Indians not Africans, about people who have come to England from the Caribbean […] and whose significant history in England begins mostly in the midtwentieth century’.49
Phillips was born in Guyana and arrived in London as a schoolchild in 1956. He has frequently written of his dissatisfaction with the models of black culture propounded in contemporary Britain, insisting that they fail sufficiently to characterize his lived experience as a black Londoner. He (p.36) argues that neither the Caribbean he left nor the metropolitan capital in which he grew up is adequately represented within the extant ideas of blackness in Britain: they are displaced by something divorced from the concrete nature of his experiences, with the term ‘black culture’ instead employed as ‘a sort of mental junk food’.50 Phillips wants to challenge this commercialization and reification of culture, based on a mythologized notion of blackness, and to develop a narrative of black Britain that can operate outside of this ‘Third World of the mind’.51 The Dancing Face offers a vision of 1990s Britain that stands as critique of the political currents he sees as creating such a version of black life, divorced from the realities of contemporary Britain.
Phillips locates the emergence of this harmful view of black culture in the breakdown of community politics that he regards as stimulated by the municipal antiracism of the Greater London Council (GLC) and other local authorities throughout the 1980s. In fact, the history of the type of politics he wishes to disown can be traced back at least as far as the formation of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) in 1964. CARD looked to support the rights of all non-white minorities in Britain, and drew inspiration from such American groups as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC). CARD lasted only three years and the major reasons postulated for its failure are its reliance on imported models of race relations and its attempt to organize from the top down and impose structures of unity upon the communities already existing in Britain.52 Phillips identifies these tendencies as recurrent problems in the organization of antiracist politics in the UK and suggests that the stultifying notion of blackness he locates in current mainstream British culture springs from precisely these roots.
In an early article on the organizational imperatives of antiracist community work, Phillips castigates the official structures of the race relations industry for failing adequately to conceptualize the distinctive features of the problems suffered by black Britons. The reliance on imported models to understand the situation meant that ‘the authorities did not recognise the specific nature of specific needs and specific problems as they applied to the black communities in Britain’.53 For Phillips, a productive antiracism must spring from the community structures created by black Britons themselves. Only in this way can the specificities of the difficulties faced in contemporary Britain be comprehended and appropriate strategies of resistance and empowerment formulated. Phillips (p.37) detects just this kind of homegrown movement in black organizations of the 1970s.54
Phillips has since argued that these accomplishments were largely negated in the political climate that succeeded them. As a member of a committee for the funding of ‘ethnic arts’ for the GLC in the 1980s, he has offered a critique of the logic that informed much of the official stance regarding the politics of race following the urban disorders of 1981. The GLC became the hub of an antiracism that ‘shaped itself around opposition to apartheid, around the post-Civil Rights relationship to government programmes in the United States and around the new black nationalism in the Caribbean and Africa’.55 Phillips sees the influence of grassroots black political organizations waning under the centralization of the antiracist movement that coordinated itself under the banner of an internationally defined notion of blackness. In the early 1980s Phillips could confidently state that ‘there is not, as far as I am aware, any black grouping which calls itself “separatist”, or even thinks of itself as “separatist”.’56 By the time he came to write The Dancing Face, however, he registers deep concerns about what he sees as the essentialism haunting black political culture and, especially, its tendency to import its operative models from elsewhere.
Phillips's fiction is usually located within the crime and thriller genres. Kwame Dawes suggests that Phillips chooses to write in these modes because the structure of the crime novel is free from any ‘ideological underpinnings […] which have to do with nationalism and race’.57 Even if Dawes is correct to view the genre as innocent in this way, his argument fails to acknowledge the widespread connection drawn in Britain between black communities and urban crime.58 For James Procter, while the thriller genre is an integral component of African-American writing, black British authors have tended not to employ the format ‘despite and, arguably, because of, the centrality of criminality to constructions of the post-war black presence in Britain’.59 Phillips, however, is determined to engage with the currents of representation in Britain within which crime is continually depicted as black.
Phillips writes that, in the world of white crime fiction, black people are represented as being on the wrong side of the moral divide, part of the alien evil that threatens the security of the white world. He argues that his intervention, in which black people are re-situated at the centre of their narratives, confounds the racist logic of representation and can ‘sidestep the implications of a typical narrative about blackness’.60 It is not clear that this equation of blackness with crime is found so easily in the modern (p.38) crime novel. Lars Ole Sauerberg's discussion of contemporary British crime fiction concludes that in this literature ‘issues of ethnicity cannot be isolated from other social issues that have to do with the individual's situation in contemporary society’ and that ‘British crime fiction has clearly accepted the fact of the intercultural British society with its continuing major social and cultural upheavals’.61 Yet, while the genre may in fact be open to more sensitive portrayals of British society, Phillips also argues that black British writing in general lacked a tradition that adequately could express the reality of the lived experience of black Britons and that ‘in the absence of a dominant narrative, writers tackling the problem of black identity in Britain have tended to be thrown back on a universalized concept of “blackness”.’62 In developing an approach to fiction that instead concentrates on the specifics of black British experience, he looks to the crime and thriller genres as an appropriate form to explore how political culture equally needed grounding in the particularity of experience.
The Dancing Face is both a thriller and a novel of ideas that challenges notions that black people possess an intrinsic and inevitable relation to Africa which must be protected and fostered. Instead, the novel seeks to explore the possibility of expressing a black British experience without turning to the internationally derived models that Phillips finds so unsatisfactory in current black political and cultural discourse. The complicated plot of the novel initially pivots around the character of Gus Dixon, a black university lecturer who is drawn into the world of crime through his political beliefs. Gus steals a West African mask, The Dancing Face of the Great Oba, from its holding place at a London university in order to draw attention to the ransacking of cultural treasures by European colonialists. To protect the mask, Gus sends it to his brother Danny, a student in an unnamed university town.63 Soon afterwards, Gus is killed while fleeing from the henchmen of Dr Okigbo, a Nigerian chief who helped to fund the robbery and wants to use the mask to negotiate an end to his exile in disgrace from his home country. Along with Osman, an African friend from college, Danny then has to try to protect the mask from Okigbo. Eventually, he and Osman decide to help Gus's girlfriend Justine Oyebanjoh, who wants to use it to buy her father's liberation from a Nigerian prison. Danny attempts to arrange Justine's father's release but is told that Dr Oyebanjoh is dead. Justine, distraught, tries to deal directly with Okigbo, who kidnaps her. Danny and Osman arrange to trade the mask for Justine but after the swap is made it is revealed that Osman has (p.39) secreted explosives in the mask. The mask is destroyed and Danny and Osman return to university while Justine leaves for Africa.
The events of the novel echo currents contemporary to its composition. In 1897 a British expedition plundered over 3,000 artefacts from the Oba of Benin. Twenty-one of these are held in Glasgow museums. In November 1996, Bernie Grant MP, acting in his position as Chairman of the African Reparations Movement (ARM), requested the return of these Benin Bronzes. The request was refused.64 In The Dancing Face, Gus is involved with a black protest organization called the Committee for Reparations to Africa, whose members would seem to share in the beliefs of Grant's real-life ARM:
Reparations, which comes from ‘repair’ or make good, are intended to compensate in some way for over 400 years of enslavement and colonisation […] We are seeking an acknowledgement by those enriched from enslavement and colonisation, of their guilt in this respect, an admission of their complicity, an apology [and] a return of artefacts that were stolen from Africa.65
The redistribution of African art is here taken as symbolic of a wider redress of the ills suffered by generations of diasporic black people. It ties the demands of a generation active in localized antiracist struggle to an internationalist perspective in which global histories of slavery and imperialism become central to an understanding of what it might mean to be black in contemporary Britain. As Grant put it: ‘the issue at stake is […] to do with people of African descent, and not necessarily the people from Africa.’66 The mission to restore the African artefacts to the continent that produced them becomes a process through which the black Briton can reverse symbolically the effects of centuries of oppression. While Phillips was an associate of Grant's and described him in a Guardian obituary as a ‘figurehead and tireless activist’,67 The Dancing Face critiques the motivations behind the reparations movement and the lionization of Africa as a point of reference for black British political activity.
For Ralph Harper, the hero of the thriller novel is not like that of the classic detective tale, who can solve the mystery and restore social equilibrium through the power of analysis alone. Rather, in a convention that expresses the location of the hero within, rather than outside of, the unsettled milieu, they ‘are forced to contend against the powers of evil with their whole persons, not their minds alone. They must go down into the streets […] risk their integrity and their lives’.68 This direct relationship to the unfolding mechanisms of the plot creates a need for a character more fully delineated than the traditional sleuth as their personality becomes central (p.40) to the development of events. While Dennis's Duppy Conqueror attempts to contain the dynamics of twentieth-century black thought within a single character, in The Dancing Face two heroes are employed and the relation to society that Harper saw as defining the thriller genre is explored in the relation between the Dixon brothers. We begin the novel from the viewpoint of Gus Dixon and the subsequent chapters are organized in relation to the sequences of events caused by the theft of the mask. The introduction of Danny can seem an adjunct to the main thrust of the narrative (one that is perhaps echoed in the shift from the metropolitan capital to the provincial university town) but Gus's death at the end of chapter ten suddenly makes the younger brother the protagonist. Much of the novel is concerned with the differences between these men, and their consequent attitudes to the mask.
Gus steals the mask in order to create public recognition of the providence of British cultural treasures: ‘All the speculation will centre on the issue of African art, on the manipulation and dispossession of Africa by the Europeans, because that's the meaning of the thing itself’ (24). Despite this political stance, however, Danny begins to realize that ‘for Gus the mask hadn't just been about politics, and he hadn't been trying to prove how African he was. It was something to do with history, with taking possession of it for himself’ (141). At the same time, Danny worries that Gus's act was about trying ‘to bribe your way into a sense of belonging’ (133). His reflections challenge the internationalist and Pan-Africanist sentiments that inflected conceptions of black culture in the 1980s and 1990s. Debating with Justine, Danny begins to suspect the artificiality of much of the rhetoric informing contemporary ideas of Afrocentric unity:
‘Gus would have said that all black people were African.’
‘I know.’ Something that Danny had been thinking for the last two days began to coalesce. ‘But that's abstract. You choose to believe in it, like saying all people in the world named Mac-something are really Scottish.’ (132)
On the surface, the political and cultural aspirations of the brothers appear similar as they express disgust at the racism of contemporary Britain, but the differences in their beliefs become crucial as the novel progresses. Gus's response to British racism is to fight for equality for Africa. He rejects the lawful protests of the Committee for Reparations and steals the mask in order to create a political debate that ‘black people would mobilise around’ (71). Danny's beliefs are more complicated. At school he grew frustrated with the continual representation of a barbaric Africa and collected ‘photographs of Bosnian refugees, dead bodies in the (p.41) snow, and limbless children’ to show his classmates: ‘Before you start going on about Zulus, and the ANC, and massacres in Rwanda, take a look at what a bunch of Europeans are doing to each other’ (29). Danny is as uncomfortable as Gus with the racist depiction of Africa but feels less able to identify with the people of that continent. Rather, his studies of European ethnicity lead him to a different conclusion regarding the politics of race: ‘I don't believe in all this territorial shit’ (163). He rejects the idea of a racial heritage determining what he should do: ‘You're reducing people to their ancestry or their parentage or the pile of potatoes their granddad planted and saying you can't be an authentic human being without it’ (98–99).
Danny is explicitly shown to have reservations about Gus's call to arms in the name of antiracism:
For a long and difficult period Danny had hated it when Gus lectured him about their African heritage and his duty to the race. All he could feel when Gus talked like that was rebellion and resentment about the way that Gus burdened him with his anger and desire for retribution, the way that he'd assumed the inevitability of his younger brother becoming a sort of soldier in the struggle for equality and justice for Africa. (127)
Danny is forced to confront this ‘rebellion and resentment’ when the mask arrives with him after Gus's death. A divide is constructed between a version of blackness predicated on a diasporic awareness encouraged by the antiracist movements of late twentieth-century Britain, and the consciousness of the black Briton who wishes to come to terms with the discrete specificity of his own geo-political and socio-historical situation.
Danny is Phillips's embodiment of a distinct black British persona, for whom an awareness of race is conditioned by recognition of the importance of his individual biography. As the narrative progresses to make him the focus of the story, the central issue becomes the way in which this authentically black British character can relate to the dilemmas surrounding the concepts of racial heritage and diasporic lineage. Gus's understanding of the politics of race rests on mistaken premises and is to be superseded by Danny's more sophisticated recognition of the superficiality of racial demarcation. Yet, for Danny's perspective to become the guiding force of the narrative, Gus's position must be effectively rejected. It is not clear that this crucial act of abjuration can take place in The Dancing Face. The figure of Gus haunts the story, reappearing persistently to condition Danny's responses to the escalating situation. Like the ghost of Hamlet's father, Gus is always reasserting his centrality to the origins of (p.42) the quest and the traces of his presence serve continually to whet Danny's blunted purpose. In one especially powerful scene, Danny dreams of a reunion with his brother in which Gus castigates him, ‘You think it's easy being a black man […] You should try it some time’ (134). Danny is unable to speak while his brother berates him in this way. His rejection of the idea of a shared history and, by extension, a shared future for black people, leads him to worry about the authenticity of his own blackness. The suggestion is that the rejection of essentialist black subjectivity may lead to the emptying out of any viable antiracist position or, indeed, any space in which Danny's blackness may be understood. Rather than being able to oust Gus as the central protagonist of the novel, Danny must be defined always in relation to his brother. Gus's belief in the duty of black Britons to advance a conception of international black brotherhood remains central to the drive of the novel and Danny struggles to extricate himself from this original meaning of his quest.
Danny is aided in the novel by three African characters: Osman, Justine, and Gus's former lover, the white Zimbabwean Eleanor. Each of these characters has spent a significant proportion of their lives in Britain, yet their primary identification remains with Africa. Their increasing importance as the novel progresses reveals Phillips's attitude to the appropriation of African imagery and experience by black Britons. Eleanor, whose upbringing leads her to consider herself wholly African, despite her race, might upset simplistic equations of race and geography but her potential to do this is stifled in the novel. Gus refuses to let her tell stories of her childhood in Africa that might conflict with his essentialist philosophy; the reader too is therefore denied access to an alternative view of the continent (237). Instead, the only opinion on the subject that is given full articulation is Osman's:
There's something that gets on my tits about these white people who reckon they know more about Africa than I do or see themselves as Africans or some shit like that. It's like they're trying to take away from you the last thing that you've got. (164)
Osman insists on his Africanness as authentic and adopts a privileged position that allows him to relate to black Africa in a way denied to Eleanor. This mark of legitimacy becomes ever more important in the novel and Justine and Osman increasingly provide counterpoints through which the black British sensibilities of Gus and Danny can be balanced against alternative black African conceptions of the situation.
Phiffips uses Justine and Osman to suggest that black Britons cannot (p.43) fully understand or accurately represent African topics. Osman attacks the politics he sees as defining the actions of both Gus and Danny: ‘You've got this romantic mythology about blackness with Africa at the centre of it, and at the same time you've grown up thinking like Europeans’ (214). Osman is able simultaneously to insist that the only genuine Africans are black when he rejects Eleanor's claim to a valid perception of the continent, and also that Gus and Danny, as black Britons, cannot be seen to hold a valid stake in the contemporary affairs of Africa. The privileging of essential racial identity over lived experience is presented as justifiable in one situation but not in another. Phillips seems to endorse the idea that an Afrocentric perspective is necessary to comprehend the manifestations of African cultural heritage that appear in the novel, but also that this perspective is withheld from his black British characters, who lack the conceptual models fully to participate in this inheritance. He implies that they should concentrate instead on the concerns of their immediate surroundings and develop an identity that does not rely on a postulated spiritual connection to overseas. The conceptual distance that separates Danny from a full understanding of the Dancing Face of the Great Oba and the meanings it holds for the African characters is most apparent when Danny attempts but fails to take control of events and direct the course of his task. He meets Digby, the oil company representative, in order to try to achieve a resolution of the situation, but his attempt at assertion is proved fruitless when Digby informs him of the death of Dr Oyebanjoh. Danny's lack of control over events is highlighted by this information's origin in an unknowable Africa, accessible only through intermediaries and characterized by the ambiguous status afforded to facts: ‘once they'd made the announcement they would make sure it was true, and either way it was all up with the doctor’ (233). He is unable to take control, his attempt at agency smothered by the vagueness of a dark and looming Africa. The continent is rendered as so epistemologically distinct from his British experience that his attempts to intervene in its narratives immediately are cut short.
It is Osman who engineers the destruction of the mask and brings the narrative to a close. Danny's failure to take charge of the destiny bequeathed him by his brother is made complete as the novel suggests that an African must resolve the chain of events set in play by the theft of the mask. This is made explicit when Osman justifies his decision: ‘I come from the same life as the Dancing Face did. I know what it was. It was more than art. It was my history’ (251). Osman has a claim on the meaning (p.44) of the mask that is denied to Danny and can therefore act in a manner that the younger Dixon brother is unable to replicate.
When Danny questions how Osman could have destroyed such a valuable artefact, Osman responds by claiming, ‘I turned my back on history. After that it was easy’ (251). Kwame Dawes argues that this moment reveals crucial aspects of Phillips's wider concerns:
Osman's capacity to turn his back on history is a telling one, for it speaks to the very meaning of what it means to be a black British writer […] The act of turning one's back on history means that one does not necessarily hold on to the talismans of those literary traditions that emerge from former colonial worlds, but one forges a new, constructed future in the new British landscape.69
Dawes's reading of the novel overlooks the importance of the fact of Osman's African identity. Osman legitimately can participate in the history of the Dancing Face and, through such proximity, is granted the option of rejecting this past in favour of a productive future. It is not clear that the same opportunity is offered to Danny. He is unable to connect with the materiality of an African history, so cannot perform the spaceclearing gesture of ‘turning one's back’ in his attempt to claim a stake in his future. Gus stole the mask in order to possess a concrete symbol of the past that might afford him privileged insight into what is yet to come. The tragedy of the novel is that neither Gus nor Danny can utilize this insight as it becomes apparent that the mask belongs to a history divorced from their experiences. Phillips wishes to discredit the investment in an Afrocentric understanding of blackness which he sees as motivating much black British political discourse. Gus Dixon is revealed as pursuing this history erroneously as only those with more direct material attachments may understand its legacies correctly. Only Africans, the novel suggests, may deal appropriately with African realities and black Britons should therefore concentrate on their own struggles. However, although the mask originally was made in Africa, the events of The Dancing Face take place exclusively in Britain. Gus's alertness to the implications of the international histories signalled by the imperialist theft of the African mask may not seem misplaced so radically. But, by denying to Danny Dixon the resources with which to address these repercussions, and instead locating the ability to resolve the disequilibrium in the figure of the African-born Osman, Phillips struggles to identify exactly where the appropriate arena for Danny's assertion of a political self may be located. Danny's character is revealed as crucially dependent on his brother's legacy, despite his (p.45) ostensive rejection of Gus's essentialism, and his possible sphere of political and cultural influence is vague. While Phillips intends for Danny to represent ‘the possibility of being black outside the collectivity of blackness’,70 his distinctive political and cultural characteristics are increasingly blurred within the novel.
Ernest Mandel argues that the contemporary thriller novel performs a different function from that played out by the crime novel of an earlier era. Rather than shoring up the legitimacy of bourgeois society, these works actually perform a disintegrative function that can lead to a questioning of extant social mores and expectations. However, this questioning of the norm is always incomplete unless ‘another set of ideas and values can be counterposed to it. Nothing of the kind has occurred, even in the most sophisticated variants of the contemporary thriller’.71 It is possible to read in these arguments an echo of the difficulties faced by Phillips. The choice of the genre novel allows him to critique certain codes of representation of blackness in Britain but he is finally unable to provide a coherent and complete alternative. His writing of black Britain rejects models that rely on a flawed ideal of Africa and a concept of international blackness, but does not then offer the historical and cultural understanding necessary to enable a productive restructuring of the ways in which blackness in Britain can be represented. Without any notion of historical determination, Danny is adrift without foundation in contemporary Britain; his specifically black British experience seems less illustrated than effaced in Phillips's London.
Fred D'Aguiar, Feeding the Ghosts
Bénédicte Ledent argues that writers such as Fred D'Aguiar, born in London and raised in Britain and Guyana, often write on the topic of slavery not ‘to reproduce it in its social or historical verisimilitude, but to bring out and exploit the multifarious symbolical and imaginative potentialities of “the woven complexity” which the enslavement of Africans by Europeans has produced’.72 For Ledent, slavery provides an ideal subject matter for the contemporary black writer in Britain or the Caribbean to address the historical specificity of their inherited identity structures. She goes on to argue (following Gilroy in The Black Atlantic) that ‘uncovering the often erased intricacies of slavery enables them to escape the sterile fixity and Manichean logic of both Eurocentrism and Africentrism’.73 She (p.46) suggests that the social and cultural impositions, transactions and evolutions that were engineered by the machinery of slavery provide the founding blocks for a conception of historical identity that is free from both the brutality and racism of a European master discourse and the limitations of a (largely invented) Africa-based repository of memory. D'Aguiar's Feeding the Ghosts addresses the possibility of creating an identity that recognizes the social and epistemological split engendered by the Middle Passage by engaging with the historical record to produce a text that articulates some of the difficulties and dangers in adopting a coherent position to engage with the discourses of racial politics. The novel explores the attractions of an Afrocentric conception of black identity (and the reasons for its inadequacy), but also the dangers inherent in constructing an antiracist position that relies on a black identity centred within the moment of victimization that is represented most clearly by the terrible conditions of the slave ship.
The novel is based around the story of the slave-ship Zong. In 1783 an appeal was lodged in the British courts by a group of insurers who were refusing to honour a claim made against losses sustained by the Zong during a 1781 journey from the west coast of Africa to Jamaica. During the crossing the ship was beset by sickness and the decision was made to throw 132 living African slaves into the sea. An insurance claim was filed against the loss of 131 of these slaves (one slave had apparently managed to catch hold of a rope that hung overboard and climb back onto the ship). The insurers were refusing to pay the ship's owners as they deemed these actions to be unnecessary to ensure the survival of the ship's crew and remaining stock of slaves.74 The case was decided in court in favour of the Zong's owners, yet was taken to appeal by the insurers. At the appeal a subsequent court trial was ordered but no records exist to establish the final verdict in this hearing.75 Despite this, Robert Weisbord has noted, it became common in historical accounts of the event to claim that this final trial was decided in favour of the insurers and was a landmark decision in showing how black slaves could no longer be treated simply as stock. Weisbord explains this ‘retrospective wishful thinking’ on the part of these historians by arguing that they were ‘publishing in periods of racial turmoil’.76 The implication is that the case remains a central event within the history of the black diaspora and that disputes over its meanings therefore continue to be relevant even two hundred years later. Ian Baucom, reviewing more recent incidents in which it has been evoked, sees the drowning bodies of the slaves as ‘com[ing] to function in black Atlantic (p.47) narrative […] much as the entombed body of the unknown soldier functions in Benedict Anderson's account of nationalism’.77 The historical event of the massacre aboard the Zong is a valuable tool for understanding black British history, acting as a microcosm of the inhumanity of African slavery. Understanding the black presence on the Zong as a matter of active subjectivity and agency, rather than simply as a case of passive compliance with oppression, allows the beginning of a black history that provides some sense of connection across time outside of the dehistoricized position offered to black people by contemporary hegemonic racism ‘where social existence is confined to the roles of being either a problem or a victim’.78
The abolitionist Thomas Clarkson described the slaughter on board the Zong as a ‘deed unparalleled in the memory of man, or in the history of former times and so black […] that were it to be perpetrated to future generations and rest upon the testimony of a single individual, it could not possibly be believed’.79 D'Aguiar utilizes the form of individual testimony as one of his narrative modes, echoing attempts to capture the reality of brutal events in the form of a single coherent account. However, this testimony is not simply offered as evidence, as in Clarkson's example, nor as metonym of wider historical currents, as in Dennis's Duppy Conqueror, but as something which must stand alongside the historical event in a demonstration of how the contemporary individual might begin to engage with a scene of such horror. To present the history of the Zong is to recuperate a positive self-identification that resists the damaging influence of contemporary British racism by ‘seiz[ing] hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger’.80 However, D'Aguiar also argues that it is crucial to appreciate such a ‘narrative act of recovery’ as ‘a stage for asking questions not only of the contemporary but about how that return is staged in the first instance’.81 The testimonies presented in Feeding the Ghosts are complicated by D'Aguiar's realization that the act of narrative is crucial to developing a meaningful engagement with history.
The novel concentrates on the story of Mintah, a Fetu slave. She is revealed as the slave who was thrown overboard but managed to climb back onto the ship. The first part of Feeding the Ghosts is written in the third person, concentrating on Mintah and detailing the murder of the slaves, Mintah's experience of being jettisoned and regaining the (relative) safety of the boat, and her subsequent failed attempt at leading a slave rebellion aimed at bringing the murders to a halt. The second part of the novel recreates the court hearing, in which D'Aguiar has the counsel for the (p.48) insurers present Mintah's own written account of the events aboard the ship. This first-person account then follows, offering Mintah's personal perspective on the atrocities. The last sections of the book deal with Mintah as an old woman, a freed slave living in Jamaica at the time of the 1833 Emancipation. Again she remembers the killings at sea. She dies in a fire that consumes both her and the 131 carvings she has made to commemorate those who were killed.
The first epigraph of Feeding the Ghosts is taken from Derek Walcott's ‘The Sea is History’, a poem in which the respective histories of the displaced peoples of the Caribbean appear to have been incorporated into the vastness of the sea. Walcott suggests that little more than a trace of these pasts can be found: ‘but the ocean kept turning blank pages | looking for History’.82 D'Aguiar echoes this inevitable need to search for lost history: ‘The sea current turns pages of memory.’83 D'Aguiar's remembered version of the Zong floats on an Atlantic ocean that not only symbolizes but also incorporates physically the brutality of the slave trade. For Walcott, the sea is history. The opening line of Feeding the Ghosts tells us: ‘The sea is slavery’ (3); for Mintah, and for the descendants of those enslaved Africans who survived the Middle Passage, history is slavery. The legacy of slavery acts as a largely unsurpassable moment of discontinuity, what D'Aguiar describes as ‘a solid absence’ in his poem ‘Feeding the Ghosts’, first published twelve years before the novel of the same title.84 For the descendants of black people transported from Africa in bondage it would seem that history begins, or is inevitably defined, at this moment of rupture.
For D'Aguiar, ‘what lives about history is what the living entertain about it’.85 History must then partly be conceived as an act that takes place within the consciousness of the subject who searches to remember. The following long extract from his ‘The Last Essay about Slavery’ provides an insight into what he believes the imaginative recuperation of the moment of slavery can do for the reading and writing black subject:
For black readers, history is recovered in fiction. A history of unwritten lives that was previously lost to them is suddenly revealed. This contemporary fictional history [has the] ability to ironise, to ennoble and dignify the demeaned life, the dehumanised slave, by recovering their humanity, but with an ironic detachment afforded by the privilege of retrospective wisdom and of art. Whereas in the slave narrative the life of the slave is the subject of the story that the reader is privileged to overhear, in the slave novel the life is rendered in such a way that the reader becomes the subject, no longer able to sit outside (p.49) it as witness but put in its place. The reader becomes both the ‘thing’ doing the talking and the ‘thing’ talked about in slave novels: not a single entity but splintered; not in one fixed location or vantage-point but shifting.86
D'Aguiar posits a crucial connection between the time of slavery and the times of its re-imagination in the acts performed by the writer and the reader.87 In the epilogue of Feeding the Ghosts a narrator tells of how the Zong has been found within the historical archive – ‘I have a list of names. I know who did what to whom’ (229) – but also suggests that the act of remembering slavery brings the remembering subject into alignment with the temporal plane on which the event occurs. In this epilogue, both writer and reader are present at the event when the history of the Zong is recounted:
Men, women and children are thrown overboard by the captain and his crew. One of them is me. One of them is you. One of them is doing the throwing, the other is being thrown. I'm not sure who is who, you or I. (229–230)
The temporality that D'Aguiar calls into being in writing his novel is informed by what Walter Benjamin has called ‘Messianic time’, in which the past, present, and future are enacted simultaneously.88 Louise Yelin sees the first-person plural address of the epilogue as an invitation to D'Aguiar's readers to participate in an act of commemoration; rather, we might say that this form of address does not constitute invitation but is instead an acknowledgment that the reader is already an inextricable participant in the performance of memory.89
The act of remembering the Zong is the act of constructing a black identity. D'Aguiar's narrative uses the events of over two centuries earlier to interrogate some of the ways in which contemporary black people can understand themselves and their situation. The imaginative leap to a Messianic temporality is a direct engagement with, and articulation of, the resource that allows a historicized sense of self though which racist hegemony can be battled. Through imagining Mintah's experiences aboard the Zong as being concomitant with an immediate present, D'Aguiar places the contemporary black subject at the heart of a Eurocentric history and facilitates the drawing of lines of continuity to the present day, locating black Britons at the core of a prior, exclusively white narrative of the nation. In this way, D'Aguiar's novel can be seen to complement many of the ideas expressed in Gilroy's The Black Atlantic. His return to the Zong to understand the present seems in concord with Gilroy's insistence that the contemporary articulations of black people across the diaspora may be (p.50) best understood when ‘using the memory of slavery as an interpretative device’.90 Indeed, it should be remembered that Gilroy posits the ship as an ideal chronotope for understanding black identity. In situating his characters, himself as writer, and his readers all aboard the Zong, D'Aguiar might be read as endorsing fully Gilroy's identification of the location of origin of modern black culture.
Yet, Feeding the Ghosts cannot be accommodated so easily into Gilroy's model of the ‘slave sublime’. D'Aguiar is profoundly uncomfortable with locating the starting point of black cultural expression solely within the trauma of the Middle Passage. He has often returned to the image of Africa that can appeal to the black Briton who feels alienated from the dominant national identity and has employed this mystical idea of Africa when arguing: ‘Africa is that kind of Rastafarian thing of the “I and I”. The first “I” is the individual person, the second “I” is a spiritual “I” that reconnects with Africa.’91 His belief in the spiritual redemption that can be offered by a ‘reconnection’ with Africa is apparent in ‘The Last Essay about Slavery’, where he argues that the writings which try to navigate within the twisted time of the Middle Passage can begin to construct ‘a psychic bridge to Africa’ and to ‘attempt to locate black people in Europe armed with an unviolated – because pre-slavery – sense of self with which to combat British racism’.92 Africa becomes symbolic of a time outside of the hegemony that constructs black people as inferior – a time that is not only before slavery but remains always external to slavery.
By the time of writing Feeding the Ghosts, D'Aguiar is less confident of the redemptive power that a dehistoricized Africa can exert, and replaces it with a belief in the effectiveness of an imaginative capture of historical record. However, he seems far less willing than Gilroy to give up the sense of a history antecedent to slavery that may help to bolster the foundation of black cultural and political self-understanding. Mintah abandons her attempts to enact a physical or spiritual return to Africa and instead comes to realize that ‘her sense of the world can be gained by a return to memory’.93 However, contra Gilroy, Africa may feature in this ‘memory’ as much as the pain of the Middle Passage and subsequent exploitation within a plantation economy. D'Aguiar rejects the version of an African past that acts as a cure-all for the sense of alienation that may affect the black Briton and recognizes the complexity of the historical events that need imaginatively to be re-experienced to be fully understood. In doing so, he outlines a mode through which the black subject might be able to begin the ‘process of comprehending something difficult and integral to (p.51) her nature and making a life out of the duress that it inevitably represents’.94 The novel depicts this process of realization as invariably fraught with difficulties but nonetheless affirms its possibility.
Mintah is isolated aboard the slave ship and cast loose from the bonds that enabled her to constitute both her internal grasp of selfhood and her external relations to the outside world. She has been taken by force away from home and the physical structures that support her self-knowledge and sense of belonging. The rupture enacted when she is taken from African soil by Captain Cunningham and his crew leads to a desperate attachment to the Africa she has left and, indeed, to land itself. Soil becomes a symbolic source of strength and of belonging. She feels the need to ‘lie in mud’ and to ‘roll in it and don it like a garment, thread it through her hair, lace it between her fingers and toes, wear its mask’ (115). When she finally lands in Jamaica she kisses the soil (207); the earth appears to offer a groundedness that can provide the emotional resources to overcome the traumatic memory of the journey. Significantly, Mintah's time aboard the slave ship not only marks her division from the spatial certainties of the African earth, but also leads to a distortion of time and complicates her sense of temporality. As her self is stunted and her identity attacked almost to the point of destruction, so time too is under assault. Her inability to perform any act of self-assertion or of self-realization takes Mintah out of a linear temporal scheme. It would appear that slavery removes any sense of a structured self along time: ‘The sea keeps me between my life. Time runs on the spot, neither backwards nor forwards’ (199). Mintah wishes in her reveries for ‘a path she might choose to look back along and see what progress she had made, or ahead to confirm her destination’ (115). She has been deprived of this broader perspective on her existence. The groundedness of her African past (made material in the image of the mud in which she desires to roll) has been replaced by a situation in which her identity is always subject to slippage in a temporal vacuum in which ‘present time is nothing to me’ (199).
For the slavers, time on board the ship runs in the ‘correct’ way. Their distance from the physical realities of solid ground does not distort their temporal sense. This is evident when Mintah watches the face of the sleeping guard. She wishes unto him the torments of mind that besiege her, yet his face remains calm and untroubled. Mintah begins to understand the reasons for this:
Everything that he did in each passing moment propelled him towards home. Knowing that he would get there at some point, that no matter how long he (p.52) stayed away or how far he sailed from it he would return one day, must make peace judge his face a proper place to settle on during rest. Not so for those who had left home with no obvious prospect of return. Whose land with each passing moment was thrown farther and farther behind them, swallowed by a horizon leaving no trace or any clues to how it might be recovered. Peace read all this on such a face and veered away from it. (118)
The crew of the Zong possess the teleology of the masters. Their apparent freedom to control their destiny makes the voyage of the Zong comprehensible. Even Simon, the sympathetic cook's assistant, has ‘his’ Liverpool, the home port that, through its very existence, can serve to regulate his life aboard the ship. Mintah realizes that this city could never be hers (103) and cannot use it to construct a ‘geography with fixed points, however remote’ (112). For the sailors, the existence of a final destination makes both the starting point and the time of the voyage meaningful. The slaves, being transported into the unknown against their will, do not have this luxury. D'Aguiar illustrates the difficulties that might accompany a blanket adoption of Gilroy's image of the ship as a positive chronotope for diasporic black identities. The trope of movement to which Gilroy alludes is perhaps in danger of being overwhelmed by an alternative vision in which the ship becomes instead symbolic of a fixed instance of suffering and of divorce from the certainty of home and the sense of continuity across time that this confidence provides.
The disruption that the sea voyage enacts on the telos predicated upon the familiar contact with land is encapsulated in the transfiguration of the Atlantic Ocean itself from something liquid and negotiable into a solid and immutable totality that seems capable of preserving the Zong and its occupants in a timeless state where the possibility of progression is disqualified. It is made clear early in the novel that a strong connection exists between the events taking place aboard the ship and those that occur around it: the wind that cracks the sails of the ship makes a sound ‘like that of perfume being slapped on to a just-shaved face’ as the Captain emerges from his cabin having finished shaving (9). Later, as the storm that provides a backdrop to the horrendous events that take place on deck begins to build, it takes up the cries of the slaves below decks in their torment. Yet, rather than effectively voicing this discontent, articulating the experience of rupture, the elements collude so that this voice is lost within the turbulent sea, ‘with its limitless capacity to swallow loves, slaves, ships, memories’ (27). The sea echoes and reinforces the sense of the inevitability of the events that take place on board the ship; within a totality in which the (p.53) elements appear fully to participate, there appears to be little room for a mustering of imaginative resources to combat the inexorable course of events.
As the crew begin to lose the illusion of their autonomous action (when Captain Cunningham demands that they proceed with the killings against their wishes), they too begin to find that both the teleology and temporality of the Zong's passage become unsure:
Things had become topsy-turvy. They had been at sea too long. The Zong no longer sailed towards land but must have been spun around in the dark, an about-turn while they slept, so that although it maintained the same forward movement, it was in fact describing a huge circle in the middle of the ocean and facing back to front, with a corresponding switch in the minds of all on board from reason to madness. (128)
The crew begin to participate in the alienation experienced by the slaves; as their capacity for free will is taken away, so too are their other supports of identity threatened. For the First Mate, Kelsal, the ability to question Captain Cunningham's orders is eradicated by his sense of the completeness of the world in which the Zong moves. The sea that surrounds on every side offers no respite from its omnipresence. The possibility of another perspective on events, of a foothold from which to initiate change, is denied by the uniformity and endlessness of the watery horizon: ‘He cursed its unbroken line: there was no other course but to proceed’ (17). Through its separation from the self-evident truths that hold on dry land, the sea is granted a self-contained system of logic. At points it seems to be capable of mimicking the solidity of land and of proposing itself as a complete alternative to that which offers human subjects grounding and facilitates growth. Surrounded by the thick sea that forms into its own ‘sheer cliffs’, ‘precipice[s]’, and ‘peak[s]’, D'Aguiar asks, ‘How could land sit in this? Here the concept of land was as remote as the sun and the moon and the stars. Fixed points in the mind’ (35). It is only as a mental concept or vestige of memory that the land so crucial to the perpetuation of unbroken time and unbroken selfhood can be retained.
Mintah discovers that the totality of elements that surround the ship deny her the fixity that may be experienced on land when she attempts to perform a fertility dance on the deck. The dance, intended to signify ‘Fertility's temporary death and eventual rebirth’ (31) is a defiant gesture of hope at this time of forced migration. It represents a belief that the sea voyage is only a ‘temporary death’ for the fragile identity of the African slave, who will be reborn when reunited with the reality of land. However, (p.54) Mintah's dance does not satisfy her need for an experience that can transcend the actual moment of captivity. She remains frustrated, stunted, and ashamed by her efforts (40). Gail Low has argued that D'Aguiar's choice of a female protagonist allows him to use the figure of the reproductive body ‘to explore slavery's severance of kinship and familial affiliations’.95 The fertility dance in particular allows us to see how this severance is enacted aboard the ship. Mintah conjures the image of herself ‘dancing this very dance in a village square with dust raised by her feet and the duststockinged feet of other young women’ (31). Sociality is here connected to the physicality of the African continent, metonymically represented by the dust rising from the soil. However, Mintah stands with ‘the balls of her feet on the deck’ (32) and the dance of rebirth fails as the lines of contact that bring meaning to it are revealed to have been severed. Mintah has been taken from Africa and the physicality and associated groundedness offered by the reality of a continent is removed from her stock of potential identity-bestowing materials. Much of D'Aguiar's novel examines Mintah's need to overcome this loss of land and community and reconstitute herself as an agent of resistance without this fundamental resource. There is an explicit recognition that the irreversible fact of separation from Africa must be incorporated into any post-slavery narrative of black diasporic identity.
Given the irreversible separation from the land of Africa, Mintah must look for alternative materials through which to reconstruct herself. Prominent among these resources is wood, which is able to fulfil a number of symbolic functions. It is described early in the novel as possessing a redemptive quality: Mintah tries to identify with the grain that runs through the wood when she notices how the grain flows around the knots in the wood; ‘was divided by it, but flowed around it nonetheless’ (41). She uses this knot as an analogy of the voyage she is undergoing. Her aim is to disallow the stripping of her identity that the rupture from her homeland might enact. Instead, ‘I will be grain, she thought. Grain around this knot of a voyage’ (42). In much the same way as the grain appears to flow around the knot, altering its course but retaining its motion, so Mintah can try to preserve a conception of the forward movement of time while on board the Zong, refusing to accept the cessation of continuous time that appears to be the consequence of the loss of autonomy under slavery. With this sense of time, derived from the determination to exist beyond the moment of captivity experienced on the ship, comes a sense of a future self, towards which the present self is journeying. Once the future is (p.55) conjured into existence, it also becomes possible to enact a more concrete imagining of the past. Mintah's determination to relate to the grain, to experience its quality of constancy despite interruption, allows her access to a chain of significations that take her back to her father and mother and ‘behind her mother, their relations, and farther back friends and acquaintances, then the entire village and its animals, fields, trees and two rivers. And beyond the rivers, the hills of Africa’ (42). Wood seems able to return to Mintah those aspects of her identity that have been taken from her and, crucially, it begins to allow her access to the master signifier, ‘Africa’, the land that can function to provide the sense of belonging necessary to the maintenance of a coherent identity. When Mintah is thrown into the sea, the hull of the Zong appears to her as a ‘forest’ and the rope she catches hold of as ‘plaited grain’ (52–53). The wood of the Zong becomes alive, capable of growth and of forward movement through time. It can save her from death in the Atlantic Ocean and provide hope in the possibility of surviving the violence of chance.
But the hope of redemption that is offered by wood is later suggested to be a false promise. Mintah finds that the horrors perpetrated on the Zong are perhaps too great to be negotiated using the metaphor provided by the grain in wood. Faced with the level of Captain Cunningham's inhumanity, she loses the tenuous grip she had on her identity and begins to succumb to the temporal and geographical void faced by the enslaved Africans:
I thought the wood in this ship would stand for land in the absence of land. But the wood is indifferent to me. Grain in the wood has nothing to tell me that can be of any use to me on this ship. The Zong dips and rises in the sea without making progress […] This is my life without land. Without the land I know. (200)
The reliance on wood as a potent symbol with which to combat the pervasive sense of alienation entailed by separation from one's native land ultimately proves fruitless. The attempt to ‘flow around’ the experience of slavery and to ignore the mechanics of the system because of a desire to preserve one's unchanging essence in changing times seems to founder when it becomes apparent that the brute fact of death is unavoidable. Ultimately, the attachment to a concept of land, of Africa embodied in the materiality of wood, is an attachment to a position of inertia. The illusion of adaptation offered by the flow of the grain remains an illusion as the real nature of wood is revealed to be static and fixed. As Mintah recognizes the horror of the events through which she has lived, she becomes a ‘rootless (p.56) trunk of a tree with leafless limbs’ (215). D'Aguiar's rejection in Feeding the Ghosts of his earlier arguments for the redemptive power of an image of pre-slavery Africa becomes clear. Rather than providing a productive means through which the alienated black subject can locate his or her experience in terms of the continuity of history, the attachment to this frozen model of Africa is in fact a denial of history. The fact of slavery and of the displacements and disjunctions that it has wreaked upon the black diaspora must be acknowledged within any attempt to historicize the black experience and to understand its constituent elements.
Mintah's attachment to the grain that runs through the slave ship is not the only strategy D'Aguiar portrays the slaves as using in attempting to cope with the realities of separation from Africa and life in bondage. We are shown at least two of these strategies after Mintah manages to get back aboard the ship and visits the section of the hold where the women and children are kept. On her departure the women and the children enact two different responses to their continuing terror. Amongst the women, her return from an apparently certain death leads to a celebration and they act as if they can forget the horrors that surround them, now that there is hope for redemption. This hope becomes a substitute for actual redemption, an abstract ideal that ostensibly short-circuits the need for any material strivings toward ending the oppression they labour under: ‘“The goddess Mintah will free this ship and guide it back to Africa.” Aieees! Endless whistles, ceaseless ululations, clapping and clapping as if it were not conjecture but had come true’ (93). The women celebrate the fact of hope for itself and, through this distraction, neglect to perform the actions that may be required to fulfil their own prophecies.
The children also fail to be spurred into action, but their inactivity springs from a quite different source: ‘Their bodies had to be prepared to meet the sea. Not with song. With silence’ (95). The children do not wish to partake of the hope that is offered to them. Instead, they reject celebration and prepare for death. In The Black Atlantic, the ‘turn to death’ is read in a positive light: Gilroy suggests that the acceptance of, or desire for, a cessation of one's life shows the subject rejecting the binary opposition of master and slave that defines them. The turn to death functions ‘as a release from terror and bondage and a chance to find substantive freedom’.96 The way in which the children passively prepare to be slaughtered in Feeding the Ghosts does not easily lend itself to a reading in which this can be seen as a positive tactic designed to assert autonomy in the face of slavery. Rather, an acceptance of the confines imposed by slavery seems (p.57) to be recognition of the futility involved in any attempt to combat the situation. D'Aguiar refuses to participate in Gilroy's privileging of the trauma of slavery as the originary point of a unique black self-consciousness. Here, the turn to death and the premature celebration both seem to be strategies that reject positive action. Like Mintah's fetishization of wood and attempt to coast through the Middle Passage unaffected, they are unproductive and ultimately unable to compensate for the senses of identity and of purposeful action that have been lost in the slave hold. D'Aguiar regards neither the attempt to play down the significance of the rupture from Africa, nor the relocation of the foundations of cultural identity to the moment of acceptance of suffering, as a valid contemporary response to the cruel facts of black history.
Mintah survives the voyage of the Zong. She later earns her freedom from slavery and works to ensure that more slaves could obtain liberty in her role as a ‘guide’ on the Underground Railroad in the antebellum American South. These positive acts help her to repair the damage that took place aboard the slave ship: ‘For every one thrown to the sea I multiplied by two in Maryland when I acted as guide’ (209). Yet this activism is not enough to settle the demands made upon Mintah by her awareness of the past; it requires more to feed the ghosts of history. Alongside the reparative acts is the symbolic memorial she develops through her woodworking. The 131 carvings that fill her Jamaican home are reminiscent of the shape and contours of water, yet an observer might detect ‘a figure of some kind, man, woman or child reaching up out of the depths’ (208–209). Mintah's figures pay testimony to the individuals who died on the fateful crossing and also to the ruthless sea that sought to eradicate their traces in history.
Wood again appears as a positive image at this point of the novel but, importantly, it is not wood left to retreat into inertia but wood that has actively been invested with Mintah's labour. The shadow of water that can be detected in each of Mintah's carvings acts like the sea itself: reminding her of the reality of the Atlantic crossing and the inescapable impediment that frustrates attempts to relate back to a mythical and healing Africa. In the conjunction of these elements, both the continuity and change in her history can be present. Earlier in the novel Mintah imagines memory as a storeroom that can be raided for sustenance. However, there is always a danger that these raids can cease to be productive as one ‘simply retriev[es] the same things time and again’ (61). Her home in Jamaica becomes the physical embodiment of this mental store. She continues to carve to guard against the danger of stultification. As Mary Lou Emery points out, the (p.58) woodworking is ‘linked to her father and Africa’ but is importantly given new purpose in the Caribbean where she ‘participates in the creation of a new and dynamic culture’.97 In the creative act her African inheritance is conjured into fragile being to exist in tension with the memory of the Middle Passage: ‘The sea keeps my hands apart. Wood unites my hands’ (210). Only through these continual reassertions of identity and of continuity can Mintah retain hope in the possibility of salvation.
Gail Low has productively linked Mintah's creative act in fashioning her wooden figures to D'Aguiar's own actions in taking the historical events of the Zong as the basis for his novel. She argues that much of what Mintah is compelled to do to heal the psychic damage of slavery through the reproduction of the traumatic event is echoed in D'Aguiar's own text and the re-visioning of the Middle Passage that it constructs. For Low, such texts as Feeding the Ghosts create a material memory of slavery, a concrete repository of ideas that provide a resource for the black subject attempting to negotiate the hurdle of the moment of slavery in the construction of their identity:
the accumulation of texts on the subject, their textual reverberation and their intertextual dialogue with each other, strives towards the structure of a mythic/cultural repository of symbols, discourses, language and memory which is outside any individual control. Such a mythic reservoir plays a formative part in organizing group consciousness.98
This ‘mythic reservoir’ is crucial to D'Aguiar's confrontation with the history of the black diaspora and to his interrogation of the ways in which the black historical subject may be constructed. Vitally, however, he is concerned to avoid the danger of inertia in the creation of this archive and to preserve a notion of active dialogue and engagement with the events of the past.
The carvings that embody Mintah's remembering of the Zong do not survive to the end of the novel. Instead, they are consumed by a fire, along with the hut, and Mintah herself. The fire, however, is not purely a negative event. D'Aguiar, like Kamau Brathwaite (who supplies the second epigraph to Feeding the Ghosts), understands the dialectic of fire, the forces of creation and destruction that are housed within it: ‘Flame is our god, our last defence, our peril | Flame burns the village down.’99 The destruction of Mintah's record facilitates the creation of D'Aguiar's. Mintah's remembering of the Middle Passage must be destroyed to avoid stultification and to enable the process of re-creation and remembering to take place anew within each generation.
(p.59) For D'Aguiar, the revisiting of the past is crucial in understanding the current configurations of racism. His writing on slavery is not so much to provide an account of the oft-forgotten histories of that time, but rather to revisit those moments in order to address them as a contemporary resource in constructing an antiracist position. As his Unknown African replies to the ‘black Englishman’ who wishes to resurrect his memory:
- what happened here, not me […]
- I mean a job
- your face can't fill, or change dropped in your hand, or gob
- from a child taught to hate our race. Name all that shit.
- Let me and my troubles rest, unless you profit from a visit.100
The value in revisiting the past is not only produced through the augmentation of existing historical records. It lies rather in the fact that the bounds of hegemony that construct a repressed black subject through the memory of slavery can be challenged within the achievement of continually renewed articulation of individual memory. Feeding the Ghosts uses the historical massacre aboard the Zong to critique both the retrievable connection to Africa implied by an Afrocentric politics and Paul Gilroy's conception of a black Atlantic identity forged by the experience of suffering. Rather like Mintah's carvings, D'Aguiar's novel demands a more dynamic model to assess the displacement brought about by the Middle Passage and its impact on contemporary black identities. He rejects the comforts offered by a static imagining of times gone by in favour of a view of history as ‘a tiger's leap into the past’.101 Both the fact of an African history and the rupture that took place during slavery must be acknowledged and remembered, but the fragile constructions created in this unity should be employed always in service of the present.
On Symbols and Political Realities
Paul Gilroy's essay, ‘Steppin’ out of Babylon', which concludes the seminal Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies collection The Empire Strikes Back (1982), offers several parallel ways of reading the emergent political activity of black Britain: as well as exploring the immediate response of black Britons to their oppression, in ways that recall, but crucially differ from, the traditions of class struggle, he examines the mass (p.60) appeal of Rastafarianism, and analyses the ‘Bass Culture’ of dub and Reggae. He challenges some of the ways in which Rastafarianism has been read as a purely symbolic and therefore imaginary resolution to social contradiction, while nonetheless conceding its considerable symbolic resources. In Bass Culture, though, he finds something less direct than political organization, and more concrete than symbolic capital; he reads the music and its technologies of dissemination as, following Adorno, embodying a deeper political sense than any openly ‘committed’ work of art might achieve. The very fact that the music refuses an explicit politics of statement allows for its deeper structures of affect to challenge ‘the “politrickal” ideologies that suffer by comparison to the total processes of human emancipation involved in social revolution’.102 Thus ‘atelic, hermetic’ artistic production can join the symbolic and directly activist modes as components of resistant practice. The novels read in this chapter can perhaps usefully be read as places in which all three of these modes play out.
Hall's contention that African diasporic peoples always return to a symbolic sense of Africa in the articulation of political aims and strategies,103 seems to play out both in Gilroy's essay and in the three novels examined here. But Africa is often more than just symbolic in these works; it appears also as the object of material political practice and as a structuring metaphor about which the aesthetic effects of the texts might be created. Indeed, in reading these books we can perhaps recognize the inseparability of these levels of meaning, and that the distinction Gilroy borrows from Adorno, between the committed and autonomous work of art, simply cannot hold for long. Political realities themselves rely on symbolic codes, and artistic representation of them inevitably needs to establish its own logic of representation, which in turn (and not always consistently) reflects or challenges ideological norms. In the most straightforwardly realist of the novels, Mike Phillips's The Dancing Face, a definite political aim – the repatriation of African art – possesses motivational force because of how it can function as a symbol of black political identity. Rather than simply speaking of a global consciousness, black Britons' investments in the return of the plundered artefacts (as the statements of Bernie Grant's ARM make clear) speak directly to the concerns of the present; referring to the historically and geographically distinct colonial theft is at the same time a way of speaking of current iniquities and of the complicated causal chains that lead between the two. The danger that such connectedness might pose to exclusionary political structures can perhaps (p.61) be found in reading what is not said in Tony Blair's not-quite-apology for the slave trade, given shortly before the commencement of the bicentennial anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade. Blair writes of the ‘shameful’ nature of the slave trade and of the need to celebrate the contribution to British life by those of African and Caribbean descent, as well as Britain's commitment to African aid. However, the causal connections between slavery, the contemporary position of black Britons, and the structural poverty of Africa are left unstated. Blair offers a panacea to antiracist grievance while carefully avoiding any conception of blame.104 It is in insisting upon such connection that movements like Grant's ARM find political power.
Phillips remains sceptical about the value of asserting such interconnectedness, viewing stances like this as a misguided attempt to evoke pride by playing into the dangers of didactic and ill-considered history and, ultimately, a questionable racial essentialism. In such self-labelling as the Black Liberation Front's identification of themselves as ‘not a part of this “British nation”’ but rather an ‘African people in Britain’, Phillips detects an investment in a continent about which little is actually known and which can have only limited relevance to actual antiracist struggle in Britain.105
Ferdinand Dennis has written about the symbolic appeal of Africa, detailing his own youthful investment in Rastafarianism. In Duppy Conqueror, however, this symbolic appeal is translated into a concern with the actual political history of Pan-Africanism, and an account of how the black diaspora has emotionally and intellectually invested in the continent across the years. Yet, choosing to channel this political history into the life story of a single individual risks turning the large-scale political movements into mere background against which the tribulations of a single man are played out. Of course, the strivings of antiracist discourse emerge from the specific needs of individuals, but they find meaning only when articulated on a collective scale; in reducing the political development of Pan-Africanism to mere events in the eventful life of Marshall Sarjeant, the novel's message of redemption through a productive relationship with Africa becomes unconvincing in the social dimension. Dennis wants to affirm the personal gains that black Britons can accrue through connecting with an African inheritance, but the epic reach of Marshall's personal journey serves to emphasize the impossibility of this reconciliation for a contemporary Briton who lacks this (impossible) range of personal experience.
(p.62) In The Dancing Face, Phillips wants to deal with the gap between the symbolic assertion of African inheritance and the reality of political life in Britain. His novel returns the right to exercise agency in Africa to Africans themselves, ultimately granting the ability to resolves the plot to Osman, rather than one of the black British Dixon brothers. In doing so, though, the interconnection between Africa and Britain that has been apparent throughout the text is elided: African treasures such as the Benin Bronzes remain in British museums, and continue to be exploited by such figures as William, the young white curator who is interested in African art ‘because it's the next big thing in my field and there's not a lot of competition’ (255). As a British subject, Gus finds in protesting against this exploitation a meaningful individual stance within antiracism: not directly disputing his own specific positioning in British society, but rather understanding that the paternalism that insists the artefacts must necessarily be safer in Britain encapsulates an attitude which continually disenfranchises black people. As Danny becomes increasingly baffled and impotent within the novel, this stance of resistance is emptied out and becomes unsustainable. Phillips allows Danny a sophisticated understanding of the pitfalls of racial essentialism, but provides little sense of how he might be able to act as a knowing racialized agent. In rejecting the symbolic value of Africa, Danny seems also to lose any concrete motivation for antiracist action.
Fred D'Aguiar's Feeding the Ghosts is a very different novel and can seem to display less involvement in the contemporary then Phillips's (or even Dennis's) novel. But in returning to the trauma of slavery, as encapsulated in the Zong massacre, he does nonetheless clearly signal an involvement in contemporary antiracism, recognizing that the brutal history of slavery continues to shape the present lives of black people. Feeding the Ghosts could be read as a corollary to Gilroy's work in The Black Atlantic, where the mystical appeal of an unblemished African past is rejected as a plausible focus for antiracist pride in favour of a concentration on the concrete legacies of slavery and the productive transatlantic legacies born through resistance to this attack on the humanity of the peoples of the black diaspora. Yet the novel does not so easily dismiss the utility of pride in an African inheritance. In contrast to Phillips's strict denial of the relevance of Africa to contemporary black British politics, Feeding the Ghosts offers an attachment to the continent as something which allows for a psychic connection to a sense of wholeness, even as it recognizes the splitting caused by slavery. Mintah craves the Africa she has lost, and continually recreates its totality. Her efforts are doomed always to be transitory, but in (p.63) continually staging the attempt to connect, her sense of alienation is deferred and she can then find a way to act towards productive goals. The pride in one's being and refusal to accept a second-class status in one's home country seen in that identification of the Black Liberation Front as an ‘African people in Britain’ need not simply be reduced to a naivety that refuses both history and the reality of the contemporary world, but might be read as a component of the need to explore one's history in order to find a way to locate oneself in a very real present.
(1) Frank Reeves and Mel Chevannes, ‘The Political Education of Young Blacks in Britain’, Educational Review, 36.2 (1984), pp. 175–185.
(2) Black Liberation Front, ‘Manifesto of the Black Liberation Front’, Grassroots, 2 (1987), p. 15.
(3) An indication of the relative unpopularity of Afrocentrism in Britain might be found in the realization that a text identified by Stephen Howe as ‘one of the few original works by British Afrocentrists’ – Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe and Femi Nzegwu, Operationalising Afrocentrism (Reading: International Institute for African Research, 1994) – is authored by a Nigerian and an American, who both now work in Senegal. Stephen Howe, Afrocentrism: (p.157) Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (London and New York: Verso, 1998), p. 279.
(4) Molefi Kete Asante, Afrocentricity (Trenton, NJ: Africa New World Press, 1988), p. 1.
(7) Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (London: Methuen, 1992), p. 28.
(8) Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (London: Zed, 1983), p. 1.
(12) In his adaption of Robinson's position, Sidney Lemelle reduces the importance of a distinctive African ontology and correspondingly increases the Marxian, materialist elements. Sidney Lemelle, ‘The Politics of Cultural Existence: Pan-Africanism, Historical Materialism and Afrocentricity’, Race & Class, 35.1 (1993), pp. 93–112.
(13) Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London and New York: Verso, 1993), p. 122.
(19) Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Athlone, 1988), p. 25.
(20) Avtah Brah, Cartographies of Diaspora (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 181.
(21) Kadiatu Kanneh, African Identities: Race, Nation and Culture in Ethnography, Pan-Africanism and Black Literatures (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 63.
(22) Stuart Hall, ‘Negotiating Caribbean Identities’, New Left Review, 209 (1995), p. 9.
(24) Howe, Afrocentrism, p. 285.
(27) Leila Kamali has recently offered the argument that black British writers' engagement with Africa is partially reliant on, though ultimately quite distinct from, a previous address of the continent by African American novelists like Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, and Ishmael Reed. The argument I develop below, which is more concerned with how writers respond to an Africa found as part of a political tradition, rather than a literary one, is quite different, but perhaps not wholly incompatible. See Leila Kamali, ‘The Sweet Part and the Sad Part: Black Power and the Memory of Africa in African American and Black British Literature’, Atlantic Studies, 6.2 (2009), pp. 207–221.
(28) Sukhdev Sandhu, ‘Paradise, Jamaica’, Times Literary Supplement, 26 June 1998, p. 27.
(29) Ferdinand Dennis, Duppy Conqueror (London: Flamingo, 1999), pp. 55–56. All further references are to this edition, and will be given in parentheses in the body of the text.
(30) Ferdinand Dennis, Behind the Frontlines: Journey into Afro-Britain (London: Gollancz, 1988), p. 59.
(33) Ferdinand Dennis, Back to Africa: A Journey (London: Sceptre, 1992), p. 12.
(34) Ferdinand Dennis, The Sleepless Summer (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989), p. 114.
(35) Horace Campbell, ‘Rastafari: Culture of Resistance’, Race & Class, 22.1 (1980), pp. 1–22.
(36) Imanuel Geiss, The Pan-African Movement (London: Methuen, 1974), pp. 89–90, 271–272.
(37) Many traditional African religions consider the ka to be a part of the soul that survives its bearer's death. Its relation to the deceased is similar to the relation between ‘the verbal expression of some tangible reality to that reality itself, or [between] the name of any one to the person whom it designates’. Alfred Wiedemann, Religion of the Ancient Egyptians (London: Grevel, 1897), p. 240.
(38) Procter, Dwelling Places, pp. 21–30.
(39) Ras Makonnen, Pan-Africanism from Within, ed. Kenneth King (Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1973), pp. 133–147. See also John McLeod, ‘A Night at “The Cosmopolitan”: Axes of Transnational Encounter in the 1930s and 1940s’, Interventions, 4.1 (2002), pp. 53–67.
(40) George Shepperson points out that the diasporic Africans, ‘in a complicated Atlantic triangle of influences, have played a considerable part ideologically in the emergence of African nationalism: in conceptualisation, evocation of attitudes and through the provision of the raw material of history’. George Shepperson, ‘Notes on Negro American Influences on the Emergence of African Nationalism’, Journal of African History, 1.2 (1960), p. 312.
(41) See Basil Davidson, Black Star: A View of the Life and Times of Kwame Nkrumah (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1989).
(42) See Ali A. Mazrui and Michael Tidy, Nationalism and New States in Africa (London: Heinemann, 1984), pp. 118–122. For a detailed reading of how Kenyatta's politics embodied some of the contradictions fostered by international Pan-Africanism, see Simon Gikandi, ‘Pan-Africanism and Cosmopolitanism: The Case of Jomo Kenyatta’, English Studies in Africa, 43.1 (2000), pp. 3–27.
(43) Dennis, Back to Africa, p. 151. The description of the flag given here actually matches that of Bolivia.
(44) While Lacoste can be seen as a fairly transparent caricature of Frantz Fanon, particularly his infamous insistence that ‘violence is a cleansing force’, Marshall's views are equally a part of historical Pan-Africanism. George Padmore wrote of the movement: ‘It identifies itself with the neutral camp; opposed to all forms of oppression and racial chauvinism – white or black – and associates itself with all forms of progress and goodwill, regardless of nationality, race, colour, or creed, working for universal brotherhood, social justice, and peace for all people everywhere.’ Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farringdon (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), p. 74; George Padmore, Pan-Africanism or Communism: The Coming Struggle for Africa (London: Dennis Dobson, 1956), p. 18.
(45) This kind of utopian imposition can be clearly traced in such beliefs as Garvey's that the return of the diasporic Africans would ‘give back to Africa that liberty that she once enjoyed hundreds of years ago, before her own sons and daughters were taken from her shores and brought in chains to this Western World’. Marcus Garvey, Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, ed. Amy Jacques Garvey (New York: Arno, 1968), p. 81.
(46) Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p. 29.
(47) Dennis, Behind the Frontlines, p. 209.
(48) See Isaiah 53: 5: ‘he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.’
(49) Bruce King, ‘Mike Phillips and the Making of Black British Literature’, in Bénédicte (p.159) Ledent (ed.), Bridges Across Chasms: Towards a Transcultural Future in Caribbean Literature (Liège: L3, 2004), p. 140.
(50) Mike Phillips, London Crossings: A Biography of Black Britain (London and New York: Continuum, 2001), pp. 164–165.
(51) Mike Phillips, ‘At Home in England’, in Onyekachi Wambu (ed.), Hurricane Hits England: An Anthology of Writing about Black Britain (New York: Continuum, 2000), p. 430.
(52) A. Sivanandan, A Different Hunger: Writings on Black Resistance (London: Pluto Press, 1982), p. 17; Terri Sewell, Black Tribunes: Black Political Participation in Britain (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1993), pp. 48–52; Ron Ramdin, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain (Aldershot: Gower, 1987), pp. 415–438.
(53) Mike Phillips, ‘Separatism or Black Control’, in Asrok Ohri, Basil Manning, and Paul Cunro (eds), Community Work and Racism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982), p. 110.
(54) In this article Phillips focuses his attention on black Christian church groups but, as Ron Ramdin has demonstrated, many other groups operated around similar organizational structures. Ramdin, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain, pp. 443–456.
(55) Phillips, London Crossings, p. 174.
(56) Phillips, ‘Separatism or Black Control’, p. 103.
(57) Kwame Dawes, ‘Negotiating the Ship on the Head: Black British Fiction’, Wasafiri, 29 (1999), p. 23.
(58) See, for example, Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, et al., Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (London: Macmillan, 1978).
(60) Phillips, London Crossings, p. 154.
(61) Lars Ole Sauerberg, Intercultural Voices in Contemporary British Literature: The Implosion of Empire (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), p. 188. In fact, the foremost depictions of black criminality in contemporary British fiction are perhaps those of Victor Headley. Phillips's displeasure at James Procter's inclusion of Headley in his anthology of writing from black Britain may indicate that he does not consider this writing as evincing the necessary grounding in reality. Mike Phillips, ‘Re-writing Black Britain’, Wasafiri, 36 (2002), p. 63.
(62) Phillips, London Crossings, p. 149.
(63) Critics have identified this city as Manchester (see Justin Warshaw, ‘After Africa’, Times Literary Supplement, 27 June 1997, p. 22) but, although Phillips has set other novels in the city, the fact that the undercover detective identifies herself as ‘West Midlands police’ (serving Birmingham, Coventry, and Wolverhampton) makes this unlikely. Mike Phillips, The Dancing Face (London: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 148. All further references are to this edition, and will be given in parentheses in the body of the text.
(64) Glasgow City Council, ‘Memorandum on Repatriations’ (2000), House of Commons: Culture, Media and Sport: Minutes of Evidence. www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm199900/cmselect/cmcumeds/371/0051808.htm, accessed 12 May 2003.
(65) African Reparations Movement, ‘Frequently Asked Questions’. www.arm.arc.co.uk/FAQs.html, accessed 7 July 2009.
(66) James Oqunleye, ‘Let's Keep the Flame Burning’, West Africa, 27 Oct.–9 Nov. 1997, p. 8. More recently, Kwame Anthony Appiah has critically explored the issue of ownership in this case. Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006; (p.160) repr. London: Penguin, 2007), pp. 115–136.
(67) Mike Phillips, ‘Bernie Grant; Passionate Leftwing MP and Tireless Anti-racism Campaigner’, Guardian, 10 Apr. 2000, p. 20.
(68) Ralph Harper, The World of the Thriller (Cleveland, Ohio: Case Western Reserve University Press, 1969), pp. 4–5.
(69) Dawes, ‘Negotiating the Ship on the Head’, p. 24.
(70) Phillips, London Crossings, p. 202.
(71) Ernest Mandel, Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Novel (London and Sydney: Pluto, 1984), p. 124.
(72) Bénédicte Ledent, ‘Remembering Slavery: History as Roots in the Fiction of Caryl Phillips and Fred D'Aguiar’, in Marc Delrez and Bénédicte Ledent (eds), The Contact and the Culmination (Liège: L3, 1996), p. 272.
(74) Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (London and Sydney: Pluto Press, 1984), pp. 127–130; Robert Weisbord, ‘The Case of the Slave-Ship Zong, 1783’, History Today, 19.8 (1969), pp. 561–567.
(75) Jane Webster suggests it is likely that ‘none ever took place’. Jane Webster, 〒The Zong in the Context of the Eighteenth-century Slave Trade, Journal of Legal History, 28.3 (2007), p. 295.
(76) Weisbord, ‘The Case of the Slave-Ship Zong’, p. 564.
(77) Ian Baucom, ‘Specters of the Atlantic’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 100.1 (2001), p. 68.
(78) Paul Gilroy, Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Cultures (London and New York: Serpent's Tail, 1993), p. 37.
(79) Quoted in Weisbord, ‘The Case of the Slave-Ship Zong’, p. 561.
(80) Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), p. 257. D'Aguiar spoke of the affinity he feels with Benjamin's view of history in a talk entitled ‘The Historical Imagination’ given at the University of Leeds on 1 Mar. 2002. The relation between D'Aguiar's and Benjamin's views is explored further in Susanne Pichler, ‘“The Sea has no Memory”: Memories of the Body, the Sea and the Land in Fred D'Aguiar's Feeding the Ghosts (1997)’, Maringá, 29.1 (2007), p. 5.
(81) Fred D'Aguiar, ‘How Wilson Harris's Intuitive Approach to Writing Fiction Applies to Writing Novels about Slavery’, in Judith Misrahi-Barak (ed.), Revisiting Slave Narratives (Montpellier: Les Carnets du Cerpac 2, 2005), pp. 22–23.
(82) Derek Walcott, The Star-Apple Kingdom (London: Jonathan Cape, 1980), p. 26.
(83) Fred D'Aguiar, Feeding the Ghosts (London: Vintage, 1998), p. 4. All further references are to this edition, and will be given in parentheses in the body of the text.
(84) Fred D'Aguiar, An English Sampler: New and Selected Poems (London: Chatto &Windus, 2001), p. 22.
(85) Fred D'Aguiar, ‘Home is Always Elsewhere: Individual and Communal Regenerative Capacities of Loss’, in Kwesi Owusu (ed.), Black British Culture and Society: A Text Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 201.
(86) Fred D'Aguiar, ‘The Last Essay about Slavery’, in Sarah Dunant and Roy Porter (eds) The Age of Anxiety (London: Virago, 1996), p. 141.
(87) This is in keeping with observations made by Mikhail Bakhtin regarding the ‘totality’ discernable within the novel form: ‘We might put it as follows: before us are two events – the event that is narrated in the work and the event of narration itself (we ourselves participate in the latter, as listeners or readers); these events take place in different times (which (p.161) are marked by different durations as well) and in different places, but at the same time these two events are indissolubly united in a single but complex event that we might call the work in the totality of all its events, including the external material givenness of the work, and its text, and the world represented in the text, and the author-creator and the listener or reader.’ Mikhail M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 255.
(88) Benjamin, Illuminations, p. 265.
(89) Louise Yelin, ‘“Our Broken Word”: Fred D'Aguiar, David Dabydeen, and the Slave Ship Zong’, in Misrahi-Barak, Revisiting Slave Narratives, p. 357.
(90) Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, p. 55.
(91) Fred D'Aguiar, ‘Interview with Harald Leusmann’, Wasafiri, 28 (1998), p. 20.
(92) D'Aguiar, ‘The Last Essay about Slavery’, p. 138.
(93) D'Aguiar, ‘Home is Always Elsewhere’, p. 199.
(95) Gail Low, ‘The Memory of Slavery in Fred D'Aguiar's Feeding the Ghosts’, in Deborah L. Madsen (ed.), Post-Colonial Literatures: Expanding the Canon (London: Pluto Press, 1999), p. 108.
(96) Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, p. 63.
(97) Mary Lou Emery, Modernism, the Visual, and Caribbean Literature (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 34.
(98) Low, ‘The Memory of Slavery’, p. 117.
(99) Edward [Kamau] Brathwaite, Rights of Passage (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 7.
(100) Fred D'Aguiar, ‘At the Grave of the Unknown African, Henbury Parish Church’, Callaloo, 15 (1992), p. 896. A shorter version of this poem was republished in British Subjects (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1993).
(101) Benjamin, Illuminations, p. 263.
(102) Paul Gilroy, ‘Steppin' out of Babylon: Race, Class and Autonomy’, in Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain (London, Hutchinson, 1982), p. 301.
(103) Hall, ‘Negotiating Caribbean Identities’, p. 9.
(104) Tony Blair, ‘The Shame of Slavery’, New Nation, 27 Nov. 2006, pp. 1–2. Some of the rhetorical devices present in this and related statements are explored in Emma Waterton and Ross Watson, ‘Talking the Talk: Policy, Popular and Media Responses to the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade using the “Abolition Discourse”’, Discourse & Society 20.3 (2009), pp. 381–399.
(105) Black Liberation Front, ‘Manifesto’, p. 15.