Racial undertones in European attitudes
The European Tribe, by Caryl Phillips. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 129 pp. $15.95. ``As a first-generation migrant, I came to Britain at the portable age of 12 weeks; I grew up riddled with the cultural confusions of being black and British,'' writes Caryl Phillips. Born in St. Kitts in the West Indies, Phillips spent his formative years in England, living in predominantly white, working-class neighborhoods while attending predominantly white, middle-class schools. Until meeting up with a defiantly black American fellow student at Oxford, so he tells us, he had little idea that a black person might become a writer or that blacks have a long history worthy of study.
In truth, it may be said, young Phillips had almost exactly the same uninformed view of black people as that held by the vast majority of the white ``European tribe.'' The chief difference - though a crucial one - was that where his white neighbors, teachers, classmates, and colleagues saw him at best as a kind of blank, a white man manqu'e, Phillips felt that sense of void within himself.
A trip to America helped inspire him to become a writer. (He has written two novels and several plays in addition to this book.) A trip to his Caribbean birthplace brought him insights about his ``roots,'' but could not explain the cultural forces that had shaped his development. As a product of Europe, Phillips decided to undertake a journey, starting from Casablanca, with stops in Spain, France, Venice, Amsterdam, Belfast, Dublin, Germany, Poland, Norway, and Moscow, in order to explore the culture that seemed at once to have nurtured and rejected him.
``The European Tribe'' is a significant book, but an uneven one. Some parts are thin. Of Casablanca, Phillips has little more to say than that its very real poverty is nothing like the glamorous image dreamed up by Hollywood. In Gibraltar, he is predictably snide about the self-consciousness ``Britishness'' of this last outpost of empire. Visiting the novelist James Baldwin in the south of France, he tactfully retreats when jazz musician Miles Davis arrives, so as to leave the two old friends alone, which may have been nice for them, but is, to say the least, disappointing for the reader.
Describing what he sees, writing at times off the top of his head because he wants to keep this book impressionistic, Phillips is occasionally inaccurate, often naive, and always highly impressionable. Yet, he also has the capacity for making sustained judgments, for putting things in perspective, and for pinpointing the dangerous trends building up throughout a continent whose white ``tribe'' feels inundated by floods of immigrants from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the West Indies.
In France, he takes note of the National Front slogan ``2 million immigrants - 2 million unemployed.'' In Amsterdam, at the Anne Frank House, a room documenting the history of fascism contains a photo of a 1924 banner in Berlin: ``500,000 unemployed. 400,000 Jews. Solution very simple. National Socialism.'' Recoiling from neofascism in Western Europe, Phillips finds no comfort in the East. In Moscow, he finds the official artwork as chilling as the weather and is deeply distressed by the plight of a refusednik family. A Polish writer in Warsaw indicates that there are ``benefits in being a victim of Western imperialism that those in the Eastern bloc could only dream about.''
At Auschwitz, he finds the sheer number of killings beyond comprehension: ``At least the Atlantic slave trade had some vestige of logic, however unpalatable. Auschwitz transcended the imagination.'' Back in England, however, a member of the educated, liberal class dismisses Phillips's reference to the 11 million Africans forced into slavery as ``bloody ridiculous.''
In Venice, that most scenic of settings, Phillips achieves a striking - and poignant - effect by looking inward instead of outward. Rather than admire the wealth of culture all around him, he ponders the fates of two who were outsiders, aliens in Venice: Shylock and Othello. One is a Jew, scorned by Christian society; the other a black who ``makes it'' in white society only to discover that he is alone and isolated in a world whose signals he does not know how to interpret.
Here, and elsewhere throughout the book, Phillips traces parallels between anti-Semitism and anti-black attitudes. He rightly resents the fact that in his educational experience, the oppression of colonialism and the scandal of slavery received no attention on television or in textbooks.
Brought up in a Europe still sensitive to the Holocaust, he was, however, able to identify with the plight of the Jews. His sense of parallels between the two groups does not blind him to the differences in their situations. But, to his credit perhaps, he remains at a loss to account for the virulent strain of anti-Semitism among some American blacks, beyond echoing the far-from-adequate ``explanation'' that inner-city blacks felt exploited by Jewish shopkeepers.
The impression one gains from reading this book is that European blacks have only begun in recent decades to face the kinds of prejudice and antipathy that American blacks have known for hundreds of years. Phillips writes calmly, succinctly, at considerable pains not to exaggerate, but alarms go off throughout his European journey and throughout this book, which, for all its flaws, sounds an important warning, a call for a sea change in attitudes that is well worth heeding.
Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.