Caryl Phillips: The Black Atlanticist
Homepage Introduction About the Authors Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3   Journeys  


In The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness Paul Gilroy writes that “The Black Atlantic can be defined, on one level, through [a] desire to transcend both the structures of the nation state and the constraints of ethnicity and national particularly.” The idea of a Black Atlantic traveler is of a person who travels across the Atlantic ocean, in a route that is somewhat similar to that of the triangle trade route. On these journeys people are going back to what they may hope to be home or looking to learn more about themselves and their identities. Caryl Phillips writes that “[…] for people of the African Diaspora, ‘home’ is a word that is often burdened with a complicated historical and geographical weight. This being the case, travel has been an important for it has provided African diasporan people with a means of clarifying their own unique position in the world (Phillips).” Caryl Phillips’s travels from the Caribbean to Britain to America mimicked the triangle trade. The writings that he produced as a result of these travels are thus classified as Black Atlantic writing.

His first encounter with traveling was soon after his birth when his parents moved from St. Kitts to Britain. As an adult, he decided to go back to St. Kitts in order to better understand the journey that his parents took; he made frequent visits between 1980 and 1984. Since then travel has been an important part of Caryl Phillips, “offering him opportunities of observing what he calls ‘the residue of empire’” (qtd. in Lima). Caryl Phillips has traveled around Britain and Europe, to Africa and North America. On his journeys he gained knowledge about himself and the people around him. He noted the differences in the Diaspora in different areas in the world especially in the Ghana where the Ghanaian understanding of the slave trade differed from those in the Diaspora. His travels started out with the main purpose of just getting away to learn and to gain a broader perspective on life, but he ended up gaining experiences that would not only help him develop as a writer, but would also give him material to write about. In an article entitled “Necessary Journeys” Phillips writes “[…] what would have happened to me if I had not left Britain in 1984 and begun a process of border crossings that I’ve continued to this day? […] To attempt to grow as a writer while grappling with the pernicious labeling that society wishes to impose upon those whose identities they find disruptive is doubly difficult.”

A Black Atlantic writer is a writer who focuses on the Middle Passage, and the symbolic and literal meanings embedded in the Atlantic. Black Atlantic writers also focus on slavery, the slave trade, colonialism, post colonialism, neocolonialism, and how the slave trade developed the Americas while under developing Africa at the same time, similarly much of Phillips’ fiction and non fiction writings deal with the Atlantic slave trade and the affect it has had on the African Diaspora.

Many of Phillips’ novels focus on the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade and its consequences for the African Diaspora, for example much of his writings also revolve around the Caribbean. Some of his Caribbean-based works include The Final Passage (1985), his first novel, A State of Independence (1986), and Cambridge (1991). The Final Passage is the story of a woman who leaves the Caribbean to live with her husband and baby in London. A State of Independence speaks on the islands growing dependency on the Americas. Cambridge is about a young woman from England visiting her father’s plantation in the Caribbean. Two of Caryl Phillips’s non-fiction novels are travel narratives, The European Tribe (1987) and The Atlantic Sound (2000). The Atlantic Sound was an account of a journey he made to three very important hubs of the Atlantic slave trade: Liverpool in England, Elminain the west coast of Ghana, and Charleston in the American South. All of these texts revolve around the Atlantic, and the many stories hidden behind it. Dr. James Proctor states that, “Phillips is a diasporic writer, whose work rejects the investment in national belonging, preferring instead the border spaces of the black Atlantic. Even in his non-fictional books The European Tribe and The Atlantic Sound reveal a preoccupation with what Phillips has diagnosed at different moments as the ‘gift of displacement’ and the high anxiety of belonging.”

Caryl Phillips is an exemplary Black Atlantic traveler and writer. He covers many subjects with Black Atlantic themes writing from the slave trade in The Atlantic Sound to post colonialism. His experience as a Black Atlantic traveler makes him a great Black Atlantic writer.


Earl Campbell III & Aundrietta Duncan

Earl Campbell III

Aundrietta Duncan


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A Walk in Thought


The South