"A State of Perpetual Wandering": Diaspora and Black British Writers

Bronwyn T. Williams, University of New Hampshire

Copyright © 1999 by Bronwyn T. Williams, all rights reserved. This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the editors of JOUVERT: Journal of Postcolonial Studies.

  1. Certainly a novel such as Phillip's Crossing The River, with its separate stories of Blacks in Britain and the United States and Africa, all connected through time and space by the threads of diaspora, offers a space for these narratives to be both told and connected in ways that cannot be contained by national boundaries. For a reader picking up the novel, who did not know that Phillips had been reared in Leeds, it would difficult at first to confidently categorize the book as "American" or "British" or "Caribbean" Literature.

  2. In the first section set in the 1830s, "The Pagan Coast", Nash Williams, a freed slave "sent to Liberia under the auspices of the American Colonization Society, having undergone a rigorous program of Christian education, and being of sound moral character, had disappeared from the known world" (7) Edward Williams, his former master, follows him to Liberia only to find to his dismay that Nash has found a new home among the people he was sent to convert and educate and has rejected the values of his former master and married and adapted to the indigenous religions and customs. Yet this is no simple act of liberation and reversal and Nash finds he cannot be truly at "home" in Liberia any more than he could in Virginia. In the end, Nash dies of the same disease that killed his son and that "remains a mystery even to those closest to him" (61).

  3. Similarly, in the fourth and final section, "Somewhere in England" Travis, a Black American soldier sent to England during the Second World War, meets and falls in love with Joyce, a working-class, White English woman. Though they plan to be married, they face both the resistance of the local village people and of the Americans. Travis tells Joyce that he has his commanding officer's permission to marry "as long as he didn't try to take me back to America with him" (227). There is no place for them to be at home. Travis and Joyce conceive a son; then, after Travis is killed in Italy, Joyce gives the child up for adoption. The section ends in 1963, with the arrival at Joyce's house of a young man who she knows is her son. She invites him in and thinks, "I almost said make yourself at home, but I didn't. At least I avoided that" (232). The child is both Black and White, both American and British; yet he cannot be at home in Northern England, nor likely be at home in Travis' home state of Georgia. Like Nash Williams, he faces a lifetime of dealing with a shifting and unstable identity, both part of and apart from the cultures of two nations--the United States and Britain--neither of which will offer him full access to the dominant cultural narrative.

  4. What ties together the stories of Nash, Travis, and Martha--the second story of a Black woman in the 19th Century American West--is the excerpt from the "journal" of James Hamilton, master of the Duke of York, a ship of the slave trade bound from Liverpool to West Africa in 1752. Through this section Phillips, illustrates both the connection to and distance from the Africa that was once "home" to this Black diaspora. The dispersal of the "children" of the novel is violent and the traces of violence and displacement continue to haunt them through the generations. There is no "homeland" these children of the diaspora can recover, only other lands where their identities as Other will be constructed by the dominant cultures. As the anonymous "father" contemplates his diasporic children in the Epilogue of the novel, he realizes, "There are no paths in water. No signposts. There is no return" (237).
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