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The European Tribe by Caryl Phillips (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $15.95; 129 pp.)

July 19, 1987|Charles R. Johnson | Johnson is the author of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (Penguin), and the forthcoming "Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970" (Indiana)

Imagine Alexis de Tocqueville reborn as a British subject, a talented boy of Caribbean origin who suffers racial humiliation from his teachers at the Queen's College, from a theater director whose reply to his play about the horror of the Middle Passage is "Don't be bloody ridiculous," and from a London editor who calls him a "jungle bunny." Then imagine this young man, fortified by reading masterworks of black American fiction, traveling for a year, as Tocqueville did, but with one enormous difference--his subject this time round is all of Europe and global oppression in the 1980s.

Novelist Caryl Phillips' brief, eye-opening book, "The European Tribe," is one black man's answer to Tocqueville's classic, and may well become a classic of cultural exploration itself. "In British schools," he tells us, "I was never offered a text that had been penned by a black person, or that concerned the lives of black people." While visiting America to recuperate from nervous exhaustion, a vacation soured by police harassment in Detroit and Chicago and insult in a Salt Lake City supermarket, his need to know himself and his people is triggered by copies of "Invisible Man" and "Native Son" in a California bookstore. "I spent my last few weeks in Oxford," he confesses, "resenting that it had taken America to make me conscious of my desire to write."

Black American literature, and especially his association with James Baldwin, figure largely in Phillips' 1984 journey toward himself. He poses his dilemma in terms that echo W. E. B. DuBois' famous description in "The Souls of Black Folks" of black Americans who ever feel their "twoness," a conflict of racial interpretations arising from the experience of colonization. "How," he asks, "was I to reconcile the contradiction of feeling British, while being constantly told in many subtle and unsubtle ways that I did not belong." Phillips' solution, which gives DuBois an English twist, was to explore each side of his divided Afro-British self by examining the Europeans as a Pan-Africanist anthropologist might, treating the French, British, Soviets, and Spanish as a single white tribe determined to keep people of color, the far-flung African diaspora, down.

Casablanca is Phillips' first stop, a mythic city in an African country crippled by dependence upon multinational companies and a form of neo-colonialism that, he explains, has pushed the poor into prostitution, the drug trade, and selling their children. Thinking of the Hollywood film, he writes:

"This was not the dazzling Casablanca that I had been expecting . . . 'You want hash?' hissed shady-looking men who appeared out of every nook and cranny. And the romance of seeing a group of hooded Berbers gliding down a street was soon offset by the sight of the many beggarwomen. . . . The smell and noise of Casablanca became overpowering. The flies were a constant menace, potential illness was a pressing concern. Everywhere there were hordes of wandering pariah-like dogs and flea-ridden cats. Outside the medinas the water-carriers sold water that I found difficult to believe anyone would want to drink."

As if to make matters worse, he studies the citizens of Morocco during a showing of "Rocky II" and discovers "the people were literally on the edge of their seats for Stallone."

In France, Phillips' powers of observation and research are especially vivid as he traces the resurgence of European fascism in the National Front's efforts to control the "African Scourge" and hold back immigration. He is sensitive to oppression in all its guises, whether it be anti-Semitism in Amsterdam, religious bigotry in Ulster, or the suppression of writers in Warsaw and the Soviet Union, where he notes that only 7,000 authors are sanctioned by the Party.

Closer to Phillips' own development as a black writer are two brilliant, racially hip essays on "Othello" and "The Merchant of Venice." Also fascinating is his chapter called, "Dinner at Jimmy's." Like a younger James Baldwin drawn to, then disappointed by Richard Wright, Phillips paints a sad portrait of our finest essayist in his 59th year, a man in "voluntary exile" at his villa north of Nice, plagued by artistic doubts, heart and lung problems, and his speech "peppered with the rhythms of age and illness."

However, Phillips' true theme in his travels everywhere is the global disenfranchisement of black people at a time when "America has conquered Europe economically, politically, and culturally." In 1831, Tocqueville wrote of Americans: "The taste for superiority crops up everywhere." A century and a half later, Phillips sees Europe in decline, America, "the Frankenstein that Europe created risen from the slab," and right-wing extremism becoming increasingly the solution to unemployment, hopelessness, and disillusionment in Western Europe.

"The European Tribe," comprised partly of personal odyssey, partly of political indictment, is too important a book to be ignored. "Despite my education," Phillips says, once he's back in Britain, "I found myself then and still now, unable to engage with a Eurocentric and selfish history. . . . Europe must begin to restructure the tissue of lies that continues to be taught and digested at school and at home, for we, black people, are an inextricable part of this small continent."

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