I chose this book for the reflection of the author’s experiences in my own. Caryl Phillips was born in one country, moved to the United Kingdom as an infant, grew up there, and relocated to the United States as an adult. I was born in Canada, moved to the United States as an infant, grew up there, and relocated to the United Kingdom – albeit briefly – as an adult. I had my own experiences as a migrant, and I picked up this book curious as to the observations a migrant the opposite of me would make of my home country. The answer is, of course, that all migrant experiences are different.
It seems so obvious of an observation, yet Phillips’ collection of essays in Color Me English illustrates the variety of experiences. While both of us are or have been a migrant twice over, his experiences and subsequent essays have the added dimension of race and what it means to have your “otherness” be so apparent as a migrant. As a white woman, my own migrant experiences can only be viewed from a place of racial privilege.1 I remember living in the United Kingdom as a student and being resentful of how obviously unwanted I was. With policies like these, I should have kept what amounts to over £23,500 ($38,000 USD) in tuition, fees, tourism, and living expenses in my own damn country. But this is nothing on those who wear their “otherness” in their skin. At one point while I was living in the United Kingdom, I read an article2 on a local effort of one of the United Kingdom’s smaller cities that would outlaw student immigrants from gathering in the shops and was absolutely livid. How could they not see how racist that was? No one would turn me away from a store, regardless of the fact that I am also a student immigrant. I am white and I speak English fluently (even if it is with a Mid-Atlantic American drawl peppered with the occasional y’all). If you were to see me on a street in the United Kingdom, you would not know I was a migrant and thus my race protects me from bearing the brunt of migrant hatred. While I have experienced a shadow of the “othering” while living in Asia, that shadow remains from a position of privilege of the presumed wealth and privilege associated with my race. This may seem like a digression – but it is a mark of a good writer who has you thinking about and relating to their work, and every essay in this work is well-written and worth a read.
In Phillips’ Color Me English, race is its own character. It is in every essay, and it would be a mistake to say that the character of race remained the same across the essays, just as the character does not remain the same across borders. The essay that the collection takes its title from, “Color Me English,” is sweet, reflective, and painful in the way that childhood memories can be. “Color Me English” is the experience of growing up in the UK both black and an immigrant, and the pecking order of immigrants that is visible even in the elementary school setting, where Phillips is the “more British” of the immigrants. Almost a follow up to it, “Rude am I in my speech” reflects the differences between a first generation immigrant (his father), and Phillips himself, who was raised British. This, too, has racial components. “Rude am I in my speech” brings in the experiences of Othello and compares them to the modern day migrant. Tellingly, it includes an exchange where his father passed on experienced-earned immigrant racial knowledge. After passing his driver’s test, Phillips was told by his father to “be very careful if I was out driving at night with a white girl” and to “be prepared to have the police stop and harass me for no other reason than the fact that I was with a white girl.” Race is the main character of this collection of essays: migration, belonging, and 9/11 are the chorus that supports it, and the lens through which it is viewed.
One of my favorite essays is also one that stood out painfully to me, and that is his “Strange Fruit.” “Strange Fruit” is also the name of the first published play by Phillips, which was written from a British context, with nothing to do with the United States or racial violence, as it does in the United States. He admits to taking the name for the play from a Billie Holiday song, but he had apparently largely ignored what Billie Holiday meant by her incorporating of the poem into her song repertoire. His essay details a painfully awkward exchange between him and the father of a victim of the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963 in the early 1980s after Phillips revealed the name of his first published play to this father. For those unfamiliar, “Strange Fruit” as presented by Billie Holiday (not actually written by her, it started its life as a poem by Abel Meeropol), is about lynching.
From a migrationist perspective, I loved this essay for the illustration of differing cultural contexts and resulting awkwardness. I loved that “Strange Fruit” is a migrant holding up a mirror to his adopted country to reflect the pain our racial history is still echoing into the present. But it is also because of this experience that he describes in the 1980s that I found Phillips’ disillusionment with America in other essays so frustrating. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” published in 2003, reads with the disappointed naiveté of an idealist who gave the United States too much credit from the get-go when it came to race, class, and being an American. Maybe I am just jaded, or my experience growing up in the same town with a Native American reservation in an otherwise white farming community gave me the opportunity to grow up with the knowledge. The gap in opportunity, in belonging to the American family, is wide and it is real: America is not the land of freedom so many migrants believe it to be, and every generation of migrants has a moment where they realize that the streets are not paved with the golden opportunity they thought it was. Though I agree with Phillips: the gap is widening. The gap is seen now in my own generation, with so many camped in parks under the signs of the 99% – publicity granted because now it is not just the migrants and the non-whites that are affected by this gap.
His essays under the section “Homeland Security” were all written in the years after 9/11. Many of them feel outdated – not in that they are any less valid, but that several strike me as overdone liberal rants against the government post 9/11. I agree with them, but it’s nothing I needed to read in a book, as similar articles have been all over the blogosphere and newspapers in the years since 9/11. An exception within this section is “Ground Zero” which I found to be successful memoir of his experience in New York City on 9/11, which was poignant, beautiful, and deeply personal. Another criticism I would have of this selection is that, like most collections of essays, not every essay hits the theme of the collection pitch-perfect. There are quite a few I would not have included at all. Generally, however, Color Me English is a meaningful addition to the discourse on belonging, on migration, and most importantly, on race. A reader who has an interest in any of those, let alone the threads of their intersection, will find this collection worthwhile.
Color Me English: Thoughts About Migrations and Belonging Before and After 9/11 by Caryl Phillips
The New Press, August 2011
Available from Amazon; Hardcover $22.36, Kindle $14.27
1 Gender privilege not withstanding.
2 I have done my best to find this article again on the internet and was unable to.