"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
Journal of Postcolonial Studies.
- 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"
- 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).
- 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.
- 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).