As Caryl Phillips himself stated in The Atlantic Sound, the idea that those blacks who had been displaced from Africa somehow continued as an extended ‘family’, was soon established amongst those who had been transported on the first slave ships to set sail from the West African Coast. Phillips’ novel, Crossing the River, begins with this idea of displacement, as the nameless African father confesses to, ‘a desperate foolishness. The crops failed. I sold my children.’ However, the memory that haunts the African father is not just of his own family’s disintegration. It is rather the ‘common memory’ of dispersal and dispossession that characterises the African diaspora as a whole, this notion of the extended ‘family’. The novel incorporates the journeys of the children sold into slavery, ‘My Nash. My Martha. My Travis. My daughter. Joyce,’ in their efforts to establish new places of settlement across the world. These children of the African diaspora, Helen Thomas writes, represent an engagement with the trope of ‘crossing,’ as they are ‘seen to traverse spatial zones,’ and confront ‘social and cultural boundaries across the chasms of history and geography.’ Phillips uses this sense of a cross-cultural dimension, an ‘inter-relatedness,’ within the novel to present the identities of the African children as something which intertwines in ever-changing and unstable patterns, as each physical or cultural passage can be interpreted as a new translation of the self. Bénédicte Ledent effectively describes this relationship between ‘crossing’ and identity in the novel as the ‘tensions between roots and routes.’ Fred D’Aguiar notes that one of the consequences of the transatlantic slave trade was the severance of blacks from the ‘gravitational clutches of history.’ Phillips thus uses the ‘tensions between roots and routes,’ the rootlessness of the children of the African diaspora, to subvert people’s accepted view of history. Crossing the River is therefore a novel that attempts to look at that history from a different angle, through the prism of the people who have nominally been written out of it, or have been viewed as the victims in a particular historical storm.
The first section of Crossing the River, entitled ‘The Pagan Coast’ is the narrative of Nash Williams, the African child sold to slave-traders by his father. Raised as a Christian by his master and father figure Edward Williams, Nash is a part of the American Colonization Society’s scheme to repatriate former slaves on the Grain Coast of Africa during the 1830s. In his first letter to Edward, Nash refers to him as ‘my dear father,’ to whom he is ‘eternally grateful’ for removing him from Africa and those ‘same robes of ignorance which drape the shoulders of my fellow blacks.’ However, as Nash’s narrative progresses, his letters reveal a developing contradictory perspective of both America and Liberia as he states, ‘America is, according to my memory, a land of milk and honey, where people are not easily satisfied,’ and, ‘some emigrants hereabouts, having previously embraced religion and displayed the patience necessary to resist the temptation of the evil one, now dance to the discordant tune of drunkenness.’ Nash’s awareness of such ambivalence marks the beginning of, as Ledent states, his own personal, internalised ‘tensions between roots and routes.’ His letters begin to register the effects of his psychological entrance into a ‘no man’s land,’ a liminal space where racial identities are exposed as arbitrary and shifting.
Nash’s racial identity is not only shifting, but as Ledent argues, his crossing highlights that, ‘there is in each individual a plurality of interacting selves that language fails to apprehend in its full complexity.’ Nash comments upon the increasing racial tensions between himself and the natives, to whom he finds, ‘it strange to think that these people of Africa are called our ancestors.’ Furthermore, he writes that, ‘the native is generally resigned to finally admitting that this white man does talk true, for I think they have become much fond of me.’ For Nash, and his fellow black Americans who are attempting to settle a ‘small Christian empire’ in Liberia, they are treated as both white man and as coloniser. Thomas further explains this idea of ‘crossing’ within the novel as an association with ‘the fluidity of movement between cultures, the physical and cultural crossings that involve the construction of new versions of the self and the destruction / erasure of others.’ Nash is unable to contain his ‘plurality of interacting selves’, and instead rejects Edward, his master and father figure. This rejection is encapsulated in Nash’s letter to Edward, in which he writes:
It would appear that my present domestic arrangements have caused some offense to those who would hold on to America as a beacon of civilization, and an example of all that is to be admired. Are we not in Africa? This is what I constantly asked of the blacks. But it appeared they felt I merely sought to justify my native style of living. I soon found myself effectively shunned by my fellow Americans, many of whom privately mock African civilization whilst outwardly aping the fashion and posture of persons returned home.
Nash openly aligns himself with Liberia and scorns America, as he reveals a developing political understanding of America’s hypocritical practice of continuing its slave-trading practices whilst simultaneously promoting black repatriation and missionary schemes. He refers to America as ‘a stain on the name of our country,’ severing himself from the Christian beliefs and capitalist values of the Western world that Edward has previously worked to instil in him.
However, as Edward’s own African experience shows, this shifting sense of racial identity concerns white Americans just as much as black Americans. Ledent argues that by, ‘placing oppressor and oppressed in the same discursive universe, Phillips not only undermines the binary logic, but further challenges the centrality of race and nation in the construction of identity.’ This sense of a binary collapse is epitomised when Edward arrives at what he believed to be ‘a Gentleman’s club for white people,’ and felt, ‘surprised to discover the degree of hostility that this experience occasioned in his soul,’ after ‘a black man, clearly of American origin, answered and asked after his business.’ Edward explains this ‘hostility’ he feels by confessing that:
Never before had he had to explain or ask anything of a colored man, and to have to do so now, and to have to do so now, and in order to gain access to the company of other white men, he found extremely difficult.
Such feelings of ‘hostility’ can be attributed to what Ledent phrases as Phillips’ ‘dispersive characterization’ as he confronts, ‘an increasing awareness that it is not feasible to subtract a culture, a history, a language, an identity, from the wider, transforming currents of the increasingly metropolitan world. It is impossible to “go home” again.’ Edward’s crossing of spatial zones has forced him to realise how unstable and fragile his own identity is in Africa, as, like Nash, his servant and surrogate son, the version of the self which he enacted in America has been effectively erased.
Crossing the River further emphasises this collapsing of binaries by exposing how arbitrary and inadequate, yet somehow inescapable, borders are within the novel. The idea that a physical or cultural passage can be interpreted as a new translation of the self also occurs within the second section of the novel, entitled ‘West’. ‘West’ is the narrative of Martha Randolph, who, sold into slavery alongside her brothers Nash and Travis, finds herself working on a plantation in Virginia. When her master dies, Martha discovers herself and her family will be put up for auction. Martha recalls, ‘slaves. Farm animals. Household furniture. Farm tools. We are to be sold in this order. My Eliza Mae holds onto me, but it will be to no avail. She will be a prime purchase.’ This statement demonstrates that the institution of slavery has the power to both sever and commodify familial bonds within the novel. When Martha is then dismissed from Mr. Hoffman’s homestead, finding herself turned instantly from slave to fugitive slave, Phillips narrates this ‘passage’ in the call-and-response style of black sermons and song:
For where, she was not sure (don’t care where), being concerned only with heading west (going west), away from the big river (away from Hell), and avoiding nigger traders who would gladly sell her back over the border and into Missouri.
This passage suggests that, although alone on her journey, Martha remains connected with ‘the many-tongued chorus of the common memory,’ a shared experience which resonates within the extended ‘family’ across the black diaspora.
Now separated from her daughter, Eliza Mae, ‘Martha had a strange notion that she, too, must become a part of the colored exodus that was heading west.’ For Martha, to head west means a literal passage away from the Missouri River and its borders, which stands as a symbol of all human societal systems, particularly that of slavery. In ‘West,’ Martha explains that:
Apparently, these days colored folks were not heading west prospecting for no gold, they were just prospecting for a new life without having to pay no heed to the white man and his ways. Prospecting for a place where your name wasn’t ‘boy’ or ‘aunty,’ and where you could be a part of this country without feeling like you wasn’t really a part.
Martha believes that she must reinvent herself in order to discover her lost daughter, Eliza Mae and, ‘she reckoned that’s just what she was going to do. Pioneer.’ Martha presents herself as a courageous and experienced frontierswoman, confessing, ‘colored folks generally got to be obligated to white folks to get clear to California, but you colored pioneers are offering me a chance.’ She assures the man that, ‘she knew all about wild and dangerous country, and had many times seen horses and oxen shot that had broken their legs and watched as the trailriders made soup out of their hides and bones.’ As Martha reveals, traversing man-erected borders by crossing the Missouri River and heading west towards California does indeed annihilate one in the eyes of others. Or, in this instance, it erases her in the eyes of ‘the white man,’ offering Martha the opportunity to transform herself from slave, to fugitive slave, to frontierswoman, in her quest to be re-united with her daughter.
Similarly, the character of Joyce in ‘Somewhere in England,’ carries out a series of enactments of the self, demonstrating the mental borders that she must repeatedly cross in order to ensure her own survival. Following her mother’s death, Joyce recalls that when she returned from the funeral, her husband Len simply, ‘laughed at me. She died because you left her down there on her own and went off with me, he said.’ In fact, Joyce’s mother died in a bomb blast, because ‘she wouldn’t go to the shelter. She said, I’ve never had a front seat in a war, and I’m not missing my chance now.’ Yet Len’s reaction still proves to be the catalyst for a new performance of the self, as Joyce, ‘decided that on the first Sunday of every month I would take the bus into town. I would play daughter.’ Ironically, it is only after her mother’s death that their relationship improves, as Joyce confesses, ‘now that she was with her maker I had the feeling that she was listening to me. Which is more than she ever did when she had some breath in her body.’ Despite the irony of Joyce’s own relationship with her mother, Phillips presents warfare, like slavery, to have the power to fracture and destroy family units. Reminiscent of the slave auction scenes in Martha’s narrative, ‘West’, Joyce remembers the evacuee children that had arrived in her village, with only ‘an identification tag around their necks. Before us stood a dozen frightened children, the farmers eyeing the husky lads.’ In addition, when Joyce’s friend Sandra becomes pregnant by another man whilst her husband is away at war, Joyce, ‘pointed out the obvious. That this is a war. That if Tommy ends up without a father, he won’t be the first and he won’t be the last.’ Phillips highlights that the children of warfare, like those sold into slavery, are subjected to the same processes of dispersal and dispossession, which represent a threat to their own sense of self and cultural roots.
Furthermore, Ledent draws attention to the fact that within her diaries, Joyce ‘keeps deconstructing political discourses, always foregrounding their hidden agendas.’ This is most clearly revealed in her attacks upon Winston Churchill as she records, ‘if Churchill tells me one more time that this war is being fought for freedom and true principles of democracy I’ll scream.’ She similarly claims that the wartime news, ‘just showed the Tommies. Never the Yanks. And if they did, never the Coloureds.’ As Ledent notes, however, Joyce herself contributes to this camouflaging of ‘Britain’s racial others’ as her life with Travis, the black American GI stationed in England during the Second World War, and their son Greer, who is described as, ‘like coffee,’ both become an erasure of the self for Joyce. This is revealed in her 1963 diary entry, when Joyce records a visit by her adopted son Greer, her ‘GI baby. No father, no mother, no Uncle Sam,’ who ‘for eighteen years I hadn’t invited to do anything.’ When Greer questions Joyce about his father she apologetically replies, ‘I don’t even have a picture of him. I’m sorry, love. I destroyed everything. Letters, pictures, everything. When I met Alan. It seemed the right thing to do.’ For Joyce, the only way to keep crossing such mental borders and ensure her own survival is to eradicate all traces of her former life with Travis, and thus Greer. Her new life with Alan cannot accommodate her previous enactments of the self, which emphasises that the discovery of one’s own identity cannot be an act of completion, but is rather always a continuing process.
However for Edward, his own physical passage and crossing of borders into Africa only leads him to question whether the ‘fever, the sleepless nights, the complex welter of emotions that he had been objected to since his arrival in Africa, were nothing more complex than manifestations of a profound guilt.’ The significance of Edward’s feelings of guilt at the time of his own crossing, can be linked to Paul Gilroy’s metaphor of the ship. Ships, he writes:
Immediately focus attention on the middle passage, on the various projects for redemptive return to an African homeland…Ships were the living means by which the points within that Atlantic world were joined. They were mobile elements that stood for the shifting space in between the fixed places they connected.
The profound guilt that Edward experiences is the realisation that there was never the possibility of a ‘redemptive return to an African homeland’ for his surrogate son Nash due to this ‘business of encouraging men to engage with a past and a history that are truly not their own.’ For Nash, there are no truly ‘fixed places,’ there is only a sense of rootlessness. The nameless African father similarly emphasises, ‘but understand. There are no paths in water. No signposts. There is no return.’ Gilroy’s metaphor of the ship thus serves to reinforce that which Wilson Harris refers to as a ‘nameless kinship and identity,’ or, as W.E.B. DuBois states, ‘the real essence of this kinship is its social heritage of slavery,’ a suffering that binds the children of the African diaspora, but similarly people like Joyce and Captain James Hamilton’s crew.
It is the third section of the novel, entitled ‘Crossing the River,’ that is devoted to Captain James Hamilton and his manhandled crew. In this section, as Ledent highlights, Phillips ‘meaningfully disrupts the flow’ of the children’s tales and forms a creative dialogue with the writings of John Newton, a slave-trader born in London in 1725 who travelled to the West Indies as part of an extremely profitable slave-trading expedition. These writings are incorporated into the diary of the fictional Captain James Hamilton who bought Martha, Nash and Travis from the nameless African father at the opening of Crossing the River. This extended ‘family’ of slavery are portrayed as both voiceless and without identity, described merely in numbers, as Captain Hamilton’s records show, ‘Tuesday 20th April…This day buried 2 fine men slaves, Nos 27 and 43, having been ailing for some time, but not thought in danger.’ Helen Thomas links this lack of identity to the African father’s initial actions, which allowed the future of the familial bloodline ‘to disappear without trace into a sea of global transactions motivated by the slave trade.’ Mark Stein effectively explains this statement by looking at the metaphors of both ‘tongue’ and ‘ocean,’ which he believes evokes ‘the history of the linguistic and geographical displacement of enslaved African peoples.’ Stein expands on the relationship between ‘tongue’ and ‘ocean,’ continuing:
The metaphor of “an ocean” thus evokes the traumatic experience of the Middle Passage, but its vastness and depth also bespeak a wider predicament that this literal displacement entailed. Slavocracy aimed at silencing its slave population to preclude unrest and rebellion by impeding communication…To barbaric punishments and the severing of cultural and linguistic ties with various West African cultures.
Furthermore, within ‘Crossing the River,’ Captain Hamilton reports that he:
Made a timely discovery today that the slaves were forming a plot for an insurrection. Put 2 in irons and in the thumbscrews to encourage them to a full confession of those principally concerned. In the evening put 5 more in neck yokes.
For the slaves, it is this silence and silencing within the narrative which emphasises their rootlessness, creating a collective, nameless kinship and identity. As they leave Africa, the slaves are said to ‘huddle together, and sing their melancholy lamentations,’ as their physical crossing reveals a geographical, cultural and linguistic displacement of oceanic dimensions.
Timothy Bewes argues that, ‘the shameful intercourse’ which initiated this worldwide African exodus, seems to ‘function to remove any notion of asymmetrical guilt from the colonial project – that is to say, any clear differentiation between perpetrator and victim of colonialism.’ Phillips does not remove any, ‘clear differentiation between perpetrator and victim,’ but rather seeks to engage in the anxieties and traumas experienced by all; both perpetrators and victims, from Captain James Hamilton to the nameless African father, and the slaves themselves. Phillips complicates the fictional character of Captain James Hamilton by portraying a Janus-like identity, emphasising once again how a physical crossing reveals the transformations involved in the constructions of the self. Hamilton is ruthless in his attitude towards purchasing the slaves, as the extracts from his log book demonstrate, ‘Tuesday 8th December…Sent Mr Foster in the yawl with goods for 5 slaves, that is to say close to 500 bars which in earlier times might have purchased 20.’ He regards the slaves as mere commodities, caught up in a network of financial exchanges. Captain Hamilton objectifies and suppresses the Africans’ existence within his journal in the same way that he attempts to sanitise and repress his participation within the slave trade itself. This attempted sanitisation is conveyed through two ardent letters addressed to his wife, revealing a man that is capable of genuine love:
They say I am a slave to a single woman; I claim they are a slave to hundreds, of all qualities. They declare they can form no idea of my happiness, I counter with knowledge that being pleased with a drunken debauch, or the smile of a prostitute, can never give one such as I pleasure.
Furthermore, his letters portray him to be a man deeply concerned for his own family’s future:
My soul pleasure is to dream of our future children, and our family life together. What I have in view at the end of this voyage, is so fixed in my thoughts, that to be acknowledged and rewarded by you, outweighs any hardship that I might possibly suffer.
Phillips’ portrayal of Captain Hamilton’s Janus-like identity therefore seeks to engage with this extended ‘family’ from a universalized perspective, including all who are caught in the ‘sea of global transactions’ motivated by the slave trade.
Wilson Harrison uses this continued theme of rootlessness in order to explain the epilogue of Crossing the River. He argues that, what is needed is a ‘penetration of partial images, not a submission to the traditional reinforcement of partiality into total or absolute institution.’ He explains this idea further, stating that:
Partiality may then begin to declare itself for what it is and to acquire a re-creative susceptibility to otherness in a new and varied evolution of community within a fabric of images in fiction and drama; it may begin to evoke inner links or correspondences with stranger cultures…so that all in all a movement occurs towards a goal that remains ceaselessly unfinished or drawn towards futurity.
The final pages of Crossing the River therefore confer a deferred meaning upon the novel’s silences by allowing all the children of the African diaspora, both past and present, to make themselves heard in their own particular way; even Joyce, who is significantly adopted by the nameless African father. Although they have had ‘their voices hurt,’ the ‘many tongued-chorus of the common memory begins again to swell,’ as the children reveal their determination to ‘survive the hardships of the far bank.’ In spite of their rootlessness, their fragmented lives and narratives, the drum of the diaspora ‘continues to be beaten,’ its own ‘resonant pounding is borne on the wind,’ as it traverses spatial zones and confronts both social and cultural boundaries. Phillips evokes the responsibility of a father himself, as he confesses that he could not, ‘leave this novel as an analysis of fracture, because I felt such an overwhelming, passionate attachment to all the voices. These people were talking in harmonies I could hear. That doesn’t just come from survival.’ Instead, it comes from the children’s arrival ‘on the far bank of the river, loved.’ The nameless African father thus comes to embody an identity-giving counter-balance to the sufferings of displacement caused by his earlier act of betrayal. It is an identity that is rooted in this sense of a family love available for all those who have crossed the river, for the scattered diaspora – for the extended ‘family’.