The Black Outsider in British Society
In Foreigners: Three English Lives, once again, Caryl Phillips turns his eye to race, class and identity. Although somewhat of an outsider himself, Phillips admired and was primarily influenced by African American writers like James Baldwin. He considers himeslf first and foremost a British author.
Phillips was born in St. Kitts, brought to Leeds, England as an infant, and later emigrated from England to New York City as an adult. Foreigners, historically and fictionally examines the role of the black outsider in British society.
Phillips, in most of his novels, introduces characters that are slightly out-of-step with the societies surrounding them. Some are struggling against oppression, others are struggling against themselves. Some of his previous works of fiction include, Cambridge, a Caribbean love story of slavery, betrayal and murder; Crossing the River, a tale of black lives severed from ties of home; and A Distant Shore, the story of two dissimilar individuals who form a tentative friendship in a small northern England town.
The “foreigners” in this hybrid of history and fiction are all black men who at varying points in time were the talk of Britain. The first was Francis Barber, who as a child, was “given” to the 18th century writer Samuel Johnson. The second was boxer Randolph Turpin, although bi-racial, he was considered black by English standards. Turpin beat Sugar Ray Robinson in 1951. The third and lesser-known man was Nigerian immigrant David Oluwale who died at the hands of British police in 1969.
None of these men in their latter years lived very significant lives. They were tragic heroes who, at some point were the objects of British fascination, but never assimilation. Phillips style of writing is a bit awkward and uneven in places, but the telling of the tale is more than enough to compensate for the choppy flow.