Caribbean Bookshelf (March/April 2006)

New novels by Caryl Phillips and Shani Mootoo, Olive Senior’s poems, Rex Nettleford’s speeches, and a Montserrat album

––––Bert Williams in blackface and blackbird costume. Photograph courtesy Secker & Warburg

Black as he’s painted

Dancing in the Dark – Caryl Phillips (Secker & Warburg, ISBN 0-436-20583-1, 241 pp)

Born in the Caribbean (St Kitts), bred in Britain (Leeds, Oxford, London), and resident in the United States for most of the past decade (New York, New Haven), Caryl Phillips is better placed than most to map the shifting, sometimes overlapping, but distinct concepts of blackness in those three corners of the Atlantic. His new novel, Dancing in the Dark, tells the story of the real-life Bert Williams, once “the highest-paid entertainer in America” (as the dust jacket helpfully informs us), a light-skinned black man who made his name and fortune by darkening his face with burnt cork in order to play the “coon”. Born in the Bahamas in 1874, Bert migrates to the United States with his parents when he is 11. The respectable, ambitious Williams family thinks the move will help them get ahead in the world. Instead: “in this new place they are simply Negroes”. “Bert begins to learn the role that America has set aside for him to play.”

That role, when his parents cannot afford to send him to university, turns out to be a part in a “medicine show”, a small troupe of song-and-dance performers touring roughneck lumber camps in northern California. When “Nigger Bert” can no longer stand the insults of his audiences and the insincerities of his white fellow performers, he takes off for Gold Rush-rich San Francisco, where on a street corner he meets a banjo-clutching young man named George Walker, and the soon-to-be-celebrated partnership of Walker and Williams is born. The duo takes off across America, playing one city after another. Then, in Detroit in 1896, Bert takes the step that catapults the “Two Real Coons” act into real fame. “As I apply the burnt cork to my face, as I smear the black into my already sable skin . . . I am leaving behind Egbert Austin Williams.”

The novel follows Walker and Williams to New York, where their “Negro musical comedy” In Dahomey is a roaring triumph, and thence on tour to Britain, where they play a command performance at Buckingham Palace. Now wealthy men, and running their own theatrical company, they both wed (though Bert’s marriage seems to be unconsummated), buy substantial houses in Harlem, and argue over how their success might best contribute to the progress of “the race”. George grows increasingly uncomfortable with his partner’s portrayal of the shambling Sambo; Bert holds fast to his belief that their audience somehow understands he is not the creature he plays on stage. Their second musical, Abyssinia, closes after just 31 performances; the critics complain that “it contains too little of the coloured coon Mr Bert Williams presenting his celebrated corkface routines.” When George suffers a stroke onstage, it’s the end of Walker and Williams; Bert goes on to be the first black performer in the famous Ziegfield Follies, but the price is his blackface, which becomes a mask behind which he hides from himself, and from everyone else.

Phillips’s narrative proceeds through a series of monologues in the voices of the major characters, interspersed with what seem to be actual press clippings and song lyrics that distress 21st-century sensibilities. He goes heavy on the manifold ironies of this West Indian man self-condemned to act out the insulting stereotype of a black American, a stereotype that, over the course of his own career, comes to embarrass almost everyone around him. But Phillips’s understated, almost naïvely simple prose — which sometimes reads like a man trying hard to keep his cool — has a dampening effect on his characters’ passions and, worse, on his readers’ emotions. The story of Bert Williams contains many things to be angry or sad about — and, scrupulously researched, the novel documents them all — but Dancing in the Dark never achieves real tragedy, or even real psychological tension. This is an excellent study of the meaning of race and identity in early 20th-century America. But scholars should write studies; novelists should appeal to their readers’ hearts. Only in the brief epilogue — when Phillips returns us to the Bahamas, and shows us Bert and his father standing on a beach, full of hope for the future — does something like genuine feeling stir, a glimmer in the shadows.

– Nicholas Laughlin

Love’s labour’s won

He Drown She in the Sea – Shani Mootoo (Grove, ISBN 0-8021-1798-8, 324 pp)

Boy meets girl. Boy’s mother works as a housekeeper for girl’s mother. Boy and girl, in the innocence of childhood, have no concept of the barrier of class; then boy gets a firm talking-to from girl’s mother’s gardener. “You and she different, boy . . . You and me is yard-boy material. She is the bossman daughter. Oil and water. Never the two shall mix.” Boy — let’s call him Harry — soon finds himself separated from girl — let’s call her Rose — when her father intervenes to break up what looks like a dangerous relationship. Harry grows up in the town of Marion on the fictional island of Guanagaspar (based on Trinidad, where Shani Mootoo was born), painfully conscious of the gulf that separates him and his mother from Rose’s family, in a society where lines of class and race keep everyone in their place.

Jump forward a few decades. Harry, after his mother’s death, has migrated to Canada; he runs a business in Vancouver and lives in a big house on the sea — alone. When Rose crosses his path once more, she finds he is not quite the same man she knew; in egalitarian Canada he’s achieved success through plain hard work. Boy’s feelings for girl have never died, it turns out; nor girl’s for boy. Rose’s husband — a cruel, corrupt Guanagasparian politician — stands between them, and the novel’s title baldly summarises the horrible event that threatens to separate Harry and Rose forever. But He Drown She in the Sea turns out to be an old-fashioned love story with a happy ending — if the rather fantastic final plot twist is to be believed.

Mootoo is no great stylist, but she writes a game, cheerful prose capable of unexpectedly gripping effects. The sections of the novel set in present-day Canada have a realistic texture missing from those set in 1940s Guanagaspar (which seems gently lit by the reflected glow of the fiction of an earlier generation of Trinidadian writers). Still, the social rifts and anxieties Mootoo describes remain wrenching realities in contemporary Trinidad. And her portrait of the courtship of the middle-aged Harry and Rose, where youth’s trembling hopes mingle with age’s hard-won pragmatism, is a tender testament to love’s resilience, and its power to make us better and braver.

– Nicholas Laughlin

Further reading

• Over the Roofs of the World by Olive Senior (Insomniac Press, ISBN 1-894663-82-9, 109 pp), her third collection of poems, takes the flight of birds — parrots, hummingbirds, owls, even ordinary yard fowls — as a metaphor for human restlessness and curiosity; but all these lofty journeys eventually circle back to Jamaica, the island at the centre of a world made always new by Senior’s sparkling language.

• Rex N: Selected Speeches by Rex Nettleford (Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 976-637-222-5, 358 pp), an excellent introduction to the breadth of thought of one of the Caribbean’s true public intellectuals — historian, artist, political and cultural analyst, and former vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies — a man capable of speaking with ease and elegance on everything from the poetry of Louise Bennett to Jamaican ethnomedicine to the responsibilities of journalists in the developing world.

• Montserrat and Montserratians by Igor Kravtchenko (KiMAGIC, ISBN 0-9736950-0-5, 96 pp), an idiosyncratic collection of images by a Canadian photographer which both tells the story of one man’s love for the island and its people and captures ordinary life there in the decade after the devastating awakening of the Soufrière Hills Volcano; with an introduction by distinguished scholar Howard A. Fergus.

• Plantation Jamaica, 1750–1850: Capital and Control in a Colonial Economy by B.W. Higman (UWI Press, ISBN 976-640-165-9, 386 pp), a major study — by a two-time winner of the Elsa Gouveia Prize — of the system of absenteeism in slave-economy Jamaica, in which estates were run by locally based “attorneys” hired by British proprietors. Detailed case studies of two estates in the late 18th and early 19th centuries combine with a wealth of data to augment our understanding of Jamaica’s colonial history.