Color Me English: Thoughts About Migrations and Belonging Before and After 9/11

  • Caryl Phillips
  • The New Press
  • 352 pp.

An award-winning writer explores shifting notions of identity in a rapidly globalizing world.

“To a large extent my life has been determined by a journey across water. … The fact is the journey is rooted in my soul. And your soul too. Water. Ribbons of water which ineluctably bind us together one, to the other …”

This meditation on water as a transporter of people from one continent and life to another, and from one identity to another is made in a brief essay that examines the alchemy of novel writing as well as the volatility of personal and group identity. Like so many pieces in this collection, “Water” is haunting and more than a bit unsettling of our conventional notions of what we know and what we think we know

In these very satisfying essays, reviews and appreciations, many previously published, Phillips provides readers with a series of robust and candid explorations of literature, race and our warp-speed changing notions of culture. A multitalented author of award-winning novels (Crossing the River, The Distant Shore), nonfiction, screenplays and theater pieces, Phillips accurately describes himself as a literary border crosser. There is an insatiable restlessness at work in the mind that has created these pieces, a restlessness that is seductive and emblematic of the theme that unites much of the writing in Color Me English, that is, how the ground beneath our feet as global citizens is perpetually shifting.

Born in St. Kitts, Phillips came to England at the age of four months with his parents. He grew up in Leeds and studied English at Oxford University. His prodigious output, but mostly his original and thoughtful voice, has made him one of England’s most important contemporary writers. As in his longer work, the writing here is beautifully evocative, subtle and simultaneously tough minded and tenacious. At the beating heart core of this book is the question of our global racial consciousness and imagination, how we persistently limit it and how unlimited in reality it is.

In the moving opening essay, “Colour Me English,” set against the backdrop of the first suicide bombing in London in July 2005, Phillips remembers the racism he experienced growing up in England in the ’60s and ’70s. And he considers the similar forces that create the home-grown immigrant terrorist. The essential question all of Europe is facing today, he feels, is how does one have a black or brown face, wear a turban or a veil, and be European?

For Phillips the answer lies in the need for Europeans to cultivate the capacity and courage to change their ideas about who they are. And as so often in this collection, he assigns the writer a crucial role in this process, writing. “ Europe needs writers to explicate this transition, for literature is plurality in action; it embraces and celebrates a place of no truths, it relishes ambiguity and it deeply respects the place where everybody has the right to be understood.”

“Homeland Security” relives the morning of 9/11. Phillips lived a mile from the World Trade Center, and this powerful essay becomes an eloquent reminder of how we are all wrought asunder and woven together by any tragedy of this proportion. Yet while teaching a “rainbow coalition” of students at Amherst College, the classroom discussions began to fracture his idealistic belief in the most enduring tenants of the American Dream of equality for all. “Like all immigrants we arrive and metaphorically kiss the ground, and then we stand up and look around and slowly we realize and this process often takes many years, that the place we thought we were travelling to is, in fact, imaginary. In 1990 I had arrived in an imaginary United States of America.”

Echoing throughout the collection is a clarion call for writers to reclaim the role of witness. For Phillips, “our first port of call is words,” and he bemoans what he sees as the tepid response of writers in the United States to the invasion of Iraq, the creation and institutionalization of Guantanomo Bay and increasing government power. He criticizes as well an American public “indifferent to any narrative, and interested only in pursuing their own non-scripted roles as studio guests in the reality show called The United States of America.”

This trenchant critique is delivered by a writer who has found an expanded sense of himself and the world by living in America for many years, and I found it an authentically patriotic call to wake up. Clearly, the American Dream Phillips wants to script posits a much more complex sense of identity and possibility for all Americans. Whether the topic is the tragic life and artistic triumph of Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay, the story of the real writer of the lyrics of the iconic song “Strange Fruit” (it wasn’t Billie Holliday) or a profile of a Ghanaian taxi driver who wants Phillips to help him leave his country, Phillips offers the reader a fresh vision of the “issues” of the lost-and-found nature of our identities (no matter who we are), displacement, migration and connectedness in a world that has yoked us together even and ever more closely.

Marita Golden is a novelist and essayist. Her most recent book is The Word: Black Writers Talk About the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing. Visit her website at

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