Restoring a Ruptured Relationship
Barnard College’s Caryl Phillips’ senior english seminar focuses on broken international connections and culminates with a trans-Atlantic journey
By Crystal L. Keels
Millions of African people who were captured, kidnapped and shackled for sale as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade first passed through Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, West Africa. They stepped through the doorway that set them on a horrifying journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Men, women and children were taken by force, leaving their loved ones, languages and their claims of humanity behind in this instance of involuntary migration to enter what has become known as “The Door of No Return.”
In a month or so, 16 Barnard College seniors will stand in the same corridor and peer out through the same door over the same waters that carried approximately 12 million Africans to an unfamiliar country.
“I want them to actually physically be put into a place where they cannot look away,” says Barnard professor Caryl Phillips about the students from his senior English seminar who will journey with him across the Atlantic to Ghana as part of his fall course, “The Literature of the Middle Passage.”
“This is a rare, rare opportunity,” says Phillips, the Henry R. Luce Professor of Migration and Social Order, professor of English and director of initiatives in the humanities, about the opportunity his students have to travel to the coast of West Africa. “When I went in my 30s, it changed my life. It was a profound experience.”
Europe, Africa and the Americas, Phillips explains, were intertwined in economic exploitation established through the exchange of movements of people, capital and ideas during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In the 20th century, however, as African countries began to gain independence, they were no longer the concern of those countries that once occupied and exploited them. Since World War II, he contends, Europe and America have continued to progress while Africa is no longer part of the modern-day configuration of exchange.
“Africa has kind of been abandoned,” Phillips says. “It is seen as a place of hopeless barbarity.” He adds that the problems the continent faced fostered a “we-told-you-so” attitude and response from Europe and America even though the wealth, privilege and status of those entities stems directly from African unpaid labor. A full understanding of this past, he says, would make arguments like those waged over affirmative action more nuanced and sophisticated.
“Africa to me is key to unlocking a greater problem,” he says. “There is an increasing unawareness of one’s own history. It is embarrassing and uncomfortable.” Yet regardless of possible unease and embarrassment, he says, the history of those trans-Atlantic and other international relationships established with the slave trade are essential.
Phillips hopes his course and the travel to Africa will ultimately change the lives of his students as it did his. His senior seminar that includes a racially diverse mix of Black, White and Asian female students from the disciplines of art history, French and other areas of the humanities, focuses on what he describes as broken connections between the three continents.
Restoring International Connections
Born on the island of St. Kitts in the West Indies, growing up in Leeds, England, and teaching in the United States, Phillips’ extensive body of work largely explores the international aspects of culture and identity.
Described as “one of the major British writers of his generation,” he is the award-winning author of seven novels, the latest of which, A Distant Shore, was recognized with the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize. He is also editor of the Faber Caribbean Series, as well as a noted playwright, screenwriter and essayist, who balances his writing and teaching careers by teaching during the fall semester and writing during the spring.
Phillips earned a bachelor’s with honors at The Queens College, Oxford University, and, after a reading of his work in Stockholm, Sweden, was invited to teach for one year at Amherst College in Massachusetts where he remained for eight years and initiated the college’s creative writing program. He has garnered recognition on both sides of the Atlantic throughout his prolific career. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and can count the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship and recognition as the 1992 Sunday Times Writer of the Year among his many accomplishments.
Therefore, he has developed an uncommon perspective, the type he’s determined to nurture in his students. His course is designed for such cultivation as it highlights unquestionable links between the fate of Africa and present-day prosperity in the Americas and Europe through literary works like W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Ama Ata Aidoo’s Changes: A Love Story.
The trip to Ghana is comprised of three components to maximize the experience, Phillips says. First, students will attend the University of Ghana to study in classes alongside Ghanaian students with Ghanaian professors. Secondly, the group will travel to the coast to visit the old slave forts or, as Phillips describes them, holocaust sites.
“We will be spending time looking at (the aspects) of slavery. We ought to know it, ought to feel it,” he says. “It’s hard to imagine how this happened, but we are living with it every day, dealing with the consequences every day.”
A cultural component comprises the third segment of the trip. While in Ghana, the group will attend events including dance, music and other art performances including a special reading by Aidoo, one of Ghana’s renowned poets.
“I don’t want them spending all their time listening to hip-hop,” Phillips explains. “I want them to hear the authority of the African voice.” He says he wants students to realize there is a world outside of their own existences, and plans to meet individually with his 16 students while in Ghana to talk about their intellectual and personal responses to the dramatic cultural differences they will encounter.
“Within the academy we try to build those bridges, and it is important to put some of that at the disposal of students — to involve traveling and culturally extending themselves,” he says. Phillips sees this experience as a way for students to avoid a closeted existence at a time in their lives when they can “meet people who don’t look like them and (as a result) know something about the world.”
Why Africa? “Enduring stereotypes, war and the ravages of HIV (are part and parcel) of most students’ perceptions of the continent, students whose life plans might not include a counterbalance to prevailing images of Africa,” Phillips says. In addition, the more typical international study experiences focus on Florence (Italy), London, Rome, Paris and Madrid (Spain), where U.S. students meet each other and do not necessarily encounter the significant cultural challenge that Africa presents, Phillips says.
Connecting With History
Dr. Maire Jaanus, chair of the English department and professor of English at Barnard College and Columbia University, says the students will already know a great deal going into Ghana because they will have read the teachers and artists who will greet them. But she does not underestimate the trip’s impact.
“What is truly new must undo you for a moment, undo who you have been up to that moment. In any case, it makes a cut that stays with you forever,” says Jaanus, who has been a guest lecturer in Phillips’ course.
Dr. James G. Basker, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of English at Barnard College and president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York, says interest in the course extends beyond Barnard, and funding for the trans-Atlantic journey was forthcoming from several foundations including the Ford and Luce foundations, among others. Basker says the students’ opportunity to see the African landscape and meet with Ghanaian writers will animate their academic work.
“The idea of opening this up — to all the countries, the world, by making this a full experience of the African Diaspora and combining straight history with imaginative writing, to actually connect real history and modern-day stuff — that is the real breakthrough of this course,” says Basker, who is also the author of Amazing Grace, a 750-page volume that includes poetic works relating to slavery from all parts of the English-speaking world.
Designing the logistics of “Literature of the Middle Passage” was complicated. For instance, the students will be absent from some of their other classes while they travel. In addition, the course required initial bids for funding, and Phillips is now at work to endow the program and make it a permanent feature at the college. However, as Dr. Elizabeth S. Boylan, provost and dean of faculty at Barnard, points out, those involved with this endeavor seem to agree that the innovative aspects of the course and having Phillips as part of the faculty have only energized the institution.
“He is a wonderful addition to our faculty,” Boylan says. “He sparkles with ideas. That is why the president asked him to be the director of initiatives in the humanities, because he comes up with interesting new ideas and directions.” She further describes him as a challenging professor with high standards and as “a real luminary in higher education and creative writing.”
Jaanus concludes that the international aspect of Phillips’ course is truly significant. “It is the ideal form of education,” she says. “It is education coming to completion in the real. I am awed that so many people have understood that and have with great generosity supported Caryl Phillips’ vision and truly innovative conception.”
Participating students in “Literature of the Middle Passage” were selected on the basis of personal essays submitted explaining their interest in the course and the trip to Ghana, as well as a series of interviews with Phillips and other Barnard faculty members. Excerpts from those essays are featured on the course Web site and reveal that in addition to enhancing their individual experiences and/or notions of identity, several students also cite the wide-ranging effect of the trans-Atlantic slave trade on Western culture and the world, as well as the need to address this topic in academic discourse.
Phillips says the idea for the course stemmed from his own frustration in the classroom. “It is very difficult to assume that students have a knowledge of the world that they really don’t have,” he says. “Part of the excitement and energy of this trip is watching them visibly grow and change. Watching people change, go through difficult passages, provides a rare glimpse of human development. It is really quite thrilling, a rare opportunity for a teacher to actually see transformative growth.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com