Facing it

Nicholas Lezard

  • Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips
    Bloomsbury, 233 pp, £15.99, May 1993, ISBN 0 7475 1497 6

In The Wasted Years, Caryl Phillips’s 1984 radio play, the young Solly Daniels writes a note to a girl asking her out: ‘Dear Jenny, I know that I don’t know you very well so please forgive me for just writing to you like this.’ ‘Where,’ asks the girl, ‘did he learn to write like that?’ That question resonates. The first joke it contains is that he learnt to write like that at the same school where the girl – who has not learnt to write like that – studies; the second joke, which isn’t a joke at all, is that she is surprised because Solly Daniels is black. And black people are not supposed to be articulate, and especially not fancy with it. They do not ‘write like that’.

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[*] The colonisation of Liberia was President Lincoln’s original preferred solution to the problems that would arise at the end of slavery: ‘My first impulse would be to free all slaves and send them to Liberia ... Free them and make them politically and socially our equals? Our own feelings would not admit of it, and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of whites would not.’ He said that in Peoria in 1845, and even though it played well there, he changed his mind later. But it should still make us think. Liberia is part of the demonology of even such a liberal freethinker as Robert Hughes in Culture of Complaint: ‘it may be that those African states which had no significant record of European colonisation – Liberia, which was actually founded by American slaves ... and Ethiopia are the ones that turned out worst.’