Caryl Phillips: "Color Me English"

Guest Host:

Steve Roberts
Caryl Phillips: "Color Me English"

Award-winning playwright and novelist Caryl Phillips moved to the US two decades ago. Living in the shadows of the twin towers, he was drawn by what he saw as America’s more inclusive identity. Then the towers came down. In his new book: “Color Me English” he reflects on the fragility of identity. He joins us to discuss why we need to have the courage to change our ideas about who we are.

Author Caryl Phillips is keenly aware of the tensions between modern society and migration. He was born in the Caribbean and raised in Britain. As a child, he and his brother were the only black students in his school. His struggle to fit in was thrown into stark contrast by the arrival of the school’s first Muslim student. Years later, he moved to America – the land of his dreams - only to discover the dream was fading. Now, in his new book “Color Me English” he explores the experience of both the immigrant and the exile. He challenges himself and us to reflect on the politics of identity and what it means to belong.


Caryl Phillips


Program Highlights

British playwright and author Caryl Phillips moved to the U.S. two decades ago. Living in the shadows of the twin towers, he was drawn by what he saw as America's more inclusive identity. Then the towers came down.

Fighting, Running, and Reading

As a child of immigrants, Phillips felt a great pressure from his parents to read, study, and excel in school. "But inevitably, you know, there was hostility and there was prejudice and there was difficulties at school as, you know, immigrant kids often have. So you had to learn to fight and you had to learn to run."

Growing Apart from Family

The downside to learning was that Phillips sometimes felt alienated from his family as a result of growing more confident in the U.S. He was having a drink with his father once when the waitress brought him the wrong drink, and Phillips as for the right one. His father was upset. "To the first generation migrant, there's still a tentative anxiety-fueled exchange that they have with society, that, you know, their children, often, just don’t have that."

Immigration in the U.S. as Compared to Europe

"Here it's made easier because of the nature and the structure of the society. You have the hyphen here so you can call yourself an Italian-American or a Jewish-American or a Swedish-American. European societies resist that hyphen so you don't have Pakistani-Brits. Or, you know, you don't have a Jamaican-Brit. There's a sense that you have to choose, and that's a much more brutal way of moving into a society."

Immigrant Women

The majority of immigrants to America today are women, which is a change from the historic balance, Phillips said. "One of the things I'm always astonished by is you ride the subway in New York, particularly early in the morning or at the end of the day, seven, eight, nine o'clock, the majority of the people who look exhausted, battered, beaten down, whose heads are nodding and bobbing on the subway going back home after a long day's work are women. And I often look and I wonder if there's any other capital or major - not a capital, major city in the world that has such a disproportionate gender balance where it comes to basic blue collar manual labor that's mainly women."

You can read the full transcript here.

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