Issues of Identity. Caribbean Immigrants Struggling in Britain in Caryl Phillips' Play "Strange Fruit"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015
18 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Background: What is "Identity"?

3. Historical Context
3.1. Caribbean Immigration in Britain
3.2. Pan-Africanism

4. Issues of Identity in Strange Fruit
4.1. First-generation Immigrants: Vivien Marshall
4.1.1. Vivien as a Mother
4.1.2. "Playing white"
4.2. Second-generation Immigrants: Errol and Alvin Marshall
4.2.1. Errol Marshall: "Playing black"
4.2.2. Errol's Illusions
4.2.3. Alvin's Disillusionment
4.2.4. Objective Identity vs. Subjective Identity

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

Immigration is a process with the ability to enrich a country. It increases cultural and linguistic diversity; it broadens the horizon; it prevents or solves problems of labor shortage by providing workers. However, the change from a relatively homogenous population to a more heterogeneous one is never easy and often perceived as having more disadvantages than advantages. This opinion was very popular in the past in Britain and unfortunately it can also still be found today, which is why it is important to discuss the struggles immigration brings with it. There are many problems that can arise on the economical and political level of a country, but there is also the very personal issue of identity which presents itself to everyone involved. Immigration challenges identity. First of all, it challenges the identity of the country the migrants move to because it changes the demography and brings new ways of life into an already established culture. What is more, immigration challenges the identity of the immigrants themselves. Leaving their home country and their roots behind, they move to a new, unknown sphere, which differs from what they have known on many levels. Even if they desperately try to fit into this new space, they might never really feel at home, especially if they experience racism and discrimination. This is a topic that will continue to be of utmost importance in the face of globalization, increasing mobility, and refugees seeking a new home. This paper will focus on the issues of identity among one of the many minorities in Great Britain, namely the Caribbean immigrants. It will do so by providing a short introduction of the term “identity” and a theoretical background on how identity is constructed as well as influenced. In order to understand the context of the identity issues of the Caribbean immigrants, a brief historical context will also be provided. Then, the play Strange Fruit will be discussed. The literary analysis of the play will apply the theoretical findings concerning the term “identity” and discuss the three main characters in relation to the context of history and sociology, showing how the character portrayal by Phillips provides a more or less realistic representation of the first and second generation of Caribbean immigrants in Britain.

Strange Fruit, which was published in 1981, is set in a black British household around the year 1970 (see Mizoguchi 457). The play deals with the issues of identity, home, and belonging. Mobility is also a main theme as it is essential in shaping the characters' sense of belonging (see Mizoguchi 457). The main characters are Vivien Marshall and her two sons Errol and Alvin. Vivien is a first-generation immigrant from a Caribbean island, which is not given a specific name. At the beginning of the play, Errol and his mother are in Britain while the older son Alvin is visiting the Caribbean to represent his family at the funeral of his grandfather (see Phillips 1981: 76/77). This is the first time any member of the family has gone back to the Caribbean since they left when Alvin was five and Errol was two years old (see Phillips 1981: 63).

The methods of coping with experienced discrimination in Britain and the sense of dislocation differ between the first and second generation, as is also shown in the play Strange Fruit. The three characters who are to be discussed in detail provide a general basis and a nuanced insight concerning the identity struggles and coping mechanisms the generations share, as well as the discrepancies between them. A very important aspect depicted in Strange Fruit is the impact the process of immigration and discrimination as well as the pressure of assimilation can have upon the identity of immigrants. After all, identity is not only a label a political institution chooses to categorize people; it is not simply how a person's identification card defines them. Identity is much more complex than that. In fact, it is a deeply personal issue connected to selfperception, self-respect, and self-confidence. This is an important reason why issues of identity are such an important topic when discussing immigration.

2. Theoretical Background: What is “Identity”?

As the term “identity” will be used very frequently in this paper, it is inevitable to establish the exact meaning of this term. The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English offers three aspects which can be referred to when using the word. “Identity” describes firstly “who or what somebody/something is”, secondly “the characteristics, feelings or beliefs that distinguish people from others”, and thirdly “the state or feeling of being very similar to and able to understand somebody/something". This first description of "identity" is very vague. When people are asked to describe who or what they are, the answers will be anything from “dog lover” to “father” to “medical assistant”, depending on which of these aspects is the the people questioned identify themselves with the most. The question of who someone is may also be answered on a mere factual level, though, using all aspects that can be found on an identification card, such as one's name, birth-place, gender, ethnicity, and current address. The second and the third explanation, however, move decidedly past the factual level and explicitly include emotions, which is why these definitions are more important for the following paper. These two definitions make it clear that while "identity" undoubtedly refers to the facts of someone's geographical roots and religious beliefs, it also and most importantly means the way someone feels about themselves. Interestingly, the second definition focuses on the attributes which distinguish a person from another and therefore draws a connection between one's identity and one's individualism, while the third explanation emphasizes the aspects which make a person similar to another person. These provided definitions cannot be used separately when it comes to describing a person's identity. Rather, all three defining aspects put together provide a definition that covers the complexity of what "identity" means. How one views oneself is neither only focused on the differences to other people or only on the similiarities one has with others, but it is the sum of both one's sense of disparity and one's sense of belonging.

Akeel Bilgrami argues in his essay "Notes toward the Definition of 'Identity' " that there is a subjective and an objective aspect of identity, which are to be distinguished from one another, even though they are often closely related (see Bilgrami 5). He defines these different aspects as follows: "Your subjective identity is what you conceive yourself to be, whereas your objective identity is how you might be viewed independently of how you see yourself." (Bilgrami 5, emphasis in original) This means that the objective identity is more closely connected to the first aspect used to describe the term in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary than to the others. The definition of the subjective identity, on the other hand, is somewhat ambiguous, as Bilgrami goes on to explain in a later paragraph. “[W]hat you conceive yourself to be” (Bilgrami 5) can refer to both simply being aware of your objective identity, e.g. being a Muslim, or it can refer to truly valuing this fact (see Bilgrami 10). These nuances show that the term “subjective identity” emphasizes the way someone feels about themselves, just like the second and third mentioned aspects of the definition of “identity” in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary. Both of the mentioned interpretations of the term subjective identity presuppose the existence of some kind of objective identity and draw from it, while the objective identity is not dependent on the subjective part. The example Bilgrami uses to illustrate this is that of a person who is born as a Jew or Indian objectively, but does not identify as such subjectively (see Bilgrami 6). This is perfectly plausible. However, if that person was to identify as a Jew or Indian on the subjective level, then this self-perception would presuppose the objective identification of a Jew or Indian in the sense that this person would have to be in fact “born to a Jewish mother or to Indian parents” (Bilgrami 6). This argumentation assumes, of course, that a person's self-perception is connected to the reality of their lives, leaving out possible identifications with fantasies disconnected from the real world (see Bilgrami 5).

While the objective identity is not influenced by one's self-identification, a person's sense of self is strongly dependent on how the outside world perceives them, i.e. the objective identity. This is why these two terms will be relevant in the following discussion of identity struggles among immigrants, such as the characters in the play Strange Fruit. A lot of the identity issues and disorientation experienced historically were caused by the way the Caribbean immigrants were viewed by the British. For example, as they were reduced in many ways to the characteristic of having dark skin, they themselves started to put emphasis on this aspect that distinguished them from the white population, as we shall see in Strange Fruit. The community which surrounds a person therefore has much impact on the level of awareness and appreciation of specific differences and similarities. Racial identities as such, “when they are thought to be given in biological conditions, are objective” (Bilgrami 10), which means that describing someone as black is a mere observation of facts. This description is problematic though, when it becomes the one item which shapes the identification first and foremost, and, moreover, when this description of color implies a set of connotations influenced “by the perceptions and attitudes of one's fellows, by the zeitgeist of a particular period, by the conceptual categories and social institutions at a given time.” (Bilgrami 11)

It follows that seemingly objective categories such as race or gender are always tied to certain associations, implied characteristics, and stereotypes, which make such identities social constructs. The sets of connotations tied to certain race and gender identities change over time and differ from society to society, from country to country. When others define a person as a certain stereotype time and again, that person might start to perceive themselves as this stereotype or actively oppose it by acting contrary to it.

Either way, if objective identities are social constructs and objective identities influence subjective identities, this affirms the assumption that self-perception is very much dependent on the way a person is perceived by others. In his lecture “Negotiating Caribbean Identities”, Stuart Hall also mentions another very important aspect which shapes a person's identity. He argues that “the search for identity always involves a search for origins” (Hall 5), which is something on which the play Strange Fruit puts a high level of emphasis as well. The belief that one's ancestors' past is an important factor for one's present identity is one of the reasons why the quest for identity differs between first-generation and second-generation immigrants. While the first-generation immigrants have grown up in a different country and thus know where they come from, their children did not have this experience. These children may feel like they do not belong in either the home country of their parents or the country they have grown up in, as it is also the case in Strange Fruit. As will be shown in the analysis of Pan-Africanism in the context of Strange Fruit, this fundamental need of finding one's roots and “producing in the future an account of the past” (Hall 5) can go much deeper than simply longing to visit the country of one's parents. This is especially true for immigrants from the Caribbean, because “people from the Caribbean are not from the Caribbean originally. [They] were taken there, either slaves or indentured labor [...]” (Phillips 1998: 12).

The question of and the struggle with identity is an important topic for many reasons. In his essay, Bilgrami is mainly concerned with the way subjective identity can influence political decisions, for example “one's allegiances and the manner in which one pursues them or allows oneself to be mobilized.” (Bilgrami 6) The question of mobility, however, also presents itself on the individual level of the struggle, which this paper intends to focus on. On this personal level, identity can “be a source of dignity and self-respect when one is feeling especially vulnerable; [it] may be a source of solidarity and belonging when one is feeling alienated from one's social environment” (Bilgrami 8). It was already mentioned, how a struggle with identity comes into being; this quote now explains why identity is of such importance when talking about immigrants in general. Being new in a different country, they are bound to feel vulnerable; facing people who do not accept them as equals, they are likely to feel alienated. Having a clear idea of one's identity can be a source of strength in this context, while a non-existent, confused or torn sense of self can have a serious negative impact on a person's well-being.

3. Historical Context

3.1. Caribbean Immigration in Britain

The arrival of the ship SS Empire Windrush in Tilbury on June 1948 with 492 Jamaican immigrants (see Henry) marks the symbolic starting point for West Indian immigration. It was followed by an increase of immigrants from the Caribbean looking for employment within the United Kingdom (see Holmes 52). Life in the Caribbean had certain preconditions for emigration, such as “high population densities, high levels of unemployment, low gross domestic product per capita and low rates of economic growth.” (Henry) The Second World War was another crucial factor contributing to the increase of Caribbean migrants in the United Kingdom, because many of the men serving in Britain during the war returned to it afterward. In the circumstances of war “[t]hey [had been] well received and well treated by members of the British public” (Henry) and this probably encouraged many of them to “retrace their steps to the 'mother country'“ (Holmes 52) after the war had ended. There was also an urgent need in Britain for workers, as “post-war reconstruction and economic recovery was being held back by desperate shortage of labour.” (Henry) The British response to this general rise in immigration was “hesitant and ambiguous” (Henry) and discrimination was not far astray.

The first wave of Caribbean immigrants did not meet any entry restrictions, because “[t]he 1948 British Nationality Act guaranteed an open-door policy towards immigration from the Commonwealth.”


Excerpt out of 18 pages


Issues of Identity. Caribbean Immigrants Struggling in Britain in Caryl Phillips' Play "Strange Fruit"
University of Constance
Hauptseminar: “Criss-Crossing the Atlantic”: Caribbean Culture and Writing in Britain
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Caribbean, Caribbean Immigrant, Great Britain, Immigration, Identity, Issues of Identity, Identity of Immigrants, First-generation immigrants, Second-generation immigrants, Multiculturalism, Caryl Phillips, Strange Fruit, Play by Caryl Phillips
Quote paper
Silvia Schilling (Author), 2015, Issues of Identity. Caribbean Immigrants Struggling in Britain in Caryl Phillips' Play "Strange Fruit", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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