Gilroy, Paul: The Black Atlantic

Intellectual History in a Transatlantic Frame

While some critics annotate the social and cultural impact that time-space compression has on our contemporary situation — in which material practices around the world speed up and reduce the distances between far-flung places — others have turned their attention to history to investigate what forms the transnational has taken in the past. Far from conflicting with one another, historical approaches to the transnational complement their more contemporary counterparts and make sense of processes that have been going on for longer than a decade or even a half-century. Nor would historical considerations necessarily deny that we live in an age characterized more than earlier ones by transnational economies. Instead, such work examines a potential blind spot of writing concerned exclusively with the present. This return to historical work unearths differences that might otherwise be elided in the rush to understand how economic globalization works. This historical critique of current work on globalization happens regardless of how carefully critics have noted the kinds of difference — ethnic, religious, gender,and class — to which we must attend in understanding globalism and globalization.

Book cover of The Black Atlantic, 1995

The Black Atlantic, 1995

As a starting point, Paul Gilroy, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, describes black identity in Europe and the New World as an ongoing process of travel and exchange across the Atlantic.  He tries to understand this new black subject position in relation to European modernity in his book, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1992). Already an extraordinarily influential book, The Black Atlantic offers a preliminary definition of its subject:

The specificity of the modern political and cultural formation I want to call the Black Atlantic can be defined, on one level, through [a] desire to transcend both the structures of the nation state and the constraints of ethnicity and national particularity. These desires are relevant to understanding political organizing and cultural criticism. They have always sat uneasily alongside the strategic choices forced on black movements and individuals embedded in national and political cultures and nation-states in America, the Caribbean, and Europe (19).

Gilroy seeks to resist simply understanding Black cultures from around the Atlantic basin as being marginal to or derived from dominant national cultures that result in specific subcultures like African-American or Anglo-African that have a closer relation to American or British culture-at-large than to each other. Rather Gilroy argues that for a century and a half, black intellectuals have traveled and worked in a transnational frame that precludes anything but a superficial association with their country of origin. He argues, in other words, for a long, complex history of African-diasporic intellectual culture that is specifically transnational. Moreover, Gilroy shows how major figures from Frederick Douglass through W.E.B. DuBois to Richard Wright took up autonomous positions in relation to the great philosophers of modernity — Hegel, Marx, & Nietzsche. Expanding on DuBois’ crucial notion of “double consciousness,” Gilroy argues for a modernity broad enough in scope not simply to include the marginal positions of slaves, but to mark the “ungenteel” aspects of slavery and terror as crucial and systematic enough to understand them as at the heart of modernity, itself: “A preoccupation with the striking doubleness that results from this unique position — in an expanded West but not completely of it — is a definitive characteristic of the intellectual history of the black atlantic” (58).

Major Issues

Although the specifics of Gilroy’s arguments are too far reaching to summarize with any accuracy, three important arguments and motifs require some attention:

1) The sailing ship. Gilroy offers the image of the sailing ship as a “chronotope” (following Bakhtin, see bibliography, below) that suggests several aspects of the black atlantic. On the one hand, it captures the specifics of the traveling locality within and outside national boundaries. On the other it evokes the middle passage of the slave trade that is necessary to understanding the experience of transnational black modernity:
“I have settled on the image of ships in motion across the spaces between Europe, America, Africa, and the Caribbean as a central organising symbol for this enterprise and as my starting point. The image of the ship — a living, microcultural, micro-political system in motion — is especially important for historical and theoretical reasons … Ships immediately focus attention on the middle passage, on the various projects for redemptive return to an African homeland, on the circulation of ideas and activists as well as the movement of key cultural and political artifacts: tracts, books, gramophone records, and choirs” (Gilroy 4).

2) Slavery. Crucial to Gilroy’s argument, slavery in the West is first and foremost a shared experience of “terror” that lies at the heart of black diasporic communities all across the Atlantic. It is in some sense the root cause of transnational black identity. Supplementing that connection, however, Gilroy takes pains to point out that the slave trade was the first instance of transnational trade that allowed Western modernity to achieve its economic and cultural hegemony. In much the same vein as Edward Said, who points out that the systematic aesthetic representations of the East were inextricably bound up with the material exploitations of the European colonial enterprise, Gilroy links abstract philosophical modernity to the very real, very brutal practice of African enslavement. In turn, he shows how black intellectuals since (about) 1850 have taken up memories of slavery as a way into profound critiques of modernity in general.

Gilroy begins with Frederick Douglass and reads an incident from Douglass’ life that he told in three separate texts as an alternative to Hegel’s well known master-slave dialectic. In Gilroy’s reading of Douglass, “[it] is the slave rather than the master who emerges from Douglass’s account possessed of ‘consciousness that exists for itself,’ while the master becomes representative of a ‘consciousness that is repressed within itself’”(60). More than simply inverting the dialectic for the sake of argument, however, the reworking of Hegel’s narrative into one of emancipation initiates a Black aesthetic that puts the shared experience of enslavement and emancipation at the heart of a socially motivated literary tradition.

As its most recent incarnation (or at least one of the current strands in the “web of diaspora identities” that comprise the black atlantic -218), Gilroy foregrounds Toni Morrison’s Beloved — along with Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident — as literary participants in an otherwise philosophical discussion. While other chapters examine, for example, the way that Richard Wright in his later years in Paris took up Nietzche, Marx and Freud to arrive at ambivalence about modernity, the final chapter examines how a number of artists from James Brown and a “little-known songwriter” named Percy Mayfield to contemporary authors have develop a “slave sublime” that attempts to represent the “unsayable” experience of slavery. Not simply an attempt to recover a social past governed by terror and atrocity, Gilroy figures these artists as asserting not only the impossibility of accurately recovering such a history, but also as rebutting the modern belief in Reason against the irrationality of Africans and the diaspora:

“In particular, [the desire to pit Euro-American modernity against "bestial" slaves] is formed by the need to indict those forms of rationality which have been rendered implausible by their racially exclusive character and further to explore the history of their complicity with terror systematically and rationally practiced as a form of political and economic administration….It is being suggested that the concentrated intensity of the slave experience is something that marks out blacks as the first truly modern people, handling the nineteenth century dilemmas and difficulties which would become the substance of everyday life in Europe a century later. (220-221)”

Fisk Jubilee Singers, circa 1870s/ public domains

Fisk Jubilee Singers, circa 1870s/ public domain

3) Music. Although five of the six chapters in the Black Atlantic center on prominent intellectuals,one — chapter 3,  “‘Jewels Brought from Bondage’: Black Music and the Politics of Authenicity” — focuses on music and performance as a particularly salient public arena in which artists have literally performed debates about modernity. For Gilroy, music is important not only because of its popular status, but also because it unseats language and textuality as “preeminent expressions of human consciousness”(74). That alternative becomes even more important in the wake of slavery and the attempt to express the unsayable. Broadest of all the chapters in historical scope, it covers territory from the Fisk University Singers’ 1871 trip to England through discussions about authenticity in Jazz and Jimi Hendrix and up to the present as he looks at Reggae, Bhangra and Hip-Hop. Gilroy does not simplify music into a matter of influence from prominent centers to new arenas, but rather shows how ideas and styles have traveled, interacted, and become a transnational debate about authentic identity.

The end?

Finally I would like to end not with a critique, but rather a suggestion along the lines that Gilroy himself introduces. That suggestion is principally that there is much more work to be done or that has been done in uncovering the transnational nature of the black atlantic. Gilroy, himself, names the work of contemporary scholars from Stuart Hall and C.L.R. James to Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr. as participating in such an investigation (6). It is compelling to think, for example, that Richard Wright was rethinking Marxism in Paris at around the same time as a young Frantz Fanon was beginning his work with psychoanalysis. See African American Studies.

In The Black Atlantic, Gilroy offers a model both for reconsidering the history of ideas in the modern West and for understanding how a putative margin moves to the center once we examine how a small but intense group of writers and performers attach their scholarly or aesthetic considerations to the lived experience of a social group.

Some Other Works of Interest

The following are three more important works that offer equally compelling accounts of transnationalism in a historic frame:

  • Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Revised Ed.). New York: Verso, 1991.

Andserson’s seminal study of the formation of “imagined communities”through what he calls “print capitalism” in Europe looks primarily at a history of European nationalism. When however he turns his attention to the Americas and what he calls “The Last Wave,” we see how the idea of nation, itself, has become an object of transnational exchange for the past few centuries.

  • Appiah, Kwame Anthony. In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Appiah’s award winning study complements Gilroy’s work nicely in that he takes an analytic/philosophical approach to uncovering what ideas about what Africa are (racial, nativeist, pan-Africanist, and so on) in a number of thinkers and writers from W.E.B. DuBois to Wole Soyinka.

  • Ghosh, Amitav. In an Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveller’s Tale. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Ghosh’s imaginative anthropological history shows how his experiences as an Indian-born anthropologist in an Egyptian village led him to examine12th century documents by Jewish merchants who traveled and traded through the Arab world and South Asia. It is a very humane account of transnationalism completely removed from the modern West in both time and place.

Works Cited

  • Bakhtin, M. M. “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel.” The Dialogic Imagination. Michael Holquist, Ed., Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, Trans. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. 84-258.
  • Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Pres, 1992.

Author: Pete Nowakoski, Spring 1998
Last edited: June 2012

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