In writing The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), Paul Gilroy sought to devise a theoretical approach to understanding race that encompassed three crucial elements. First, the idea of race as fluid and ever-changing, rather than static; second, the idea of race as a transnational and intercultural, rather than strictly national, phenomenon; third, the focus on analyzing resistance to racism as a phenomenon that emerged transnationally and diasporically.
Gilroy seeks to provide a theoretical rendering of race that bridges the hemispheres. To this end he takes the Atlantic as his preferred unit of analysis and uses it to ground his transnational perspective on race. In Gilroy's analysis the black Atlantic represents the history of the movements of people of African descent from Africa to Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas and provides a lens through which to view the ways that ideas about nationality and identity were formed. Thus, in Black Atlantic the focus is on intercontinental trade and travel as well as on processes of conversion and conquest and the resultant forms of creolization and hybridization that occur.
The author maps the Atlantic Ocean as a way to catalogue a whole series of transoceanic transactions and exchanges in the past and in the present and in so doing seeks to move beyond racially essentialist ways of thinking which posit an unvarying, pure, and singular black (or African) culture. In positing the synchretic and hybrid nature of black culture and the deep connections between the formation of modernity and the formation of black culture, Gilroy points to the fact that modernity is itself a profoundly hybrid phenomenon.
The idea of movement is central to Gilroy's argument. Hence, the image of a ship forms a central metaphor in the text. Gilroy describes ships as micropolitical and microsocial systems that focus one's attention on the circulation of ideas as well as identifying them as cultural and political artifacts. Slave ships are particularly central to Gilroy's argument as he posits slavery as a pivotal moment for the emergence of modernity, modern ideas of race, and the Black Atlantic as, in his words, "a counterculture of modernity." By a counterculture of modernity, Gilroy refers to the varied ways in which people of African descent responded to and resisted the fact that, in the modern West, racial terror and reason were so deeply connected. It was this yoking together of racism and modernity that led people of African descent across the globe to search for ways to construct oppositional identities, particularly through music, which Gilroy identifies as being the preeminent nontextual form through which African people not only confronted racially repressive social systems but also retained a sense of cultural integrity and forged common cultural memories.
Gilroy was not the first scholar to stress the importance of understanding race as a phenomenon that both emerged and was resisted transnationally. Scholars like W. E. B. Du Bois, Eric Williams, and C. L. R. James and Frantz Fanon examined the ways in which slavery and racism were pivotal to the formation of Western modernity. These scholars focused not only on the economic importance of Atlantic slavery to the formation of the West but also on the ways in which blackness was absolutely necessary for the construction of whiteness as an identity. Du Bois and James were also concerned to document the myriad ways in which the black diaspora communities, in their attempts to construct artistic and aesthetic responses to racism, played a critical part in developing the cultural institutions of the West.
Scholars connected with the negritude movement echoed their efforts, focusing on the unique cultural contributions that they attributed to the so-called African personality. Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) likewise pioneered the study of the music of the African diaspora, documenting the various ways in which it allowed for the articulation of a complex, albeit nontextual, response to racism. Scholars like Stuart Hall, who brought the insights of Du Bois and Williams to bear on British cultural studies, further developed these ideas. Hall was particularly instrumental in developing an approach to the study of race and culture which sought to understand race as an ideological system which should be analyzed in its political, social, and economic dimensions and black culture as simultaneously heterogeneous and connected.
The concept of the Black Atlantic has been enormously influential. Gilroy's focus on the heterogeneous nature of black expressive culture has significantly broadened the field of cultural studies, forcing it beyond its parochial concern with either the cultures of working class Anglo-Saxons or European high culture. The manner in which Gilroy places slavery at the center of Western modernity, racializing and thus fundamentally transforming Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's rendering of the master-slave dialectic has, likewise, been enormously influential in the field of philosophy.
Gilroy's particular focus on the revolutionary struggles of African-descended peoples has also been enormously influential in the field of labor history, broadening it to examine the histories of the struggles of those other than white European or American working people. His focus on music as a modality through which cultural memories are retained and passed on (in form if not in content) has also been influential in the field of history, opening up new possibilities for uncovering the histories of cultures that place a higher priority on oral, rather than written, forms of communication.
The ideas that underlie the notion of the Black Atlantic have also been enormously important in the emerging field of transnational cultural studies. Scholars like Arjun Appadurai, George Lipsitz, and Donna Haraway have furthered Gilroy's emphasis on the intersections between local and global cultural dynamics, examining the global circulation of ideologies, people, technology, capital, and culture. Gilroy's work also played an important role in the emergence of postcolonial studies, much of which took a transnational analysis of the idea of race as its central theoretical concern. Thus, the influence of Gilroy can be seen in the work of scholars like Anne McClintock, David Theo Goldberg, Jean and John Comaroff, Catherine Hall, and Anne Laura Stoler, whose work examines the intertwined histories of colony and metropole and the ways in which ideas about gender, race, and class emerged both transnationally and dialectically. Gilroy has also provided an important challenge to dominant ways of thinking within the field of African-American studies. His critique of essentialist thinking about race has proved to be particularly challenging to devotees of Afrocentrism.
Although widely applauded for his intellectual innovations, Gilroy is not without his critics. Some African-Americanists have accused Gilroy of failing to understand the complexities of the African-American experience and, thus, of having underplayed the unique and enduring historical connections between Africans and African-Americans in his effort to highlight flows, indeterminacy, and contingency. The work of feminist scholars has also highlighted the androcentric nature of Gilroy's inquiry; men exemplify the Atlantic experience. Yet, the work of scholars like Vron Ware and Catherine Hall indicates that the women within the abolitionist movement, such as Ida B. Wells Barnett and Charlotte Grimke, were equally important exemplars of precisely those processes of exchange that Gilroy highlights in his text. Gilroy talks about the abolitionist movement as an example of the counterculture of modernity as well as a transnational movement organized around race struggle. Although Gilroy provides many insightful observations about how gender was implicated in the production of both blackness and modernity, these insights are not central to his thesis and oftentimes remain unexplored. Robert Reid-Pharr notes, for example, that Gilroy fails to examine the ways in which thinkers like W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Delaney, and Frederick Douglass conflated the regeneration of the black nation with the regeneration of the patriarchal black family.
Yet another criticism of Gilroy's work has been that the concept of the Black Atlantic is too narrowly focused on the experiences of blacks as minorities in the United States and Great Britain. Thus, the Black Atlantic proceeds from the assumption that diasporic black communities are necessarily minority communities. This assumption does not, however, hold true for people in the Caribbean. Furthermore, as Nadi Edwards points out, the ways in which Gilroy makes Afrocentric nationalism (which he opposes) the polar opposite of cultural syncretism (which he celebrates) ignores cultural developments such as negritude, which, although essentialist, also celebrated syncretism and hybridity.
Other scholars have pointed out that a narrow focus on the traffic that occurred across the Atlantic Ocean makes it impossible to understand the totality of the black experience. Françoise Vergès has pointed out that the islands of the Indian Ocean also offer important insights for understanding intercontinental trade and migration, as well as for understanding processes of conquest, conversion, and creolization. The Indian Ocean, like the Atlantic, offers a space for exploring various types of seaborne transactions and exchanges and opens up a space for thinking about the ways in which Africa interfaced not only with the Americas and Europe but also with India and South and East Asia. It also provides an opening for exploring how Africa interacted not only with the Christian, but also with the Islamic, world.
See also Aesthetics: Africa ; Africa, Idea of ; African-American Ideas ; Afrocentricity ; Black Consciousness ; Creolization, Caribbean ; Diasporas: African Diaspora ; Feminism: Africa and African Diaspora ; Modernity: Africa ; Postcolonial Theory and Literature ; Race and Racism .
Baraka, Imamu Amiri. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: Morrow, 1963.
Edwards, Nadi. "Roots, and Some Routes Not Taken." Found Object 4 (1994): 27–34.
Goldberg, David T. Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.
Hall, Catherine. White, Male, and Middle-Class: Explorations in Feminism and History. London: Routledge, 1992.
Lipsitz, George. Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism, and the Poetics of Place. London: Verso, 1994.
Reid-Pharr, Robert. "Engendering The Black Atlantic. " Found Object 4 (1994): 11–16.
Vergès, Françoise. Monsters and Revolutionaries: Colonial Family Romance and Métissage. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999.
Ware, Vron. Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History. London: Verso, 1992.