Dyads like essentialism/constructionism, sexism/feminism and nationalism/pluralism proliferate much of contemporary critical and political discourse in the academy. They animate debates around race, gender, nation, and even issues as large in scope as the character of modernity. In The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, Paul Gilroy, through his use of the metaphor of “the black atlantic,” demonstrates that such dyads are not only reductive and finally limiting, but that any true understanding of black atlantic culture must recognize and account for its very hybridity. For Gilroy, any serious study of black atlantic culture must include the influences of the European as well as the African American cultures.
In the very first chapter, Gilroy tells us that “commentators from all sides of political opinion” have “systematically obscured” the existence of the very evident cultural hybridity that he argues for in The Black Atlantic. Gilroy, characterizing the state of contemporary political and intellectual discourses about ethnic cultures, states that
Regardless of their affiliation to the right, left, or centre, groups have fallen back on the idea of cultural nationalism, on the overintegrated conceptions of culture which present immutable, ethnic differences as an absolute break in the histories and experiences of “black” and “white” people. Against this choice stands another, more difficult option: the theorisation of creolisation, métissage, mestizaje, and hybridity. From the viewpoint of ethnic absolutism, this would [End Page 388] be a litany of pollution and impurity. These terms are rather unsatisfactory ways of naming the process of cultural mutation and restless (dis)continuity that exceed racial discourse and avoid capture by its agents.
Based on these ideas, what Gilroy offers in The Black Atlantic is a practice for “reading” the cultural production of the black atlantic-with examples ranging from slave narratives and novels to hip-hop.
Many reviewers of this text mention Gilroy’s masterful reading, in chapter 2, of Frederick Douglass as the “progenitor of black nationalism,” commenting on how Douglass and others, by raising the issue of slavery as they do, complicate circulating, nascent theories of modernity. Gilroy clearly calls for a reconstruction of “the primal history of modernity from the slave’s point of view.” He demonstrates, through a thorough reading of Douglass along with an impressive subset of related texts, that when the idea of history as progress (the dominant paradigm in Western historiography) confronts the lived and narrative critique of the slave, our understanding of “progress” has to be completely rethought along with our understanding of “modernity.”
Other reviewers laud Gilroy’s evaluation of black atlantic musical production from spirituals to rap, reminding us that
the slave’s access to literacy was often denied on pain of death and only a few cultural opportunities were offered as a surrogate for the other forms of individual autonomy denied by life on the plantation and in the barracoons. Music becomes vital at the point at which linguistic and semantic indeterminacy/polyphony arise amidst the protracted battle between masters, mistresses, and slaves.
In this vein, Gilroy makes a larger argument about the music of the black atlantic being the medium that can respond to the poststructuralist overdetermined concern with textuality and the impossibility of any unmediated representation. He argues that “black musical expression has played a role in reproducing . . . a distinctive counterculture of modernity.” In his consideration of black musical development he moves
beyond an understanding of cultural processes which . . . is currently torn between seeing them either as the expression of an essential, unchanging, sovereign racial self or as [End Page 389] the effluent from a constituted subjectivity that emerges contingently from the endless play of racial signification. This is usually conceived solely in terms of the inappropriate model which textuality provides. The vitality and complexity of this musical culture offers a means to get beyond the related oppositions between essentialists and pseudo-pluralists on the one hand and between totalising conceptions of tradition, modernity and post-modernity on the other. It also provides a model of performance which can supplement and partially displace concern with textuality.