Transnational/Transcultural Identities: The Black Atlantic and Pythagoras's Theorem
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Callaloo 30.2 (2007) 547-554

Transnational / Transcultural Identities
The Black Atlantic and Pythagoras's Theorem
 Pythagoras's Theorem c2=a2 + b2
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Figure 1
Pythagoras's Theorem
c2=a2 + b2

Ships were the living means by which the points within that Atlantic world were joined. They were mobile elements that stood for the shifting spaces in between the fixed places that they connected. Accordingly they need to be thought of as cultural and political units rather than abstract embodiments of the triangular trade.1

Ship images and impressions of a three-sided polygon—that triangle spanning the Atlantic Ocean, with its vertices located in Africa, Europe, and the Americas—dominate Paul Gilroy's counterproposal to discourses that pin Black Diasporic identities to national borders and police the purity of the diaspora's cultural composition. Gilroy's Black Atlantic is a formation built upon relationships, interdependencies, and affinities that nullify such categories as "British," "American," "African," or "Caribbean" ascribed to the Black Diaspora. It is in this accentuation of correspondences that a link can be made between Gilroy and Greek mathematician/philosopher Pythagoras. My mixed media artwork presented here is a visual nexus of two geometric frameworks: 1) Paul Gilroy's definition of the Black Atlantic; 2) Pythagoras's theorem, which states that the square of the hypotenuse (where c is the hypotenuse; see figure 1) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. While one framework may be more recognizably connected to geometry, my artwork demonstrates that both theories are concerned with space, points, and lines.

The Square of the Hypotenuse and Black Atlantic Geometry

Space is given precedence over place in Gilroy's vision of the Black Atlantic. Gilroy argues for a transnational, transcultural understanding of the Black Diaspora, in opposition [End Page 547]

Pythagoras's Theorem I (The Black Atlantic). Mixed media.
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Figure 2
Pythagoras's Theorem I (The Black Atlantic). Mixed media.
[End Page 548]

to the fixities of ethnicity and the nation state. Through his consideration of the movements of black people, back and forth across the Atlantic, and their engagements with "others," he underscores routes or lines that meet and pass through other routes. In doing so, Gilroy alludes to Michel de Certeau's understanding of space, which "takes into consideration vectors of direction" and sees space as "composed of intersections of mobile elements. . . . In contradistinction to the place, [space] has thus none of the univocity or stability of a 'proper'" (qtd. in Mitchell viii). What Gilroy sees—and challenges—as "proper" are essentialist perspectives of the Black Diaspora: absolutist views, which are in one sense what Gilroy observes as a "brute pan-Africanism" (31), or the promotion of a homogenous African ethnic culture, and, in another sense, a blackness that celebrates the internal varieties of the black community but does not acknowledge input and influence from outside (32).

It is exactly this "inside" versus "outside" that Gilroy complicates as he suggests that the relationships between European and black identities are not mutually exclusive. He dares to argue for an occupation of "the space between" a black and a white consciousness (1). He problematizes issues of identity, location, and nationality by proposing connections or continuities between black people and "others." This kind of interrelationship can be described in Pythagoras's terms: Those people who find themselves along the hypotenuse (the longest side) of the Black Atlantic triangle are the sum of cultural elements, political interests, and identities—both black and white—found on the other two sides of the triangle (c2 =a2 + b2 ). All sides are related (a2 =c2 - b2 or b2 =c2 - a2 ) in an equation of histories, socio-cultural politics, mobile bodies and objects, displacement and hybridism.

The Artwork
The Triangle

In the artwork, the ninety-degree or right angle represents a powerful vantage point for examining modernity; it is a critical angle from which Black Diasporic relationships or interdependencies can be investigated. Each piece of art situates the right angle at different sites, points, or vertices. By shifting...