Africa and the Black Atlantic
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Africa and the Black Atlantic

It has been two decades since the publication of Paul Gilroy’s path-breaking book, The Black Atlantic, which identified a hybrid counterculture to modernity in the real and metaphorical journeys of African-descended peoples across the Atlantic. As Gilroy showed, at the conceptual core of diasporic culture is the loss of home, the meaning of memory, and the struggle to find a usable past. Gilroy’s exploration of diaspora also involved an important theoretical meditation on the legacy of slavery, as well as a consideration of the relationship of blacks to the modern West and its traditions of thought, particularly those that have been defined in relation to an African other: reason, enlightenment, and modernity. A range of scholars—historians, literary critics, and anthropologists, among others—have seized on these transnational circuits to reveal the exciting possibilities released by such patterns of mobility and exchange.

But even as The Black Atlantic changed many fields of study, inaugurating, energizing, and reviving an array of transnational approaches, it also replicated the problematic exclusion of Africa from discussions of modernity. For Gilroy, cultural nationalist discourses (such as Afrocentrism, négritude, and Pan-Africanism) bypass the historical experience of slavery to arrive at a prehistoric mystical Africa frozen in time. At once nostalgic, triumphalist, and compensatory, Afrocentrism situates Africa as origin, authenticity, and purity. Such romantic narratives fail to refute Eurocentric racism because they accept its assumptions of an essential division between Africa and the West and prioritize an image of Africa as anterior to modernity. Gilroy, thus, pits “diaspora space and its dynamics of differentiation” against the “nation time” of Afrocentrism (197). Defining black Atlantic temporality as characterized by rupture, non-synchronicity, and fracture, Gilroy wishes to redefine tradition as the “living memory of the changing same” (198). But while Gilroy rightly critiques Afrocentric frameworks of return to Africa, he fails to provide any alternative way of thinking about Africa and offers little guidance as [End Page v] to how to extend his particular model to Africa. Rendering Africa similarly static in otherwise fluid models, many scholars in black diaspora studies replicate this omission and continue to read the Atlantic as primarily referring to the movement of ideas, peoples, and objects between Britain and the United States. In 1996, a special issue of Research in African Literatures, edited by Simon Gikandi, influentially laid out an Africanist critique of Gilroy’s bracketing of Africa from the vibrant discussions about the black Atlantic. Gikandi also raised critical questions about the way in which Gilroy “detours historicity” (2) and transforms slavery into a metaphor (as Joan Dayan argued in the same issue), as well as neglecting the formative role of colonialism in Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, while highlighting slavery as the primary historical crucible for modern blackness.1

The goal of this special issue, almost two decades later, is not to replicate or update those important discussions, but to assess where we are today in the vibrant, exciting field of reading “Africa in the black Atlantic.” Situating Africa at the center of aesthetic inquiry that takes place in the wider black Atlantic, the essays in this special issue look back to the histories that have led to this moment, but also point to fresh new ways forward. Less interested in critiquing existing models, and more in rethinking and extending paradigms, this special issue explores how questions of black Atlantic modernity and circulation intersect with newly ascendant conceptual frames such as affect and bio-politics, with expanded histories from Spanish fascism to Portuguese colonialism, and with new considerations of how the neoliberal present is shaped by such forces as global Islam, the interminable War on Terror, and the continuing afterlives of the Cold War. In other words, this special issue serves both as an acknowledgement of the transformative impact of the Atlantic paradigm and as an invitation to explore new directions and map new geographical, historical, and conceptual itineraries. Not retrospective alone, but a prolegomena of sorts, the issue, thus, gestures to future work that will more firmly align the sign of Africa with that of the black Atlantic.

The question of diaspora in relation to Africa...