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American Literary History 17.1 (2005) 160-170
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The Black Atlantic Archive
What, exactly, is the "black Atlantic"? It has been more than a decade since Paul Gilroy published his influential monograph, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993). Since three of the four books under review have the phrase "black Atlantic" in their titles (the fourth, Philip Gould's Barbaric Traffic, refers more generally to the "18th-century Atlantic world," presumably because many of the writers he considers were not black), we can begin by asking what these authors find most compelling about Gilroy's book. For Vincent Carretta and Gould, The Black Atlantic offers an "influential" path beyond nation and race as master terms, "[i]magining instead a diasporic model of racial identity" (3). In the fourth chapter of Barbaric Traffic, Gould contends that the autobiographies of John Marrant and Venture Smith argue against Gilroy's claim that liberalism and the Enlightenment are little more than engines of "terror" for black people in the eighteenth century (123). But Gould's very topic—antislavery rhetoric in England and America— clearly follows Gilroy's lead in replacing the nation-state with a "transatlantic context" (7). Gilroy is most pervasively present as a model in Alan Rice's Radical Narratives of the Black Atlantic. For Rice, Gilroy's book was "epochal," a "paradigm shift beyond the narrow nationalisms of much African diasporan history" (23). Rice makes much of Gilroy's clever pun that the black Atlantic's "counterculture of modernity" was more a matter of "routes" than "roots." Because their collection of primary texts focuses on black writers who moved, either physically or imaginatively, between the US, Nova Scotia, England, and Sierra Leone, Joanna Brooks and John Saillant unsurprisingly also seize on this pun in "Face Zion Forward" (5).
Clearly, Gilroy's book remains a powerful model of thinking beyond the self-serving narratives of the nation-state, a shift of perspective that our current global self-consciousness finds right and proper. But this surely cannot be the whole reason for Gilroy's influence. Such a transnational vision was not in itself a new approach to black history and culture in 1993, after all. Scholars studying the cultural transformations of the African diaspora (Brooks and Saillant note particularly Robert Farris Thompson and Cedric Robinson [End Page 160] [233n1]), as well as historians of modern slavery (David Brion Davis, to take only one important example), necessarily took a more geographical than national approach to their topics. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s important books anticipate Gilroy in trying to rethink the legacies of Enlightenment and modernity from the perspective of black experience, and his famous chapter in The Signifyin(g) Monkey (1988) on the trope of the "talking book" took early notice of Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, Marrant, and Olaudah Equiano, now canonical figures of what Carretta and Gould call the "early black Atlantic." (Gates, in turn, was building from the work of Paul Edwards, whose 1960s editions of Ignatius Sancho, Equiano, and Ottobah Cugoano, with their "magisterial introductions" [Carretta and Gould 2], brought these crucial eighteenth-century authors back into visibility). But Gates remained too bound to a canonizing impulse both ethnic and national, according to Gilroy; he was still too committed to something called an African-American tradition. The Black Atlantic, by contrast, focused on those aspects of African diasporic experience and expression that "transcend both the structures of the nation state and the constraints of ethnicity and national particularity" (19), "structures" and "constraints" that have hampered and vitiated, or so Gilroy argued, scholarly traditions as different as British cultural studies, Afrocentrism, and African-American literary history. Gilroy proposed instead a...