- The Black Atlantic Paradigm: Paul Gilroy and the Fractured Landscape of “Race”
If one were to attempt to locate Paul Gilroy’s heuristic “black Atlantic” framework, one would have to look to (at least) three distinct geographical/national entities and their attendant intellectual traditions. The triangle of Africa, Britain and America should ring familiar to those even vaguely aware of the last two centuries of “culture contact” in which Africans have been brought (and then have brought themselves) deep into the intimacies of an increasingly dominant and simultaneously fragile world-concept. One would have to look much closer to note how this triangular trade has been as much an intellectual system of exchange as it has been the modern Mediterranean in which great financial empires rise, fall, rise again, and then re-write the fall. To name the integrated components of the black Atlantic—which for Gilroy is a structure of thought as well as the historical nexus of contemporary black identities—one would have to include primarily British cultural studies, African American literary and cultural studies, and a latter-day Pan-Africanism which maps the landscape of “race” in its cultural sprawl, not in its essentialist homeland(s).
From its roots in an economy which depended on black forced labor and featured the harsh transplantation of African peoples into a protracted [End Page 740] diaspora, this triangular trade has also been the network for oppositional exchanges—liberatory glances from one black oppressed group to another. These shared glances emerge in sound, movement, and written texts where “race” has been employed as a metaphor for essence. For Gilroy, these gestures across national boundaries and cultural traditions are not only, as W. E. B. Du Bois would have it, the blessing/curse of being both black and western. In this reading of modern intellectual history, such gestures actually offer us a liberating alternative to absolutist doctrines of knowledge, history, and power. They map out a past and a present that is constituted by cultural and textual exchange and which can barely be captured by way of a narrow focus on any specific discipline. What Gilroy’s “black Atlantic” explicitly offers is a “rhizomorphic, fractal structure” of a “transcultural, international formation” that exists as a “counterculture of modernity” (4).
As heir to such a system of exchange, Gilroy’s text makes a gesture that is crucial to any transnational or trans-Atlantic discourse. He appropriates its central concept and conceits and translates its canonical texts according to his specific cultural moment. Like Isaac Julian, the gay black British film-maker (I do hope the order is correct) who stepped into the diaspora arena with his film Looking For Langston, Gilroy’s text appropriates “race” from a dominant African American discourse and reads specifically American texts against his “black Atlantic” framework. Where Julian appropriated Langston Hughes and, by extension, the Harlem Renaissance and its suppressed history of black gay creativity, Gilroy claims W. E. B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright and many others whom he reads against a paradigm less bound by specific geographies and national traditions.
This reclamation is easy considering that many of these writers traversed national boundaries in their thinking and in their lives. Gilroy’s chapter on Richard Wright reads the black writer against his movements from Mississippi to Paris, Spain to Africa and locates in Wright’s works—particularly the ones written in exile from America—a critique of race and an analysis of the political complexities of Western modernity. Du Bois, whose African American “double consciousness” paradigm is appropriated by Gilroy as a model, is held to his German experience and European influences. American slave narratives are also read against this “fractal” cultural space and ultimately become the root (“route”) upon which a distinct theory of movement as modernity is articulated.
The observations of African American music in The Black Atlantic— [End Page 741] from the slave spirituals to contemporary hip-hop—are as invaluable to us as are his (dare I say) postmodern readings of the black diaspora intellectual tradition. This...