- The Black Atlantic as Dystopia: Bernardine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots
In an interview Paul Gilroy acknowledged the utopian nature of his thinking, not (as might be thought) as the utopianism of a tradition, Marxist or otherwise, but in relation to utopian thinkers in the philosophical sense: “I have been very influenced by Ernst Bloch, his conceptions of utopia, and particularly his understanding of the relationship between music and utopia and also his sense of the place of the fragments—the shards of utopian thinking in everyday life.”1 Bloch expanded the concept of utopia from the narrower image of a description of an alternative society designed to evoke or facilitate a better way of life to a broader understanding that included such phenomena as daydreams, religious visions, myths of a golden age, circuses, fairy tales, glossy magazines, and travel literature. For Bloch, the capacity for hope is a prime source of human creativity, dynamism, and progress and is part of our capacity for imagination.2 Similarly for Gilroy, utopias are thought experiments that restore to people the ability to imagine a better or a different world to the one that they inhabit. He poses the question, “How do we cultivate the ability to do what Bloch called dreaming forward and what value does it have to be compelled to imagine a different world?”3 Music is a key element of the analysis, as Gilroy, following Bloch, emphasizes utopias as involving the politics of transfiguration, the emergence of qualitatively new desires, social relations, and modes of association, both within the racial community and between that group and white oppressors. The issue of how utopias are conceived is complex, not least because they strive continually to move beyond the grasp of the merely linguistic, textual, and discursive.4 Such utopias may embody an imaginary antimodern past and a postmodern future. [End Page 283]
Gilroy argues that the vernacular arts of the descendants of slaves suggest a role for art that is strikingly similar to that described by Adorno in relation to European artistic expression after the Holocaust: “Art’s utopia, the counterfactual yet-to-come, is draped in black. It goes on being a recollection of the possible with a critical edge against the real; it is a kind of imaginary restitution of that catastrophe which is world history.”5 A major problem in critical response to the black Atlantic concept is the lack of awareness of its utopian nature, the tendency to regard it as a hard-edged theoretical definition instead of as a catalyst to thought and action. The term has been rapidly canonized and institutionalized in the U.S. academy and concretized as a formal space.6 As Brent Hayes Edwards notes, “It is sometimes overlooked that Gilroy himself is careful to propose black Atlantic as a provisional or heuristic term of analysis, more in order to open up a certain theoretical space that would radically dislodge any inquiry grounded in singular frames—whether “race,” “ethnicity,” or “nation”—than in order to formalize that space.”7Although the term was never meant to be comprehensive, the areas missing from the analysis remain striking. As the editors of a recent volume of essays note, Gilroy’s case studies focus on middle class male intellectuals in America (Alexander Crummell, Martin Delany, W. E. B. Du Bois), make little of class and gender, largely ignore Latin America, and appear somewhat oblivious to potential collusion between black nationalism and patriarchy. Crossing the sea tends to be the province of men, obscuring the importance of women, land, and agency. In addition, the book’s Americocentrism appears paradoxical given the agenda of debunking the notion of African American provincialism by taking the African American experience as paradigmatic of the black diaspora.8 More generally, the rapid adoption of the term as a shorthand for the cultural richness of the black diaspora tends to obscure the fact that these riches came at the cost of pain and suffering; slavery may be too high a price for the global dissemination of rap music.
How better to challenge Gilroy’s thinking, therefore, than with a dystopian novel? In Blonde Roots, Bernardine Evaristo constructs a deeply...