The Black Atlantic Summary

Paul Gilroy

The Black Atlantic

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The Black Atlantic Summary

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In The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness, critical theorist Paul Gilroy writes a history of African diasporic culture that he calls a “Black Atlantic” identity, incorporating elements of British, American, African, and Caribbean cultures. Gilroy uses W. E. B. Du Bois’s idea of double-consciousness, which states that Black people are forced to understand themselves through other people’s perceptions of them, as the foundation for his book. Essentially, Gilroy argues that Black identity is necessarily hybrid, because of the history of the African diaspora and because of institutionalized racism which forces black citizens of America and Britain to look at themselves as being less “American” or less “British” than their white counterparts. He uses examples from both African diasporic history and European modernity to make his argument.

In the first chapter of The Black Atlantic, Gilroy establishes his framework. He uses the imagery of the ship, specifically the slave ship, to explain his idea of blackness as existing between two spaces, or as a hybrid identity. Because the ship is in the middle of the ocean, it does not belong to only one nation – Gilroy then goes a step further to argue that because of the history of the African diaspora and slavery in Europe and the Americas, blackness cannot be defined by any one nation or border either. Gilroy goes on to argue that Europe and America have long created the idea of race as a factor that defines human beings. Europeans and Americans, Gilroy says, have established their own national identities as being defined by their whiteness, and so black people automatically become the other even when they are born into those nations. Those in power have periodically shifted European and American ideas of race to maintain a functioning social hierarchy and system of oppression. Despite this belief, Gilroy says, blackness is limitless and has many dimensions. It cannot be constructed by one person, nation, or system of thought.

Gilroy’s image of the sailing ship returns again and again in his idea of hybridity and black modernity. He says in his book that the ship demonstrates the passage of both people and ideas across the Atlantic. The ship is a “micro-cultural, micro-political system in motion,” meaning that it is both culturally and politically representative of the place it originates from and is constantly moving toward a new location and a new political space.

Another key element of Gilroy’s book is his discussion of slavery. Gilroy argues that slavery is the “terror” at the heart of most diasporic black communities, and while blackness is limitless and indefinable, the history of slavery binds many black communities together. In many ways, the slave trade was the root of transatlantic black identity, and thus, modern conceptions of blackness. Gilroy discusses many prominent authors, including Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson, and others, who have tried to write from this philosophical understanding of black identity and modernity. Gilroy points to many black authors, musicians, artists, and philosophers who have tried to recover the feelings and history of African enslavement that bind black people today, but states that all have failed to truly express the terror, brutality, and struggle that occurred even after emancipation.

Gilroy also uses music as a way to explore the expression of a Black Atlantic identity. He is interested in music and performance as a way to say the unsayable, thinking of music as a way to give less power to language and more to raw expression. In his writings about jazz, hip-hop, and other musical forms that originated in black diasporic communities, he explains more of the idea of hybrid and multidimensional blackness.

Though complicated and dense in its philosophy, Gilroy essentially lays a framework in The Black Atlantic for a new way of thinking about and understanding black identity. Through a number of historical and cultural examples, he makes an argument for blackness as something transient, shifting, and unable to be defined by borders or nation-states. He argues not for separate African-American, British-African, and Caribbean identities, but a more holistic and all-encompassing understanding of a complex, transnational black identity. In saying this, Gilroy also makes the argument that race is constructed, and not inherent or biologically defined, which shapes contemporary critical theory about race, post-colonialism, and identity.

Paul Gilroy is a British historian born of Guyanese and English parents and raised in London. He has written many books about the intersections of history, race, colonialism, and modernity, including There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (1987), Black Britain: A Photographic History (2007), and Against Race: Imagining Politics Beyond the Color Line. He has taught at Yale University, Goldsmiths, University of London, and Kings College London, among other institutions.