Review of The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness by Paul Gilroy

PAUL GILROY. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992. Pp. xi, 261. $29.50.

The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness CoverThe Black Atlantic is the third book written by the Afro-English sociologist, scholar of literary and cultural studies, and current professor at the University of London, Paul Gilroy. By taking the “Atlantic as one single, complex unit of analysis,” Gilroy charts the existence of a counterculture to modernity among black intellectuals, activists, writers, speakers, poets, and artists between approximately 1845 and the 1980s. Gilroy positions the hybrid and transnational nature of these figures as a “changing same” that challenges notions of ethnic essentialism, ethnic pluralism, nationalism, and racial purity based in the logic of the Enlightenment and still embedded in the structure of academia.

Although overwritten, far from definitive, and largely subjective in its choice of subjects, The Black Atlantic is a significant theoretical text that recaptures the diasporic multiplicity and the ambivalent perspectives that once stood at the center of the black Atlantic experience.

The Black Atlantic emerged from a series of lectures that Gilroy gave to a class of non-sociology students at South Bank Polytechnic in Central London. Gilroy attempted to explain that the experiences of black intellectuals—be them Ethiopianists, Pan-Africanists, black nationalists, Africentrics, assimilationists, or accomodationists—were shaped by their unique relationships to abstract notions of modernity based in the Enlightenment. The Black Atlantic demonstrates how these notions informed the work of black figures (especially those who traveled the Atlantic world), who occupied a special position vis-à-vis the culture of modernity; to define this special position, Gilroy borrowed the concept of “double-consciousness” from the African-American sociologist W.E.B. DuBois.

According to Gilroy, modernity is based in the writings of Enlightenment philosophers like Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Marx; it privileges textual methodologies, secularism, science, reason, and rational over personal experience and artistic expression; it advances universal notions of progress, truth, beauty, and utopia that are specific to the European experience; and it supports nationalism, racial purity, scientific racism, and clear ethnic distinctions. In academia, modernity has become written into the periodization of history. By studying the experiences of black figures that range from Martin Delany, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Richard Wright, and Jimi Hendrix, Gilroy attempts to break this periodization, showing that blacks were living a cultural experience more-closely associated with post-modernism during the modern era.

Gilroy writes in a stream-of-consciousness style that often appears cerebral and self-indulgent; however, his uses of black Atlantic culture to critique modernity are poignant. For instance, how are scholars to reconcile the theoretical preference for bondage in the slave-master relationship of Hegel’s allegory with the actual preference for death in the narratives of ex-slaves like Frederick Douglass? How can scholars harmonize the Enlightenment preference for the secular with the reality of slave cultures that found expression in church institutions? Finally, how are idolizations of textual evidence and linear conceptions of time challenged by the fact that enslaved peoples were forbidden to read and write, and so developed musical expressions that privileged memory and improvisation?

Conversely, how can scholars understand appeals to invented-tradition among Pan-Africanists, the rhetoric of colonization among black missionaries, or the role of the Euro-American canon among black-Atlantic writers, without understanding the language and logic of modernity? As Gilroy reminds us, black intellectuals have been both the sharpest critics of modernity and its most-eager appropriators.

Although the Atlantic-based themes that Gilroy sets out in the beginning—his emphasis on the ship as a cultural/political unit and his emphasis on “routes” instead of “roots”—are among his least developed concepts, they are also his most imperative for the early-modern era. By recapturing the Atlantic influences of black historical figures, Gilroy connects his work to the historiography of the motley crew. He reminds us that ethnic and national histories are illusions, and there is really no such thing as the “pre-modern.” The phenomenon of slavery, for example, is not an aberration of the past that belongs to the history of a particular racial group; rather, as cutting-edge historians like Marcus Rediker, Peter Linebaugh, and John Donoghue continue to remind us, it is a “legitimate part of the moral history of the west as a whole.”

* For more work written by this author, please visit his personal blog, The Zamani Reader: A History Blog from a History Student.

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