Key Theories of Paul Gilroy

It is no mere incidental comment that opens the preface to Paul Gilroy’s (1956– ) The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993): ‘This book was first conceived while I was working at South Bank Polytechnic in London’s Elephant and Castle.’ The South London location is highly symbolic and overdetermined: site of the former Polytechnic, which facilitated access to higher education for ethnic minorities among many other marginalized groups, and later in the 1990s, the location for the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, the official investigation into the failed police prosecution of the men accused of the racist murder of a young black architecture student, Stephen Lawrence. Kent Constabulary’s separate investigation into the failed prosecution, undertaken for the Police Complaints Authority, concluded that there was ‘institutional racism’ within the Metropolitan Police Service, such a notion being long vocalized by Britain’s black community. The official language of a police inquiry could be recroded using the title of Gilroy’s earlier book: ‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’ (1987), a text which, as Houston A. Baker, Jr, notes in the preface, examines the ‘moral panic’ (using Stuart Hall’s term) of 1960s and 1970s Britain, with the state of crisis that accompanied Britain’s postcolonial decline and revealed varieties of racist nationalisms at work in the State and society. Gilroy’s exploration of Britain’s recent nationalist and racist history is rooted in personal experience and study: born in London, England, to English and Guyanese parents, Gilroy has long had a personal and professional interest in the myriad manifestations of black British culture, with special focus on Afro-Caribbean music. Gilroy was educated at the University of Birmingham, where he completed his doctorate in 1986, and played a major part in the development of a new leftist critique of Britain as part of the work initiated by Birmingham’s Centre for Cultural Studies. As Houston A. Baker, Jr, asserts:

If Stuart Hall was a major voice of the Center, then Paul Gilroy and his colleagues who collaborated during the early 1980s to produce The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain were brilliant disciples who carried a master voice to new resonance.

After a number of academic posts at The University of Birmingham, The University of Essex and South Bank Polytechnic, London (now London South Bank University), Gilroy moved to Goldsmith’s College, University of London, where he worked until 1998 as a lecturer in Sociology. Moving to the US, Gilroy became a professor of sociology and African-American studies in 1998 at Yale University, followed in 2005 by the prestigious post of Anthony Giddens Professorship of Social Theory, at The London School of Economics, England. Publication in 1987 of ‘There Ain’t No Black In The Union Jack’: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation, was a major event in the critical exploration of race and ethnicity in British society and culture. Gilroy managed to neatly and compellingly synthesize a Marxist/Cultural Studies approach with the ‘grass roots’ of political activism and contemporary black British culture. Exploring the formation of racism in British society, Gilroy contends that racism defined via the ‘black problem’ (or blacks as victims) is a way of actively excluding race from history:

Seeing racism in this way [as an external phenomenon], as something peripheral, marginal to the essential patterns of social and political life can, in its worse manifestations, simply endorse the view of blacks as an external problem, an alien presence visited on Britain from the outside.

While reversing this image, and re-introducing black British figures and concepts into an historical awareness, Gilroy also does something far more fundamental: he remaps the Cultural Studies approach, arguing that an awareness of race and racism is essential and integral, for example, with the reworking of questions of, and the relationship between, race and class in the first main chapter of the book. Gilroy’s approach can be thought of as ‘syncretist’ a word deriving from ‘syncretism’, which literally means ‘a joining of forces’. Originally used in theological writing, but also in secular theatre criticism, the transfer of the term to postcolonial literature and theory is viewed with some suspicion. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, define the term as one ‘sometimes used to avoid the problems some critics have associated with the idea of hybridity in identifying the fusion of two distinct traditions to produce a new and distinctive whole’. Gilroy reveals how the term is apt, because his bringing together of different cultural forces in his book, say Rastafarian, Afro-Caribbean, or Afro-American, is one that retains a sharp edge of oppositional politics, as well as an assertion of autonomy. In other words, re-inserting black British subjects into the nation forces the British to examine some uncomfortable truths concerning their treatment of diverse British subjects. Nowhere in Gilroy’s book is this more apparent than in his brilliant and evocative traversing of ‘the expressive culture of black Britain’6 in the fifth chapter, ‘Diaspora, utopia and the critique of capitalism’. Gilroy argues that the exclusionary effects of racism cannot be sustained because the essentialist foundations of such a production of ‘black alterity’ are, themselves, ‘precarious constructions’ and ‘discursive figures’, that is to say, they are not only artificial constructs but also elements in a wider struggle for identity formation. Emerging in that struggle is the oppositional practice of black expressive cultures that themselves draw sustenance from the black diaspora:

In particular, the culture and politics of black America and the Caribbean have become raw materials for creative processes which redefine what it means to be black, adapting to distinctively British experiences and meanings. Black culture is actively made and re-made.

This dynamic process of black cultural production would lead to an even wider theory of black subjectivity and history, in Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993) a groundbreaking study that Gilroy modestly calls ‘an essay about the inescapable hybridity and intermixture of ideas’.

Locating black British identity in a transitional and transnational space – that of the Black Atlantic, the routes between Africa, the Americas, and the UK – allows Gilroy to posit a diasporic and dynamic theory of identity, rather than one rooted in essentialism and racism.‘Diaspora’ means dispersal: ‘the voluntary or forcible movement of peoples from their homelands into new regions . . . a central historical fact of colonization’. Gilroy is aware of the links between his use of diaspora and that of Jewish history: ‘The themes of escape and suffering, tradition, temporality, and the social organization of memory have a special significance in the history of Jewish responses to modernity.’

Where Gilroy applies a radical re-reading of black diaspora in his study, is in relation to modernity: arguing that scholars of modernity excluded the role of black artists, Gilroy contends that black cultural expression is a ‘counter-culture’ of modernity, that is to say, not something excluded from, or separate from modernity, but a force that ‘reveals the hidden internal fissures in the concept of modernity’. As McLeod summarizes: ‘This makes a nonsense both of a sense of the West as ethnically and racially homogenous, and of ideas concerning an essentialised, common “black” community separated from Western influence.’  In other words, the ‘double consciousness’ of the Black Atlantic, allows for identity and difference, and is both constitutive and critical of modernity. Gilroy’s study has wide historical scope, and includes analysis of diverse figures such as Martin Robison Delany, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Richard Wright, to name just some of the central black artists and intellectuals who are returned to and examined as part of the journeys – or more accurately, crossings – of black modernity. As Charles Piot asserts, Gilroy

rereads black expressive forms and the works of North American black intellectuals in a transoceanic, transnational perspective. Thus he shows how African American music, from that of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers in the nineteenth century to contemporary hip-hop, is a hybrid transcultural
product, and how the work of Martin Delaney, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Richard Wright . . . were deeply influenced by their travels in Europe and their encounters with Enlightenment culture.

While Gilroy’s approach has received criticism from key black scholars such as George Eliot Clarke (who argues that Gilroy has ignored the role of African Canadians in his theories), the fact remains that his concept of the Black Atlantic has brought about a fundamental reexamination of the history and politics of modernity, alongside a more nuanced and sophisticated notion of black Western culture.

Categories: Critical Race Theory, Postcolonialism, Race Theory

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2 replies


  1. Paul Gilroy and His Theory of Black Atlantic – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
  2. Popular Culture – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes

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