Paul Gilroy and His Theory of Black Atlantic

The term Black Atlantic was employed first by the Black British critic Paul Gilroy (Gilroy 1993). In that study, he addressed the cultural and historical linkages, which unified the peoples of African descent on both sides of the ocean that had been the scene of the diaspora of black Africans resulting from the Atlantic slave-trade across the infamous Middle Passage and the so-called ‘triangular trade,’ which flowed from it between Africa, the Americas and Europe, a trade which had a powerful effect on modern economies. For Gilroy the important point is not just to register this linkage as an historical event, but to show how the ongoing effects of that exchange remain the constituting factor in a discursive economy that continues to dominate the social and political practices of the modern world in societies as diverse as the United States, Brazil, Britain and in the independent colonies of Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas. His contention is that all those societies, and indeed the economic and political framework of the Atlantic region as a whole, have been determined in large part by the linkages formed in that first era of mercantilism and expansion when the principal cargo was the bodies of black Africans. In this foundational work Gilroy stresses the interdependence of all the cultures which depended on this exchange of enslaved bodies across the Black Atlantic. Thus he analyses the cross-influence of black intellectuals, who worked not within specific and isolated nations or states but within a transnational framework in which their work flourished and cross-fertilized.

It is Gilroy’s contention therefore that far from being a limited or marginalised experience the black experience prefigured many of the problems and issues which were faced later by all peoples dealing with the emerging transnational and globalized conditions of the modern world. Recently the term has been recruited in the concept of a Black Atlantic Literature, which traces the interconnections and influences which have occurred between writers and artists across the region. It has also been extended back into studies of earlier periods of black cultural exchange into the mediaeval period (Campbell 2006) and into many discussions of music and popular culture which take up the issues raised in the final chapter of Gilroy’s 1993 book which deals with these cultural forms. In fact, as a brief online search will show, the term has now become a shorthand reference to any and all projects which have a transcultural dimension across one or more sections of the black African diasporic cultures of the region.

In the work that has followed, Gilroy himself has produced a series of studies of the effects of this historical process on contemporary social interaction in societies such as Britain (Gilroy 2002, 2004). Although critical of the failure of neo-liberalism to address the racism endemic in these cultures, he has not turned away from an attempt to discuss how the descendants of these intersecting cultures can forge effective means of working within a single polity. The deeply ironic turn of his earlier study of racism in British life ‘There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack’(1987) has yielded more recently to the more hopefully titled After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? (2004) in the introduction to which he argues that for all its limitations ‘beleaguered multiculture [needs to be defended] against the accusations of failure’ (2004: xi). In part this has been a response to the conservative attacks on the idea of multiculture which have erupted in many societies across the region and elsewhere since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in 2001. Gilroy argues that, instead of the failed discourse of official multiculturalism, which has done little to address real,ongoing and indeed increasing cultural and racial prejudices, he suggests that we might develop the idea of ‘conviviality’. He uses this term ‘to refer to the processes of cohabitation and interaction that have made multiculture an ordinary feature of social life in Britain’s urban areas and in post-colonial cities elsewhere. I hope an interest in the workings of conviviality will take off from the point where “multiculturalism” broke down’. (2004: xi). Gilroy is careful to note that he does not mean that racism has disappeared. But the term which stresses shifts in interpersonal relations ‘introduces a measure of distance from the pivotal term “identity,” which has proved to be such an ambiguous resource in the analysis of race, ethnicity, and politics. The radical openness that brings conviviality alive makes a nonsense of closed, fixed, reified identity and turns attention towards the always-unpredictable mechanisms of identification.’ (2004: xi) Gilroy’s later work, though far less sombre in tone, has some elements in common with Achille Mbembe’s work on the post-colony, at least in its stress on the analysis of actual daily practice and the interactive processes of social production.It is also interesting to compare its critique of simplistic models of identity with some of the recent accounts of identity politics in texts on whiteness such as Hill 2004.

Source: Post-colonial Studies The Key Concepts Second edition Bill Ashcroft,Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, Routledge 2007.

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