U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Paul Gilroy’s Legacy

Paul Gilroy was a big deal when I was in graduate school. In the paper I’m preparing for the OAH, I make an oblique reference to Gilroy. As I’m battening down the hatches on that article, I got to wondering how the twenty first century has treated Gilroy, particularly his foundation shaking Black Atlantic. So I did a little searching and was oh so pleased to find an August 2009 article entitled “The Black Atlantic: Exploring Gilroy’s legacy” by Lucy Evans in Atlantic Studies.

The abstract to the article is

This essay reviews published responses to Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993). The essay begins by summarizing Gilroy’s main arguments and considering the significance of his term “double consciousness,” both as a theme and as a theoretical approach. It goes on to examine reviews,  articles, books and journal special issues, spanning from 1994 to 2008, which either engage directly with Gilroy’s text or make use of his term “black Atlantic” as a basis for  further research. Early reviews of The Black Atlantic balance its shortcomings against its groundbreaking potential, envisaging that the book will generate discussions for years to come across a range of disciplines. Analysis of more recent literary criticism and cultural theory which draws on Gilroy’s ideas, taking them in a variety of often conflicting directions, demonstrates the accuracy of this
prediction. The essay looks first at critics’ commentaries on the scope of Gilroy’s project, whether they aim to extend it so that it encompasses a broader range of social and cultural contexts, or to narrow its focus in a way which illuminates its relevance for a particular country or region. Readings of The Black Atlantic asserting the need to incorporate the Pacific and the Indian diaspora into Gilroy’s black Atlantic vision, or to transform his “counterculture of modernity” into a more general notion of anti-colonial resistance, are compared to readings which seek to ground Gilroy’s theoretical framework within the social realities of Africa,
the Caribbean, or Canada. The essay then explores the work of critics and theorists who have identified problems with Gilroy’s style, viewing his black Atlantic model as dangerously abstracted from the material world, and discussing the limitations of his postnational stance. I argue that the apparent inconsistencies within Gilroy’s theoretical framework have led to productive debates and significant shifts in methodology within literary and cultural studies.

The particular argument of Gilroy that I am interested in is the placement of the Black Atlantic squarely within a Western discourse. Is this placement in contradistinction to a focus primarily on the African Diaspora, as the field was focused on prior to Gilroy’s work? As Evans writes, Gilroy’s “reading of Du Bois’ life and writings as located ‘within and
sometimes against the social and moral conventions of western modernity’ again
suggests a combination of positions which might seem ‘mutually exclusive’ (115).”

If memory serves, Gilroy argues that Du Bois and other black expressive culture risen from the lives of slaves, are both part and parcel of Western culture and offer a “counter-culture of modernity.” Juliette Derricotte does something similar. She criticizes white missionaries in India for not living up to “the best of our Western ideals.” She also articulates much of the “Kingdom of God” theology offered by adherents of the Social Gospel.

The major criticism of The Black Atlantic that Evans’ traces seems to be either that it tries to do too much or that it does too little. To wit: “Ntongela Masilela faults The Black Atlantic not simply on its exclusion of Africa and Latin America, but more particularly on the way in which it sets up the expectation that certain areas will be covered, and then does not deliver.” After considering the many different things left out by Gilroy, Evans transitions briefly to those who found his ideas untenable.

Unfortunately for me, the essay does not cover my central question about current interpretation of Gilroy’s argument about the Westernization of African Americans (and people of African descent in the diaspora). Perhaps I missed it imbedded in discussions of whether or not Gilroy’s understanding of transnationalism is legitimate or too constraining. I found the conclusion of Evans’ essay her most helpful insight:

As such, the criticism levelled at Gilroy for his insufficiently grounded metaphors of free-floating hybridity, his unduly cheerful take on the effects of transnational journeys, and his privileging of culture over politics as a tool for effecting social change, can be seen as part of a wider reaction within twenty-first-century literary and cultural studies against the unexamined optimism of the early nineties. Although in itself at odds with the political and economic make-up of the contemporary world, The Black Atlantic prefigured more thorough investigations into the social and cultural impact of globalization. With its ambitious endeavour to span a range of geographical areas, disciplines and approaches, the value of The Black Atlantic lies not so much in its own theoretical formulations as in the way those formulations have inspired later critics and theorists to question, revise and renegotiate our methodologies.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a useful summary for me. I’d just been thinking about Gilroy, although I haven’t looked at that book in years. I’ve more recently been looking at another version of the Atlantic, Linebaugh and Rediker’s *Many-Headed Hydra.* I wonder if a tension between L&R and Gilroy came up in this review article? They’re more focused on material politics, but certainly they also have an irenic view of their early modern Atlantic proletarians…

    Similarly, I’ve just started into *Alabama in Africa,* by Andrew Zimmerman, which seems to me a sort of empirical response to the thesis of a black Atlantic–maybe a ‘new imperial history’ response to it. Zimmerman writes about the attempt by the German empire to enroll Tuskegee in the project of growing cotton, with American labor control, in Africa. He might be useful for you. I guess it depends what you mean by ‘Westernization’ of African Americans?

    • I love “Alabama in Africa.” Taught it to my graduate students last year in a methods class, as an example of theoretically-informed transnational history. They enjoyed it. (I should note that Andrew was on my dissertation committee.)

  2. What I mean by “Westernization” is really the central crux, isn’t it? In a large scope, and I think in the tradition of Gilroy, I mean products of the Enlightenment, who at the same time provide fundamental critiques of the Enlightenment. I need to figure out more specifically what that means, though.

  3. I just saw that Paul Gilroy thanked me on twitter (presumably for this post)! Wowza!

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