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Black Atlantic

Intellectual Antecedents, Intellectual Impact, Critiques, Bibliography

In writing The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), Paul Gilroy sought to devise a theoretical approach to understanding race that encompassed three crucial elements. First, the idea of race as fluid and ever-changing, rather than static; second, the idea of race as a transnational and intercultural, rather than strictly national, phenomenon; third, the focus on analyzing resistance to racism as a phenomenon that emerged transnationally and diasporically.

Gilroy seeks to provide a theoretical rendering of race that bridges the hemispheres. To this end he takes the Atlantic as his preferred unit of analysis and uses it to ground his transnational perspective on race. In Gilroy's analysis the black Atlantic represents the history of the movements of people of African descent from Africa to Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas and provides a lens through which to view the ways that ideas about nationality and identity were formed. Thus, in Black Atlantic the focus is on intercontinental trade and travel as well as on processes of conversion and conquest and the resultant forms of creolization and hybridization that occur.

The author maps the Atlantic Ocean as a way to catalogue a whole series of transoceanic transactions and exchanges in the past and in the present and in so doing seeks to move beyond racially essentialist ways of thinking which posit an unvarying, pure, and singular black (or African) culture. In positing the synchretic and hybrid nature of black culture and the deep connections between the formation of modernity and the formation of black culture, Gilroy points to the fact that modernity is itself a profoundly hybrid phenomenon.

The idea of movement is central to Gilroy's argument. Hence, the image of a ship forms a central metaphor in the text. Gilroy describes ships as micropolitical and microsocial systems that focus one's attention on the circulation of ideas as well as identifying them as cultural and political artifacts. Slave ships are particularly central to Gilroy's argument as he posits slavery as a pivotal moment for the emergence of modernity, modern ideas of race, and the Black Atlantic as, in his words, "a counterculture of modernity." By a counterculture of modernity, Gilroy refers to the varied ways in which people of African descent responded to and resisted the fact that, in the modern West, racial terror and reason were so deeply connected. It was this yoking together of racism and modernity that led people of African descent across the globe to search for ways to construct oppositional identities, particularly through music, which Gilroy identifies as being the preeminent nontextual form through which African people not only confronted racially repressive social systems but also retained a sense of cultural integrity and forged common cultural memories.

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