The Black Atlantic: Notes on the Thought of Paul Gilroy

by | 15 Sep 2014

Black-AtlanticPaul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, which was first published in 1993, remains remarkable for its introduction of the validity of ‘race’ as an analytical category in presenting the ‘Atlantic’ as a discrete geo-political unit in the modern capitalist world-system.1Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. The book elaborates a richly provocative critique of cultural nationalism, against which Gilroy posits black diasporic cultural and intellectual production. Gilroy’s ‘black Atlantic’ delineates a distinctively modern, cultural-political space that is not specifically African, American, Caribbean, or British, but is, rather, a hybrid mix of all of these at once; this is evidenced via a series of compelling readings of a cohort of key modern black intellectuals and artists. Martin Delaney, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Toni Morrison, and Richard Wright, and black Atlantic music from jazz to hip hop – all these find their place in Gilroy’s pantheon. The ‘black Atlantic’ thus denotes a specifically modern cultural-political formation that was induced by the experience and inheritance of the African slave trade and the plantation system in the Americas, and which transcends both the nation state and ethnicity.

Gilroy’s thought pursues a particular critique of Eurocentric accounts of the development of capitalist modernity (the first chapter is titled, “The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity”) in which slavery plays a crucial role, since, in Gilroy’s words, slavery was “capitalism with its clothes off.”2Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, 15. However, Gilroy does not proceed down the postmodernist path of equating Western modernity per se with totalitarianism and genocide, and therefore jettisoning it altogether. Instead, Gilroy emphasizes slavery’s profound significance to modernity while recuperating a transnational black modernity that contains within it a utopian impulse.

For critical legal thinking, the value of Gilroy’s thought becomes clear by paying attention to the particular formation of this black Atlantic utopianism. For Gilroy, the utopianism of black Atlantic culture emerges out of what he maintains is the inherent anti-capitalism concomitant to transnational black experience: “for the descendants of slaves, work signifies only servitude, misery, and subordination.”3Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, 40. “Work” is then entirely distinguished from “artistic expression” which, Gilroy writes, becomes “the means towards both individual self-fashioning and communal liberation.”4Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, 40. Though as the critic Laura Chrisman has astutely observed, Gilroy here substitutes cultural politics for material politics and precludes “dialectical relations between blackness and labour in expressive cultures,”5Laura Chrisman, “Journeying to death: Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic,” 81–2, 76. Gilroy’s analysis nevertheless (and ironically given the separation of economics and culture) directs us to a conception of liberation and freedom that differs from its articulation in Western liberal political thought: in the black Atlantic tradition that Gilroy sketches, ‘free’ labour under capitalism is unmistakably another form of domination.6For an exploration of precisely this question see: Anthony Bogues, “The Dual Haitian Revolution and the Making of Freedom in Modernity.”

Unsurprisingly, Gilroy’s transatlantic project of mapping the hybridity of black Atlantic culture has been subject to much critique. Laura Chrisman provides an example of the most incisive of these when she notes that Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, was very much “a sign of the times,” meshing neatly with “the 1990s metropolitan academic climate, which saw the rise in popularity of concepts of fusion, hybridity and syncretism as explanatory tools for the analysis of cultural formation” as well as the rise of ‘culturalism’ as the appropriate means of social analysis.7Laura Chrisman, “Journeying to death: Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic,” 73. Thus, notwithstanding the marvelous insights revealed by Gilroy’s conceptual frame, the black Atlantic’s broader emancipatory project still remains to be mapped.


—Bogues, Anthony. “The Dual Haitian Revolution and the Making of Freedom in Modernity.” In Human Rights From A Third World Perspective: Critique, History, and International Law, edited by José-Manuel Barreto, 208–236. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.
—Laura Chrisman, “Journeying to death: Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic” in Postcolonial Contraventions: Cultural Readings of Race, Imperialism, and Transnationalism by Laura Chrisman, 73–88. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003.
—Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso, 1993.


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