Paul Gilroy’s text, “The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity”, the first chapter of his book on the Black Atlantic, struggles to arrive at a clean notion of ‘blackness’. His problems, however are due to the same problems he shows ‘Cultural Studies’ to have, moreover, problems, that most academical writing informed by modernity struggles with. So his own difficulties are symptomatic for the topic he discusses and they might resurface in my own discussion of his text.
There have been many definitions of what would constitute the ‘modern’ or ‘modernity’, but modernity’s roots in the Enlightenment [ Of course, Gilroy oversimplifies how influences worked at that crucial time. How the Romantics resurrected the racialized idea of the nation and used it against ‘scientific’ tendencies, in short, how the Enlightenment as the Age of Reason and the Romantics as the resurrectors of ‘culture’ have worked together to produce Modernity has not been considered by Gilroy, yet these are minor disagreements; they would not have an impact on his thesis.] have always been stressed. The so-called Age of Reason is usually evoked whenever politicians or academics attack ‘intolerance’ and ‘racism’. Yet that same age has not only been instrumental in inventing the modern nation-state, it also helped racializing culture via the “fatal junction of the concept of nationality with the concept of culture” (2). The crucial aspect was the notion of a racial community of members of the same nation. Germans were Germans because they were linked by blood [2 Blood, as a juridical marker of Germanness was kept until 1996, which explains many racialized arguments in this country, but not similar arguments in others. Gilroy’s argument, however, holds true for all of the ‘West’.] and culture. The same applied to Britishness. Thus, Britishness or Germanness took on a transcendent meaning. And British persons and Germans were, racially speaking, considered white [3 And Christians, of course. In the same period of time, modern Antisemitism was born from a cluster of notions similar to the cluster considered by Gilroy].
The racialization of culture is most obvious when the major role of ‘blackness’ (not darkness) as a trope in early 19th century lectures and discussions on aesthetics, which could be said to provide a foundation for most of modern aesthetics [4 This is of course a bold claim, but I think its true, considering the extent to which major claims of Hegel’s lectures in Jena and A.W. Schlegel’s lectures in Berlin keep resurfacing in modern aesthetics.], is considered. Thus, blackness, as the other, has been ingrained in the very basis of modern thought and writing. The idea of the black man as the adversary has long since become part of cultural thought and the identity of ‘Germans’ and ‘the British’ has for a long time been white. To black Europeans or Americans this has been a major problem, as they could not partake of the identity of their nation. As a result the idea of an African ‘homeland’ and of a black history arose that is -examined closely- basically identical to the history of Africa and the history of the Middle Passage. Thus, black empowerment, instead of changing anything about racist attitues, was intrumental in creating a nation for blacks.
However, blacks were not only in so far part of the creation of Modernity as they served as a trope. Gilroy stresses the extent to which blacks have been actively participating in crucial movements in ‘white’ history, from “Columbus’ pilot, Pedro Nino” (16) to the likes of Olaudah Equiano, who was involved “in the beginnings of organized working-class politics” (12). In the realm of whites, blacks were only seen as a victimized people, never as agents. Purportedly emancipated branches of cultural studies which are concerned with the study of blacks, reinforce that impression by reiterating the nation/culture juncture, the nation being, in this case, Africa. The consequence of these studies is the identity, for instance, of the Black American as the exception to the (white) rule. Gilroy’s focus on the Enlightenment makes clear to what extent the racialized notions of nation and culture have informed the tacit racism on Campuses around the world, and how much of it went unnoticed by scholars.
The difference in method in Gilroy’s text is the emphasis on traveling. Instead of focusing on nations as creators of culture, he creates the Black Atlantic as the epitome of travel. The Atlantic, upon which black slaves were carried from Africa to America, but upon which black captains, too, navigated on many routes. From the ships going back and forth several were built by blacks, and books and ideas crossing the Atlantic were -in part- written by blacks. The trope of the Black Atlantic, in other words, serves to destabilize the notion of stable cultural identities.
Gilroy proposes a “theorization of […] hybridity”, which would still (of course) be based on black and white identities, which is where Gilroy’s problems with the notion of ‘blackness’ enter, but focusing on travel and not on the awkward construction of a ‘homeland’ might very well be the way out of the trap set by Enlightenment, which ensured that you cannot dispense of talking about black and white if you do not want to drag these concepts along implicitly. However, using the Black Atlantic as a trope for the inbetween, these identities do not fuse (as this would create only new ‘stable’ identities), but instead, they are disregarded, losing their power in a theory concentrating on the fluidity of identities instead of their stableness.
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