20 years of Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic

gilroy-black-atlanticPaul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1993.

This year, Gilroy’s Black Atlantic completed twenty years of its publication. This book has been used by many scholars in history, anthropology, literature and sociology, and became very influential. It also provoked many criticisms. This is the first of a series of posts about the uses of Black Atlantic in recent scholarly production. Africa in Words invited academics to write about how they used Gilroy’s theories and concepts in their own work (Click here to read the second post of the series and here to read the third).

In this post I will (try to) explain some aspects of the concept of Black Atlantic, as proposed by Gilroy in his book. This is a big task since, throughout the book; the concept seems to acquire a very complex meaning. Some authors even think that Gilroy himself uses Black Atlantic with different definitions.

The concept of Black Atlantic was originally introduced as part of an alternative theoretical framework to question the “sense of England as a cohesive cultural community”. Gilroy explained that “the contemporary black English […] stand between two great cultural assemblages”, that of ‘black’ and of ‘English’, that were wrongly associated to concepts of race, ethnic identity and nationality: “Regardless of their affiliation to the right, left, or centre, groups have fallen back on the idea of cultural nationalism, on the over integrated conceptions of culture which present immutable, ethnic differences as an absolute break in the histories and experiences of “black” and “white” people”.

This connection between nationality and culture, for Gilroy, was a ‘fatal mistake’ incurred by some cultural historians – such as Hobsbawm and Thompson – who ignored the complexity of the inside/outside (local and global) relationship. For him, Englishness and nationalisms are better understood if studied in relation to the supra-national. Localisms should be left aside to open space for a more global perspective that takes into consideration that cultures (and print cultures) do not respect national borders.

In the case of Britain, according to Gilroy, cultural historians have missed the contribution of former slaves, merchants and intellectuals who also brought the Black Atlantic into the history of Britain. The approach that follows these great cultural assemblages misses everything else that does not fit into the box of nationalism and colonialism.

Black Atlantic is also a unit of analysis. Often, the Atlantic is seen only as the space between the two sides of the diaspora: the site of departure and the site of arrival. But as with the negative of a picture – a metaphor that he uses in his book – instead of thinking in coasts and in two separate processes, we shoul think in what they have in common, in the Atlantic. Gilroy proposes that instead of seeking origins and traditions, and finding influences (for instance, of Africa in the Americas), we should think of the common experience.


For Gilroy, the common experience of the Black Atlantic is based on memory. The Black Atlantic is an articulation of the past, rooted in the suffering and in the way people dealt with pain. And for him, the best form of expression of this suffering was music. However, music was more than just a way of transforming pain into pleasure; it was more than a reaction to oppression. It also included an intellectual message. In this sense, Gilroy argues that music should be studied without placing it in a Hegelian hierarchy in which it is seen as a pure form of expression of the soul. On the contrary, he explains that we should not overlook the intellectuality that is part of this form of art. From the syncopated rhythm to the content of the lyrics, for him, Atlantic black music was an intellectual production and should be studied as such, taking into consideration its complexity and seeking to understand its role in social history.

The subtitle of the book – Modernity and Double Consciousness – is related to the understanding of Black Atlantic as a counterculture of modernity; a way of avoiding a dichotomous understanding of Africa and African diaspora based on ideas of authenticity and tradition. For instance, he criticises afrocentric theories, for failing to acknowledge the influence of the Atlantic in African history, and for holding up to essentialist interpretations. In this way, using the concept of Black Atlantic, would allow us to challenge notions of national and international, local and global, origins and diaspora; to rethink relations throughout the ocean and to bring into narratives (and analysis) more of the history of Africa and of Africans who crossed the Atlantic – one way or other.

Categories: Research, Studies, Teaching

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12 replies

  1. Thanks Nara for reminding us of this important book’s birthday. Gilroy’s Black Atlantic is a key work that added tremendously to research on Atlantic history and Africanist’s understanding of the “Atlantic basin as a single region with a shared past”, as Kristin Mann argued. [1] Gilroy was inspired by Robert Farris Thompson’s “Flash of the Spirit” [2] which came out in 1983 but his work had other important precursors like Pierre Vergers „Flux et reflux de la traite des nègres entre le Golfe de Bénin et Bahia de Todos os Santos du XVIIe au XIXe siècle“ [3] or Ira Berlin’s conceptualisation of the “Atlantic creoles and their cosmopolitan culture which tied together both sides of the Atlantic. [4] Gilroy’s book appeared at a time when research in Atlantic history, world history or global history, all analysing wider, transnational, transcontinental phenomena, gathered momentum. Gilroy concentrated in his book largely on the time after 1850 and on the Anglophone world. Furthermore, he looked at the “Atlantic community” predominantly from the perspective of the North Atlantic diaspora and its intellectuals, „in which Africa figures as an object of retrospective rediscovery, rather than as an active agent“ [5] More recent works about the origins of the Black Atlantic highlight the active role Africans played in its formation. „[They highlight] the complicated connections, itineraries, and trajectories taken by people, ideas, objects, images, rumours, and hopes in a highly connected, if differentiated, Atlantic world.“ [6] My own research on the early history of African photography which developed in what I termed the Atlantic Visualscape owes much to Gilroy’s book. [7] The Black Atlantic is one of those books which absorbed current trends of academic reflections and gave determinant impulses to their further development.

    [1] Mann, Kristin: Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. 2007, p. 16.
    [2] FarrisThompson, Robert: Flash of the Spirit. African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Random House. 1983.
    [3] Verger, Pierre: Flux et reflux de la traite des nègres entre le Golfe de Bénin et Bahia de Todos os Santos du XVIIe au XIXe siècle. Paris und La Haye: Mouton 1968.
    [4] Berlin, Ira: From Creole to African: Atlantic Creoles and the Origins of African-American Society in Mainland North America. William and Mary Quarterly. 1996, 3d Series, Volume 53, 251-288.
    [5] Law, Robin, Mann, Kristin: West Africa in the Atlantic Community: The Case of the Slave Coast. William and Mary Quarterly. April 1999, 3rd series, Volume LVI, Number 2, 307-334.
    [6] Dubois, Laurent,Scott, Julius S.: Origins of the Black Atlantik. New York und London: Routledge. 2010, p. 3.
    [7] Schneider, Jürg: The Topography of the Early History of African Photography. History of Photography. 2010, Vol. 34, Nr. 2, 134-146.

  2. Thanks Jurg for your comment. Yes, Gilroy’s concept of black Atlantic has been largely criticised for his focus on the connections in the “North” side of the Atlantic. In his preface to the Brazilian edition of his book, he brings a bit more of the South portion into the discussion. I am planning to write a post about this preface, which has never been translated to the English. Another criticism to his concept, as you also pointed out, is the lack of agency allowed to Africa and Africans in the Atlantic history. Besides Law and Mann, Lorand Matory also pointed this out in his article “English Professors”, in which he shows the contribution from Lagosian intellectuals in the construction of a Nago identity in Brazil in late 19th century. Gilroy, in his concern in rethinking essentialists theories that hold Africa only as the origin of a diasporic culture, overlooked Africa (and Africans)’s agency in the historical process. However, the concept of black Altantic is complemented by the ideas of discontinuity and fragility that opens a space to introduce the dialogues between Africa and the Americas from both directions (which I am exploring in my thesis)
    The term Altantic visualscape (is it framed with Appadurai’s concept of scapes?) seems really interesting! Any chance you can tell us a bit more about it? (maybe in the format of a post?)
    Thanks again, Jurg, for you great input in this discussion.

  3. Hi, good article. Surely though, the spread of American music (and indeed Anglophone in general) has been essentially one-way traffic, recently?
    Bossa Nova is from the 50s, Reggae from the 70s. What has spread from the ‘periphery’ to the Anglo ‘core’ in recent years?
    In my opinion, the spread of music from USA and other Anglophone countries is unquestionably tied up with cultural imperialism and has, in many countries (although not Brazil), resulted in a loss of local musical culture from the mainstream.
    Given that, it’s no surprise that Gilroy neglected to the ‘South’…


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  5. 20 Years of the Black Atlantic at Africa in Words: Samba, Jazz, Brazil | African Diaspora, Ph.D.
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