Failures of Gilroy’s Black Atlantic (1993)

Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic – book and concept – has been a relevant reference for African and Atlantic studies. In JSTOR, a database of academic papers, when the words “black Atlantic” and “Gilroy” are used in the search engine, more than 1,500 results are found. This means that more than 15 hundred academic papers have used theories and concepts described in his book. The Black Atlantic has strongly influenced a lot of people.


=However, Gilroy’s ideas of Black Atlantic seem to be restricted to the academic fore. Outside the academic world – but still in the intellectual sphere – the concept is seldom used. Given the interdisciplinary influence of the book and Gilroy’s very active participation in wider forums and discussions, why has the Black Atlantic failed to reach outside the walls of universities?

=Excuse my lack of academic finesse, but maybe it is simply because the book is almost impossible to read (and understand). The opening post of this series by Nara Improta seems to reflect this broad difficulty in grasping the concept: “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.

Paul Gilroy

Paul Gilroy

Let’s be honest, the book is written in riddles, is badly referenced and has little care for its readers. A good example is the preface to the Portuguese edition (never published in English). While discussing the Haiti revolution, Gilroy suddenly quotes a sentence of a Brazilian song, but without quotation marks or references. “Haiti is here, Haiti is not here”, in a free translation, appears in the middle of an argument and no explanation is offered to the reader. For those who know the song, it is a beautiful wordplay. But for those who don’t, it becomes an impenetrable joke, and it makes no sense whatsoever. I imagine how many inside jokes jokes there are in the English language edition that I couldn’t grasp, and it makes me think that Gilroy was writing not for intellectuals in general, or not even to academics, but only to the sharpest knives in the English box.

Andre Reboucas

Andre Reboucas

In the academic fore, although very influential, The Black Atlantic has also attracted its share of criticisms: the absence of African intellectuals, the lack of intellectuals from other parts of America that also had slavery, and the misdirected approach to women are some of the issues often pointed out in reviews and critiques of the book. The absence of African voices is the most obvious problem. The shared experience of the Atlantic is described by Gilroy through the perspective of its intellectuals. However, the intellectuals studied in the book, although black, are not Africans. It seems that in the eagerness to highlight the shared experience, Gilroy failed to open space for African intellectuals who also crossed the ocean. His narrative does not show any agency coming from the continent and Africa is pictured always as a long memory, an idea or an object of discovery for American intellectuals.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Africa is not the only important player of the black Atlantic that is neglected in the book. Gilroy focused on the Anglophone intellectuals and omitted from his discussion the South America Lusophone Atlantic, which in fact received more African slaves than all the other destinations combined. Names such as Andre Reboucas and Jose do Patrocinio, who as E. W. Blyden also travelled to Europe and Africa, are among some of the many black intellectuals from Brazil who reached for the Atlantic and greatly contributed to this shared experience.

But for me, The Black Atlantic‘s main problem is the absence of women in the book (badly covered by the only example of DuBois’ fiancée). As Madhavi Kale pointed out in an intelligent critique of the book, Gilroy’s “meditations on masculinity, nationalism and modernity might have looked very different if he had considered Linda Brent, Ida B. Wells-Barnett or Anna Julia Cooper, and Dorothy West along with or instead of Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois and Richard Wright” (Social History, May 1996 p.254, v21 n2). Not only because they would bring other ideas to his concept but also because they were actively criticised by the men Gilroy chose as representatives of this Atlantic.


Dorothy West

Dorothy West

These criticisms of The Black Atlantic identify holes in Gilroy’s ideas that are pertinent and should be taken in consideration in order to avoid superficial applications of the concept. Nevertheless, the existence of these gaps does not mean the concept is uselessAs some of the posts in this series have shown, if we bring some of these intellectuals that Gilroy neglected to this shared experience, we can find an Atlantic that is not centred in North-America or England. We can give voices to other languages and genders, which is very necessary nowadays.

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4 replies

  1. I studied Gilroy’s book for some of my own research. I found it interesting, although I found some aspects of its style overly mannered in the best contemporary scholarly tradition. The absence of African and female intellectuals is a significant oversight, and is a sobering reminder of the fact that you do not have to be white to be guilty of oversights that would have been condemned far more harshly if you were. Larsony, anyone?

  2. Thanks for you comment, Harry. And yes, this kind of ‘oversighting’ afflicts us all. On the same way that you don’t have to be a man to be misogynist. It shows how difficult it is for us all to include African and female intellectuals, even when you are arguing the importance of their inclusion in history. What is your research about? I would love to know. Thanks, again.

  3. You make excellent points. In all fairness to Gilroy, he states that he is just establishing a huge concept. I was excited to see Ida B. Wells pictured in your article. Her trip to England in the mid1890’s certainly falls under Gilroy’s thesis. A lot of implications for mixed race studies as well.
    As a high school teacher/independent scholar, I found Gilroy’s language impenetrable at times ( but blame myself for not pursuing a degree beyond Masters.


  1. African Studies Classics: Lagosian Print Culture and Gilroy’s Black Atlantic « Africa in Words

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