This is the first post of ‘African Study Classics’: a series about how intellectuals used key African history, anthropology, sociology and literature books in their own work. We are inviting writers (academics or not) to tell us about a book that had influenced their research, how they came across it and why should we read it. In this series, we will read about the books that writers of African studies considered their own ‘classics’.
The book that greatly influenced my research and therefore became a ‘classic’ in my own library is Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic. Some time ago, I wrote a post in which I “tr[ied] to explain” the concept of black Atlantic. But here, I will write about how I used Gilroy’s ideas in my own PhD research and why it became a ‘classic’ for me.
My thesis is about Lagosian intellectual production of late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. More specifically, it is about books and pamphlets, published between 1880’s and 1920’s, in connection to Lagos, Nigeria. During this period, in addition to books and pamphlets, newspapers and magazines were also published at a growing rate in the cities of Lagos, Abeokuta and Ibadan. They engaged in debates about history, culture, traditions, religions and identity, among other topics, in English and Yoruba, constituting a rich intellectual network centred in Lagos where most of these publications were produced, sold and circulated. However, as I argue, the Lagosian intellectual production should be understood within a distinct spatial frame that is different from the political borders of Lagos. Lagos should not be imagined as the Lagos constructed by political and legal boundaries; rather, it was a Lagos distributed across the Atlantic.
I first came across The Black Atlantic through the recommendation of my supervisor, who suggested that such ‘distributed’ Lagos could be captured through Gilroy’s ideas of a shared Atlantic. The use of black Atlantic shifts the analysis of the social history of Lagos from the monopolising axis of colony and metropolis to a more complex and plural environment that includes its relation to the Atlantic spaces of West Africa, Brazil and the United States. As I show in my thesis, certain Lagosian publications acquire different meanings when studied in an Atlantic context. This brings to the analysis not only other local historical contexts, but also other characters in these histories who would not otherwise be part of the Lagosian intellectual network.
Gilroy’s concept of the black Atlantic also solves the inadequacy of the concepts of nationalism and diaspora as applied to colonial Lagos. For Gilroy, both ideas are based on essentialist notions of culture as something that is located in a particular place. Nationalism manifests itself in local cultural production while diaspora highlights “the fundamental power of territory” over culture, even when displacement occurs. An example of how this approach opens up a fresh vision of Lagosian intellectual networks is provided by the relationship between Lagos and Brazil (in particular, the cities of Salvador and Rio de Janeiro, the main slave ports in Brazil). The concept of diaspora is often used to describe African contributions to Brazilian culture: the large numbers of slaves taken from Africa to Brazil between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, argue historians like Joao Jose Reis, took their particular local cultures to the Americas where they reinvented them in order to survive. For instance, Reis gives us a detailed account of how the Male insurrection in Salvador in 1835 was in fact the continuation of the Islamic jihad that struck the Oyo Empire. In this case, the Islamic insurrection was reinvented in the format of an anti-slavery movement.
Although diaspora and cultural reinvention can work well to explain Afro-Brazilian cultural manifestations, they still allude to cultural essentialism. While some definitions of diaspora assume a spatially located starting point, cultural reinvention assumes the existence of a cultural substance, and both define a continuous process that started with forced displacement or events immediately preceding that. It is not a coincidence that Reis dedicates a section of his book to recounting the history of the African side of this insurgence, and localises it on a map of Yorubaland.
Diaspora, however, cannot explain the cultural exchange between Rio de Janeiro and Lagos in the late nineteenth century. The connections were multiple and in both directions. Not only did Brazilian returnees arrive in large numbers in Porto Novo, Ouidah and Lagos, but there were people, goods and ideas travelling between both sides of the Atlantic. These exchanges may not have been regular, but this did not diminish their contribution to the Atlantic network. Gilroy uses the concept of (dis)continuous cultural exchange to describe this process. Moreover, he argues that these connections, despite their inconsistency and fragility, were bound together by common experiences that define the black Atlantic. The idea of common experiences was particularly important for my thesis since it allowed establishing connections between intellectuals in Lagos and in other parts of the Atlantic world who cannot be defined in terms of colonisation, nationalism or diaspora.
There are many criticisms to Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (some of them were explained by Arani Guerra in her post Failures of Gilroy’s Black Atlantic). However, I think that in his book, Gilroy established a wide theory that allows us to fill in the gaps he left open. Although his theory has shortcomings, it works as a good framework, providing a theoretical structure and rooms (or gaps) that are flexible enough to be complemented by our own research.
 Joao Jose Reis, Rebeliao Escrava No Brasil (Sao Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2003); Joao Jose Reis, “Candomble in Nineteenth-century Bahia: Priests, Followers, Clients,” Slavery and Abolition 22 (2001): 91-115.