lead singer posing in front of her band

Paul Gilroy

The Black Atlantic

Many people continue to define their identity in terms of culture, race and ethnicity. Your passport, for example, confirms your national identity and most consensus forms ask us to specify our ethnic group. Even schools request information on a student’s background. However, do these labels ignore the impact of globalisation and fail to properly describe the diversity of our multicultural society?

Paul Gilroy believed “unstable” and politicised identities are “always unfinished, always being remade” and ethnicity is an “infinite process of identity construction”.1 In other words, ethnicity and national identity are not actually fixed or permanent. His concept of the black Atlantic argues that the huge movement of people backwards and forwards across the ocean has created a dynamic intercultural identity that is beyond the scope of national borders and ethnic classifications.

Keep on Movin’

To demonstrate his concept of the black Atlantic phenomenon, Gilroy referred to Soul II Soul’s “Keep On Movin’”,2 which sold over one million copies in 1989, reaching number five in the UK music charts and the top of Billboard R&B charts in America.

The song proved to be incredibly popular, but Gilroy wanted to draw our attention to the transatlantic influences behind the track. The producer and founding member of the group, Jazzy B, was born in London to parents of Antiguan descent, and Caron Wheeler, the lead singer, was also from London but her parents were Jamaican. It was then remixed in the United States by Teddy Riley, an African-American.3

Therefore, even though Soul II Soul are considered a British musical collective, their identity is much more diverse than the label suggests.

Gilroy also questioned why “black America’s writing elite” needed to “claim” hip hop as an American institution even though it was developed by, among others, Kool DJ who grew up in the Jamaican sound system culture.4 We can add Doug E Fresh to this argument because the pioneer of 20th-century “American” beatboxing was actually born in Barbados.

Classifying something as African American is reductive because it could ignore the significant Caribbean influences. There is also the Windrush generation’s tremendous contribution to British society and culture. For example, Gilroy was born in London but his mother had immigrated to Britain from Guyana in the 1950s so the black Atlantic identity is a much more effective way of explaining his own transnational experience.

This criss-crossing of the oceans reinforced the historian’s belief that we need to break away from national identities and their insistence on “cultural purity” because we are constantly discovering new routes to explore.

In “The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness”, Gilroy also cited ecological campaigns, such as global warming which have a transnational significance, to show the importance of recognising global issues and networks. Instead of separating people into narrow groups, we should look at finding innovative ways of explaining the world.

Diaspora

To appreciate Gilroy’s concept of the black Atlantic, it is important to consider some of the background and history shaping his arguments. First, he believed the despicable slave trade created an African diaspora. This key term refers to the scattering of large numbers of people from their homes to new countries or even continents. Millions of Africans were stolen from their homeland and treated like commodities, sold to markets and forced to work, for example, on the cotton fields of America or the Caribbean sugarcane plantations.

Their old identities and traditions were replaced by oppression, they took on the names of the owners and they were denied the most basic of human rights. The damage, sadly, was irreversible, but the slaves and their descendants began to develop new customs and meanings.

More recently, the trans-Atlantic migration continued with the movement of people from colonial territories, such as Jamaica and Barbados, to Britain beginning in the late 1940s. There was also the voluntary mass migration of guest workers from the Caribbean to America in the 1940s and 1960s.

In this way, Gilroy’s black Atlantic identity is based on the various trade routes across the ocean and is an “explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective”.

Ethnic Absolutism

This second key term refers to the theory that national identities and ethnicity are definite and immutable so each group can be easily distinguished by their common language and cultural traditions. Consider nationalist politicians in Britain or America who always evoke “traditional” values and ideologies, such as Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” or The Scottish Nationalist Party’s “It’s Time to Choose Our Own Future”. These slogans suggest the country’s identity is distinct and, therefore, different from another territory.

However, Gilroy completely rejected the notion that national identities and ethnicity are obvious and permanent. The black Atlantic is an identity that cannot simply be defined by borders or reduced to a single ethnicity. It is a much more complex and expansive sensation.

Racism

Gilroy also proposed that racial identities were the product of racism.

For example, European slave traders wanted to legitimise their “colour-coded oppression” so they created racial divisions and emphasised their own supposed psychological and cultural superiority to Africans. By representing black people as savages who needed civilised, the slavers claimed their awful political and economic agenda was benevolent.

The dehumanisation of minorities can still be heard in the rhetoric of politicians. During a discussion on immigration policy in California, for example, President Trump referred to some migrants as “animals”. He also called a White House staffer a “dog”. In 2015, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, referred to migrants in Calais as a “swarm of people”, reducing their desperate plight to the action of flies. This representation of minorities as subhuman enables politicians to suggest they do not merit the same rights and treatment as the voters who got them elected to office.

It is worth mentioning Margaret Thatcher’s concern in 1978 that the UK “might be rather swamped by people of a different culture”.5 Then, in 1981, the Metropolitan Police began “Operation Swamp”, using stop and search powers to arrest members of the public who had not even committed a crime. Of course, a disproportionate number of people from the African-Caribbean community were taken into custody, prompting accusations that the police were motivated by racism.

Subjected to racial slurs and taunts, negatively stereotyped and always weary of police harassment because of the colour of your skin, it is no wonder Gilroy argued that being “both European and black requires some specific forms of double consciousness”. However, Gilroy also expressed his fear that contemporary society’s attempts to tackle racism might “reify the concept of race” rather than end the political construct.

Double Consciousness

The civil rights activist and sociologist, W.E.B. Du Bois, wrote about his concept of a double consciousness in an 1887 article for “The Atlantic”. He used this phrase to define “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”. For example, although he believed the “sweet wild melodies” of black musicians, such as the spirituals sang on the plantations, were an integral part of American culture, Du Bois was keenly aware that these artists found it difficult to “escape white contempt” that marginalised and debased African Americans.

When a black doctor used medicine, the academic argued, it was labelled as “quackery” by the white elite. In this way, the double consciousness refers to the strong sense of self-determination, but also being represented through a white gaze as a “problem”.

However, his thoughts and feelings were shaped by his African heritage and the history of slavery, but his identity was also tied to a progressive America and the hope for a more equal society. This is another double consciousness and he always felt the tension of “these two warring ideals in one dark body”. Du Bois hoped these identities could be reconciled and he could become a “co-worker in the kingdom of culture”.

We Wear the Mask

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” is a terrific example of a constructed identity – a private persona full of hopes and fears, but a public face ready for a smiling performance. Listen to Maya Angelou’s reading, which begins at 1:06 and finishes at 2:05.

1 Gilroy, P. (1993): “The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness”. Verso Books.
2 Soul II to Soul (1989): “Keep on Movin’”. UMG. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iQl46-zIcM&list=RD1iQl46-zIcM&start_radio=1
3 Gilroy, P. (1993)
4 ditto
5 World in Action (1978): “Rather Swamped”. Granada Television. Retrieved from https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/103485
5 Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903) “The Souls of Black Folk”. Accessed https://www.gutenberg.org/files/408/408-h/408-h.htm

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