The Black Atlantic and Its Impact: Bringing Hybridity to Black Studies

Image source: Goodreads

 

I want to develop the suggestion that cultural historians could take the Atlantic as one single, complex unit of analysis in their discussions of the modern world and use it to produce an explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective – Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic (1993)

 

Since publication, The Black Atlantic has left a major impression on scholars of African American Studies, cultural studies, southern studies, and countless transnational academic disciplines.

Especially in academic circles, it can be argued that the book has accomplished more than it set out to achieve in regards to inspiring cultural historians to take “the Atlantic as one single, complex unit of analysis,” as it has set people on the path to “use it to produce an explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective.” (15) In fact, many scholars and activists have cited The Black Atlantic in their explicit undertaking of transnational projects and intercultural perspectives that Gilroy outlines in the book. According to Google Scholar’s database, the book was cited over 1,200 times between 1993 and 2000. In the intervening years it has been cited over 13,700 times, at least at time of writing in April 2018.

 

Source: Google Scholar entry for Gilroy’s 1993 book with number of citations highlighted in red

 

Needless to say, it’s had (and continues to have) an impact on the academic community

But the question remains: what impact has the book that defined a region, a methodology, and a generation of scholars in the 1990s and early 2000s, had on interests around the world? 

I offer a two-part answer here, but my conclusion is essentially that The Black Atlantic put the concept of hybridity on the map for Black Studies in a big way, which, despite being situated as a re-iteration of W.E.B Du Bois’s “double consciousness” within the older frame of “modernity,” advanced a new framework for black multi-consciousness or hybridity.

The Black Atlantic has definitely helped move scholarly interest from the national frame to the transnational frame.

Data source: Google Trends

While the line graph above shows that search interest (as measured by Google queries) in the term “transnationalism” and the topic “The Black Atlantic” have declined slightly since 2004—considering the current administration at time of writing, this is not surprising—it also shows that there is a relationship between the terms. As search interest has declined in “transnationalism,” so has search interest declined in “The Black Atlantic.”

This suggests that interest in Gilroy’s book, The Black Atlantic, is linked to interest in transnationalism, which should come as no surprise to those who’ve read The Black Atlantic. Its mission is intimately tied to the postcolonial theories and missions of  scholars such as Homi K. Bhabha, who were living and writing what would eventually become the transnational turn in cultural studies of the 1990s.

Indeed, early in The Black Atlantic, we see Gilroy explaining and taking this turn away from a traditionally Anglophonic focus on national literatures:

 

Any satisfaction to be experienced from the recent spectacular growth of cultural studies as an academic project should not obscure its conspicuous problems with ethnocentrism and nationalism […] The question of whose cultures are being studied is therefore an important one, as is the issue of where the instruments which will make that study possible are going to come from. In these circumstances it is hard not to wonder how much of the recent international enthusiasm for cultural studies is generated by its profound associations with England and Englishness (5).

 

This quote is situated in a section that appears directly after Gilroy outlines the scope, problem, focus, subject, concepts, methods, intervention(s), and organization of The Black Atlantic (2-4). In discussing his organization at the end of this rundown, he writes “The final section [of the book] explores the specific counterculture to modernity produced by black intellectuals…It initiates a polemic which runs through the rest of the book against the ethnic absolutism that currently dominates black political culture” (5) This positions the book as a public address against (and undressing of) ethnic nationalism (among many, many other things).

Not long after the publication of The Black Atlantic, Gilroy brought this polemic to a mainstream audience when he went public on British television’s Channel 4 network and introduced D.W. Griffiths The Birth of a Nation (1915) as “a film which supports and affirms white supremacy” as well as “initiates a kind of taboo around intimacy between black and whites, which is still a living and central part of the Hollywood myth.”

 

 

Indeed, in this introduction to both film’s content as white supremacist propaganda, its form as a technolgical cinematic accomplishment, and its continuing legacy today, Gilroy recommends that cognitive dissonance is necessary in order to fully comprehend the film’s impact on the history of the United States and cinema. That is to say, the skepticism that Gilroy imparts to his televisual audience enacts The Black Atlantic‘s polemic against ethnic absolutism.

In a way this cognitive dissonance—or the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one’s mind at the same time—also enacts the concept of double consciousness that Gilroy uses to help frame The Black Atlantic, a concept which the book inevitably transcends with its discussion of black diaspora and the hybridity it introduced to black identity.

This brings us to The Black Atlantic‘s other main contribution.

The Black Atlantic helped redefine and resituate black identity as a hybrid identity that should be centered rather than an exclusively American, African, or African American identity formation that is marginalized.

 

Data Source: Google Ngrams

 

The word frequency graph above shows us that the words “The Black Atlantic,” “double consciousness” and “cultural hybridity” show a correlation in their appearance in books between the years of 1990 and 2008. Just looking at Gilroy’s title, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, most people would not be surprised to see the relationship between word frequencies of “double consciousness” and “The Black Atlantic.” Unless they’re specialists, however, they might not expect to see that the words “cultural hybridity” appear on the proverbial map with around the same word frequency (and emerge at about the same time) as the words “The Black Atlantic.”

What this suggests is that while The Black Atlantic makes use of W.E.B Du Bois’s “double consciousness,” it’s true contribution to conversations revolving around Du Bois’s concept—the one for which it is most closely associate per Google Ngrams and in much of the scholarship that uses it—was advancing a new framework for “cultural hybridity,” or something more akin to black multi-consciousness (rather than double consciousness).

We can start to see why Gilroy advocates for a more culturally hybrid model of black identity for The Black Atlantic when he advocates for moving and  re-centering the historical compass of modernity not in Western Europe, but in the Black Atlantic and its plantation slave economy. And this is arguably the largest crux of his book:

 

Plantation slavery was more than just a system of labor and a distinct mode of racial domination. Whether it encapsulates the inner essence of capitalism or was a vestigial, essentially precapitalist element in a dependent relationship to capitalism proper, it provided the foundations for a distinctive network of economic, social and political relations. Above all…it has retained a central place in the historical memories of the black Atlantic (55).

 

Here, we’re reminded of how Gilroy characterizes plantation slavery in Chapter 1:  “capitalism with its clothes off” (15). This quote builds on that sentiment, but more importantly, it centers plantation slavery as the defining topos and locus of history and memory in the Black Atlantic world. Gilroy uses this argument to build a case for centering plantation slavery as the organizing principle that defined not only the the modern political and socioeconomic world, but the entire cultural framework upon which the concept of modernity was founded.

Staking this claim for the importance of a multiplicity of black perspectives, which emanate and spread from modernity’s cultural center rather than margin, Gilroy concludes, “The time has come for the primal history of modernity to be reconstructed from the slaves’ points of view” (55).

In all of these ways, and many more, The Black Atlantic brought hybridity to Black Studies and shaped the direction that the discipline would take towards a more enriched perspective on blackness that would be able to discuss multiplicities of black identity rather than simply doubleness.

Thinking to the Future

As the bar graph below illustrates, however, much work may remain to be done to bring The Black Atlantic‘s discussion of black hybridity to more global locations than Western Europe.

Data Source: Google Trends

 

It is interesting that most of the nations where Google search interest is highest in The Black Atlantic are former colonist nations, whose populations are predominantly white. Should we be thinking about bringing Black Atlantic to more global audiences, such as Africa, in ways that don’t replicate colonial intellectual thought patterns? How might we do that?

— Joshua Ryan Jackson

Work Cited

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Harvard UP, 1993.

Afrocentricity: A Commentary

In our discussion of 90s Black experiences and cultural expressions, the concept of Sankofa is important to consider for both reflection and analysis. Sankofa is a Twi term from the Akan peoples of mainly Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. The word is a verb meaning “to go back and fetch:” to retrieve important items previously lost, forgotten or stolen. In the context of one’s culture, the idea of Sankofa requires one to both re-learn and adapt crucial skills, collective understandings and overall lessons from his or her ancestors. From this process, it is understood that the person who does the “fetching” receives the power from those “items” of knowledge. The ultimate goal of this retrieval is for one to then project themselves and their descendants into the future, working from informed positions of self-reflection, self-knowledge and self-determination.

For African Americans, in-depth studies of both our historical and current experiences in this country reveal ongoing, consistent reenactments of this Sankofa concept. Documentation of developments in our music, education, fashion, social arenas, family practices – and more – prove our active revitalization and reincorporation of the ways of our ancestors: in Africa, the United States, the Caribbean, South America…wherever people of African descent landed globally, by force or by choice.  Our cultural expressions reveal the agency exhibited in sampling, remixing or reinventing what we have learned for practical application in modern times.

From this position, I wanted to tackle the concept of Afrocentricity – which as a term became prominent in the 1980s and 90s. There are many conflicting interpretations of this term, and its often conflated with Afrocentrism, African-centered thought, “Afro-“ vs. “Afri-”, and so on. This happens to the point where the idea of someone being “Afrocentric” entails a host of stereotypical tropes, caricaturing and misunderstandings. This is particularly evident in popular media of this time, as well as public reaction in many Black communities. 90s film characters like “Ahmal” in Sister Act 2, Damon Wayans’ “Conscious Brother” in “In Living Color” episodes, the dreadlocked player on A Different World, and many other examples would depict a kufi-and/or-dashiki-wearing individual spouting random historic statements about “The Pyramids”, ”the white man” or “Shaka Zulu.” Dressed in kente, mismatched colors and military-like gear, this type character would often act in arrogant, misinformed behaviors, which would ultimately isolate them from the larger Black community.

These tropes are a testament to the simplified nature of discussions and expressions relating to what are considered Afrocentric theories and praxis. For some it’s wearing traditional African clothing, for others it’s adopting African names – or also re-identifying with an African ethnic group or spiritual system. For many, its academic scholarship: focusing on prioritized pre-colonial African historical periods deemed “classical” or “enlightened” – above any other cultural expressions or achievements of any other group of people in the world. Conversely, many researchers of African and African Diasporic value systems, knowledge bases and cultures have sought to identify common threads amongst these intricate systems, in an attempt to create blueprints for strategic unification, productive cultural alliances, and community building for liberation and ultimate sovereignty. All of the actions mentioned in this paragraph are interlinked, and are products of individuals making either informed or uninformed choices to change their lives in a way that reconnects them to a cultural source. At the same time, we need to continuously reevaluate our ideas, and challenge ourselves to avoid recreating limiting, dogmatic or one-dimensional systems of cultural expression – where one organization deems themselves “more African” or “more Afrocentric” than the next, based on attire, ideology, spiritual practices, how many visits to Africa they made or how many books they’ve read on Black history.

In looking at the long history of our people in this country, and in the African Diaspora, we have infinite examples of resistance to oppression, reapplication of cultural expressions and innovative methods of growth and renewal. Viewing them all as equally important to consider keeps us from developing an essentialist trait of prioritizing some experiences over others: resulting in an Afrocentric definition that may confine, stereotype and simplify. In the United States, the respect-based process of learning about our families, communities and their solution-building strategies has helped us to overcome all obstacles to survive and go forward. This empowers us to progress with the informed appreciation and application of our African retentions, forms of knowledge and practices. Kweku Vassall

RANT WARNING! lol: <I would also like to challenge this idea of one being “conscious,” a popular phrase in Black communities in relation to African-centered or Afrocentric thought. Conscious is often said as if all that needs to be learned has been learned – or that there’s this class of enlightened people who know-what-they-don’t-know-their-neighbor-also-knows, because one is so busy being “more informed”. Not to negate people coming to important realizations, BUT knowledge of oneself also deals with positive relationships with others, implementing practical solutions to problems, adapting in various environments and creating new knowledge to fit one’s current situation – all things Black people of all walks of life and ideologies have accomplished. This idea that a few are “awake” and the majority are “asleep” works within this larger misconception that up until recent years Black people were ignorant, chitlin-eatin (non-vegetarian) slaves who couldn’t observe their environments enough to notice oppression, or were disconnected from their ancestors and relatives to point where they had no appreciation for the family values and principles for survival passed down for their benefit. Our grandmothers and grandfathers may have experienced hell (in various class statuses and locations, obvious and hidden torments included), but at the same time, honoring our African ancestors teaches us that the experiences of our most recent African American relatives are valid and worthy or respect, honor and consideration. We should see them as active participants, not passive bystanders, in our history and cultural development. This is true especially considering the marginalization and oppression they faced, how they either thrived or psychologically crumbled as a result, and the sacrifices they all made for us to both be here AND have the privilege to operate in learning spaces to obtain further knowledge that was often hidden from them. It would behoove us to look back to the important information they knew, which can help us even more to face our current reality.>

Culture Wars

In education, conflict over prioritized subject matter taught in schools illuminated larger societal issues of race, legitimacy of cultural expressions and forms of knowledge in America. With the close of the 20th century, several questions continued to emerge: What constituted being an “American”? What does a true American look like, act like, talk like? How does history, and one’s ethnic/cultural background inform one’s place in American society? These questions were (and are) ultimately decided in the schools our children attend – spaces which may operate to reinforce societal norms, options and access to resources.

In the 1990s, an interesting series of debates occurred on this subject which were dubbed the “Culture Wars.” These “battles” took place in educational arenas: from classrooms, parent-teacher conferences and staff meetings to school board assemblies, and standardized testing planning sessions. With recognition and attempted incorporation of “minorities,” these debates centered on the question of how school systems educate in ways that relate to students of different cultural backgrounds. One could argue that these conversations were abruptly introduced, ignored and revisited continuously since the legal integration of American public schools in the closing years of the Civil Rights Movement. News articles, academic journal publications, books and even popular TV specials highlighted this phenomenon – in an attempt to answer the aforementioned questions.

This idea of “Culture Wars” is often followed up by the question, “who’s winning?” In a democracy, we all should. Yet these Culture Wars embrace less equality and inclusiveness with more combative and superiority complexes. With Culture Wars at the foundation of our children’s scholarship, this shows just how divided how nation truly is.

Eric Bain-Selbo asserts that these “Culture Wars” originally stemmed from the crucial question: How do we educate our children and young adults? (Bain-Selbo, 2003) The “we” alludes to the entirety of American society, which often is documented to operate under the assumption that citizens of the United States constitute and contribute to one uniform and united culture. This particular culture is cited to stem from America’s inception, and the popular ideals of its founders: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, going from rags to riches, equal opportunity, etc.

Henry Louis Gates addresses this assumption by highlighting what is known as the “Great Western Tradition.” This tradition includes patriotic standards, understandings and cultural guidelines in alignment with both the political and socio-economic agendas of the ruling classes in this country (Gates, 1993). This tradition reifies ideas of rationalized manifest destiny, free market capitalism and moral purity of property owners (mainly including White, often Protestant males) – in a prioritized historical narrative deemed heroic and necessary to teach in state public and private schools. From this narrative, all subjects taught are meant to prepare students in their attempts to realize the American Dream. This Dream consists of ultimate access to resources, and the power to make decisions (legislation, voting) that affect everyone moving forward.

In reality, this American Dream did not apply to the majority of peoples of color in this nation. Various ethnic groups, historically and strategically classified as races, struggled to survive and thrive in a society which placed them at odds with those of the wealthiest classes – and each other. These cultural experiences have influenced what could be considered “American” practices and expressions – holding equal weight and importance in contributions to economics, sciences, historical developments, achievements, literature, the arts, etc.

To put it simply, conservatives argued for school curricula to stay as it was, for “Great Western Traditions” to remain the standard. Students from all groups were charged to conform to this ideology, expressed in class lectures, assignments, reading materials and overall subject matter. Gates notes that these conservative public and academic figures considered multiculturalism to be “ethnic chauvinism” (Gates, pg. 174, 1993) These figures clearly contradicted themselves in accusing representatives of other ethnicities of “over-promoting” false histories, to make themselves feel “great” or “worthy of recognition:” especially since presentations of American history often completely omitted the contributions and stories of non-White males.

Those considered to “the right” countered with the multiculturalist argument: the implementation of culturally-relevant pedagogical practices. For educators and researchers of this position, it was important to create learning environments where all children saw themselves reflected in what they were being taught: their families, neighborhoods, histories, languages and forms of knowledge. From this understanding, students could be empowered to draw from these strengths to navigate American society, being productive and able to thrive in all spaces.

Pedagogical theorist, educator and author Gloria-Ladson Billings introduced the 90s to The Dream-Keepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children. She tackles this idea of reversion, and the possibility of African American students needed separate spaces for education, noting that public schools are seemingly already segregated; Non-inclusiveness curriculum vs. African American children.

Furthermore, educators and its administration need to come to a point where they they can stop denying absence of color. “I don’t see race,” is no longer acceptable. You have to see race and culture in order to understand what it is that individual students need. To acknowledge race is a simple means of acknowledging the social, racial, and political hurdles to which one is subjected, and should be only regarded as such, never to use against one. To tackle these Culture Wars, we need cultural acceptance and cultural literacy. Independent of religion or spirituality, (as they are intensely controversial) the simple inclusion of African American history, life, and expression would be a great start in ending the culture wars we witness in education. The public school system needs to create as less dissonance as possible for its minority and unassimilated students.

Ultimately, these “wars” are still waged and fought today. Observations in public school (and even higher academic) environments still reveal the need for greater cultural resources that reflect students’ various experiences. Many educators are still forced to strictly “teach from The Curriculum:” the items mandated by both state and educational officials, preoccupied with standardized testing results. At the same time, a greater number of educators (including many who started these debates in the late 80s/early 90s) have provided solutions. These solutions have manifested in program development strategies, new textbooks, grassroots organizational efforts, and teachers simply “sneaking cultural knowledge in” for their students.

My initial investigations about this make me want to read further on this topic, and draw potential connections to educational practices today.

Kweku Vassall & Revisited by Tysheira Scribner 

Works Cited

Bain-Selbo, Eric. (2003). Mediating the Culture Wars. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Binder, A. J. (2000). Why Do Some Curricular Challenges Work While Others Do Not? The Case of Three Afrocentric Challenges. Sociology of Education, 73(2), 69-91.
(PDF for viewing in our OMEKA entry for this article – very informative)

Gates, Henry Louis. (1993). Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Graff, Gerald. (1992). Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. (1994). The dreamkeepers : successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco :Jossey-Bass Publishers,