Gilroy, Paul

Assigned: Gilroy, Paul. From The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (2391-2409). Also read the editors’ introduction (2389-90).

From The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993)

From Chapter 1. The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity

1. On 2391-93 (“Striving to be both European and…”), Paul Gilroy, alluding to W. E. B. Dubois’ early-twentieth-century masterpiece The Souls of Black Folk (Leitch 845-46), initially suggests that being both European and black calls for “specific forms of double consciousness” (2391). How does he assess the difficulties faced by those who would reflect productively on the situation and consciousness of black Europeans? Why, above all, have such critical reflections so often been bound by “cultural nationalism” (2392) or even by “ethnic absolutisms” (2392 bottom) that hinder understanding rather than promoting it? How has English “cultural insiderism” (2393) posed problems for critical reflection? What does Gilroy identify as the central goals of his study?

2. On 2393-94 (“My search for resources with which…”), Gilroy writes that in his quest to “comprehend the doubleness and cultural intermixture that distinguish the experience of black Britons in contemporary Europe” (2393), he turned to America. What distinction did he find in African-American authors that made their work an excellent resource for his own project? How does he introduce the significance of his persistent use of “the image of ships in motion across the spaces between Europe, America, Africa, and the Caribbean as a central organising symbol…” (2394) for his research?

Cultural Studies in Black and White

3. On 2394-95 (“Any satisfaction to be experienced…”), Gilroy refers to “the recent spectacular growth of cultural studies” (2394), but what cause for concern does he immediately enunciate about the way categories such as race and nationality are handled within that broad discipline? What two key “requirements” (2395), according to Gilroy, must reflection on cultural studies satisfy if it is to be genuinely productive? If they are not both met, what often happens to the study of “black cultural expressions, analyses, and histories” (2395) in academic discourse?

4. On 2395-96 (“Histories of cultural studies seldom…”), Gilroy points out that there is already a great deal of excellent scholarship in the area of cultural studies—scholarship that is, he says, “politically radical and openly interventionist” (2395) in its aims. Which American and British scholars does he mention in this regard? What does Gilroy also suggest about scholars of a previous generation and the hardships that drove them to lay the groundwork for contemporary research? In his view, what does this older repository of intellectual labor offer to today’s scholars? (2396)

5. On 2396-97 (“Getting beyond these national and…”), what “two additional reasons,” according to Gilroy, make it necessary to move beyond what he calls “national and nationalistic perspectives” (2396)? What connection does he make between today’s “crude and reductive notions of culture” and “an older discourse of racial and ethnic difference” (2397) that is itself bound up with Western notions of culture? According to Gilroy, how was a troubling conception of race long employed in the European precursors of modern cultural criticism, among them the branch of philosophy known as aesthetics?

6. On 2397-99 (“Tracing the racial signs from which…”), how does Gilroy assess the potential for historians in “Tracing the racial signs from which the discourse of cultural value was constructed” (2397) in the European context of aesthetics and philosophy? What have authors such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Leitch 2242-52) and Sander Gilman already accomplished along these lines, according to Gilroy? (2397-98) How was the existence of slavery integral to English self-identity, and what insight about English conceptions of race does Gilroy draw from a comment on “blackness and darkness” made by Edmund Burke in his treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful? (2399; for Burke, see Leitch 464-73)

7. On 2400-01 (“The convoluted history of black…”), what lesson does Gilroy draw from the difficulties experienced by Salman Rushdie on account of opposition to his 1988 novel Satanic Verses, which was, as the editors point out, the subject of a fatwa or religious decree from Iran calling for the killing of the author? How did this controversy, according to Gilroy, spark a “new racism” (2400) in England, and what were the characteristic features of this so-called new racism? When Gilroy turns back to the consideration of “the nationalism if not the racism and ethnocentrism of English cultural studies” (2400), why, in his view, is the reaction by various eminent Victorians to the British governor’s treatment of rebels during the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica important for scholars to ponder? What did that event and the controversy it created in the UK indicate about the development of English radicalism and attitudes towards race?

8. On 2402-03 (“Of this infamous trio, Wedderburn…”), Gilroy focuses on the career of Robert Wedderburn, son of a white slave-dealer named James Wedderburn and an enslaved black woman. How does this future abolitionist rebel’s story turn out to be an apt reminder of the significance Gilroy attributes to the ocean and, more particularly, to ships in the larger narrative of the “black Atlantic”? What African-American writers and activists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries does Gilroy cite in connection with sailing experience as well?

9. On 2403-04 (“Ships and other maritime scenes…”), how does Gilroy trace the story of J. M. W. Turner’s position at the pinnacle of English visual culture and the history of his remarkable 1840 painting titled, Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon Coming On? What seems to have been Turner’s intention in creating the painting? Who originally commissioned it? Why, as Gilroy tells the story, did the prominent mid-Victorian art critic John Ruskin eventually sell the priceless painting to an American in Boston, Massachusetts? (2404)

10. On 2404-06 (“In spite of lapses like this, the…”), what critique does Gilroy offer regarding the “New Left heirs to the aesthetic and cultural tradition in which Turner and Ruskin stand…” (2404)? What shortcomings does he find in the way they define “Englishness,” in spite of their otherwise progressive and materialist way of approaching culture and history? Since Gilroy says that a similar problem besets African-American authors when it comes to self-definition, what suggestion does he offer regarding how to conceptualize the Atlantic in a way that does more justice to the complexity of black American and European history and experience? (2405) How does he use references to contemporary music by black Britons to illustrate the complexity of the cultures he studies? (2405-06)

11. On 2406-07 (“Turner’s extraordinary painting of…”), how does Gilroy explain the significance of the ship images or “chronotopes” (2407) that run throughout his book in connection to the black Atlantic? In what sense were oceangoing vessels, according to Gilroy, “the living means by which the points within that Atlantic world were joined” (2406)? What was their active connection to politics and culture in a way that went beyond the limitations of any one nation? How do Gilroy’s ship references also relate to a certain “prehistory” (2407) of modernity that he says stands in need of reconceptualizing?

12. On 2407-09 (“In the venturesome spirit proposed…”), Gilroy refers to a number of African-American authors and cultural figures towards the end of our selection, and says that his goal in coming chapters will be to reconsider the lives and significance of these figures in light of the “outer-national, transcultural reconceptualisation” (2407) he has been calling for. In what sense would such a reconsideration take account of their travels and experiences beyond the United States? Choose a few of these figures and discuss the meaning that Gilroy finds in their time as travelers, exiles, or émigrés. What desire in common does he suggest we may find in these intellectuals, artists, activists, and others, and to what extent can we define what Gilroy, following R. F. Thompson, calls “the black Atlantic” (2409) in close relation to this common desire?

13. General question: In our selection from The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, Paul Gilroy explores the ways in which “black” history must be understood in a context that goes beyond insular conceptions of race and nationhood—his focus is on the wider region understood to be connected by means of the Atlantic Ocean and the ships that sail back and forth upon it. If you have ever taken a college course (or a high school history course) on African-American literature and culture, did you find that it had an international component, or did you find that the assigned authors were dealt with strictly in terms of their experiences in America, as Americans? Either way, what impact did the course have on you? What did you learn from it?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake