Born in 1956 in London, Paul Gilroy is a professor at the London School of Economics. He received his bachelor’s degree from Sussex University in 1978 and his doctorate from Birmingham University in 1986. He holds a multi-disciplinary background with interests in history, social science, nationalism and racial discrimination in the United Kingdom. More specifically, Gilroy specializes on the history of the African people and their interactions with western society. He has authored multiple books on sociology and race; The Empire Strikes in 1982, Ain't no Black in the Union Jack (1987) and The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993) are among his more salient works.
Gilroy’s ground breaking approach to investigating nationalism and racial interaction has earned him numerous awards and honorary titles. After his work in the United Kingdom, He left London to become the chair of the Department of African American studies at Yale University. He eventually returned to the United Kingdom to become the first holder of the Anthony Giddens Professorship in Social Theory (London School of Economics.) In 2005, Gilroy received an honorary doctorate from the University of London.
The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993)
Gilroy's novel, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993) identifies black identity of Africans located both within Europe and the Americas. Gilroy describes this identity by elaborating on W.E. DuBois' notion of double consciousness, which arises in being both black and English, living in a society where an individual with African roots is all too aware that he/she is not part of the immediate "center." In particular, Gilroy chooses this figure, the "Black English," as a modern representation that comprises the phenomena associated with dispersion and cultural exchange across the Atlantic. Situating the Black English between nationalism and ethnic absolutism, Gilroy attempts to understand and realize their position relative to European modernity without favoring either side. He points out how stereotyping the figure has resulted in a conscious awareness in the Black English of both acceptance as a citizen and otherwise. In his work, Gilroy suggests that instead of constricting oneself within the finite definitions of race in modern figures, one should look past the simplicity in generalizing people into racial bounds. The polarized notions of race, Gilroy believes, is a form of ethnic absolutism that should be rejected, as it results in the alienation of those who do not neatly fit within societal confines of races. Gilroy offers to readers a specific explanation of these ideas in the earlier stages of his novel:
"The specificity of the modern political and cultural formation I want to call the Black Atlantic can be defined, on one level, through [a] desire to transcend both the structures of the nation state and the constraints of ethnicity and national particularity. These desires are relevant to understanding political organizing and cultural criticism. They have always sat uneasily alongside the strategic choices forced on black movements and individuals embedded in national and political cultures and nation-states in America, the Caribbean, and Europe" (19).
With regards to black cultural politics, Gilroy's argument primarily concerns itself with the diaspora of blacks and how this spreading has engendered a transnational mindset in the overall populace. He observes that dispersed blacks have but few significant associations with the country of their origin and should therefore come to embrace, rather than ignore the intricacies and complexities associated with African transnational history. Gilroy evolves this idea by proposing a modernity of Africans that regards the system and severity of slavery as essential in engendering the double consciousness amongst the Black English.
The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity
In The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, Paul Gilroy offers an in-depth analysis on the concept of “modernity.” He begins by discussing the implications of Frederick Douglass and his works. Gilroy describes Douglass as the “progenitor of black nationalism” (need source) He insists that the idea of “progress” is associated and directly related to the events of history, this theory is particularly consistent with the culture of the western world. The west feels that “modernity” is a result of continuous progress over a period of time and progress is in turn related to history. But “black nationalists” such as Douglass obscure the seemingly simple relationship between these ideas by raising the issue of slavery. This validly of the emerging theories of modernity, which relate history to progress, are strongly compromised when they encounter the perceptions of the slaves who certainly do not enjoy the benefits of this “progress.” As a result, Gilroy insists that the entire concept of “progress” and its relation to “modernity” be reconstructed.
Motifs within The Black Atlantic
In his work, Gilroy expands on his ideas through a variety of motifs. These recurrent themes illustrate and clarify Gilroy's arguments in The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness.
Image of the Slave Ship
Gilroy incorporates the image of a sailing ship as a symbol of the transnational Black English. Furthermore, Gilroy's slave ship captures the essence of the abrasive elements that surrounded the slave trade, which, in effect, serves to contribute to readers understanding of black modernity:
"I have settled on the image of ships in motion across the spaces between Europe, America, Africa, and the Caribbean as a central organising symbol for this enterprise and as my starting point. The image of the ship-- a living, microcultural, micro-political system in motion-- is especially important for historical and theoretical reasons.... Ships immediately focus attention on the middle passage, on the various projects for redemptive return to an African homeland, on the circulation of ideas and activists as well as the movement of key cultural and political artefacts: tracts, books, gramophone records, and choirs" (4).
In his discussion of “The Black Atlantic” and the interaction of the African people with the west, Gilroy, expresses the importance of music as a means for the slaves to convey themselves. This was significant as the western oppressors prevented the slaves from gaining literacy or a reliable method of articulating ideas. Music, therefore, became an alternative for direct speech and writing. It is no surprise that Gilroy spends considerable time analyzing music of the mid 1800s to modern day hip-hop.
Parallels with Chandan Reddy's "Modern"
Gilroy’s disapproval of “modern” as an ambiguous or an inadequately defined term is also expressed by Chandan Reddy in "Modern". Reddy’s work is concerned with understanding and explaining the meaning of “modern,” particularly across other cultures and the scope of the word, that is, the limits of the word. Reddy questions the rationale of placing the Western world above the rest of the world in terms of modernity. The comparison of two civilizations on the basis of modernity is even more obscure when cultures or religions are compared as this seems to be a purely subjective matter; there is no obvious way to compare these aspects of civilization. These ambiguities and limitations of “modern” are precisely the source of Reddy’s uncertainty of the meaning of the term.
- Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Harvard: Harvard UP, 1993. 1-5, 19-30.
- Reddy, Chandan. "Modern." Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Ed. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. New York: NYU Press, 2008.
- Paul Gilroy/Black Atlantic Postcolonial Studies at Emory
- Professor Paul Gilroy London School of Economics- Academic Staff
- The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness Book Review
- Paul Gilroy Bibliography