The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness ...

Five weeks until my exam…better speed up on studying and unpacking ideas in this blog!

Today’s post dives into “the Black Atlantic” – the very source of the name of my reading list! I know I need to understand this term inside and out but have been avoiding it because it feels so large. But…with only five weeks to go, it’s time to dive in.

What is the Black Atlantic?

File:PaulGilroy2.jpg - Wikipedia
Paul Gilroy
(photo source)

The Black Atlantic is a term coined by British historian/writer Paul Gilroy, made famous in his book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993). This book is crucial to cultural studies and helped push forward studies of diasporas. Some considerations:

  • Black Diasporic Identity:
    • The Black Diaspora is transnational, and before this there was no term to consider the politics of this diaspora beyond national borders.
    • Relying on nationalism to consider the experiences of Black people in the Caribbean, the Americas, Europe, or Africa is limiting; blackness goes beyond national borders
    • Gilroy uses the image of the slave ship to explain why Black identities are transnational: Black bodies are historically and socially positioned between two (or more) lands, identities, cultures, etc. and are unable to be defined by borders because of the Atlantic slave trade, which often stifled the possibility of connections to a homeland.
      • Quote: “Historians of ideas and movements have generally preferred to stay within the boundaries of nationality and ethnicity and have shown little enthusiasm for connecting the life of one movement with that of another” (186).
  • Double Consciousness
    • Black identities are unstable, unfinished, mutable, and always responding to a double consciousness (W.E.B. DuBois’ term) regarding race and nationalism.
    • Double consciousness is the internal conflict that oppressed groups experience in societies; “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” (Du Bois).
    • There are many marginalized groups who experience double consciousness, but Gilroy’s use relates to the experiences of Black people in white-dominated societies, such as African Americans experiencing racial oppression in the United States (both historically and presently). Black people experience double consciousness constantly. Some examples:
      1. President Obama having to choose how to respond about his birth certificate (his blackness was at odds with his American-ness according to the white, public gaze).
      2. A Black kindergartener figuring out how to approach a family history project when there are few or no records of family lineage because of the Atlantic slave trade.
      3. Black men who enjoy birdwatching worrying about their binoculars being mistaken for guns and taking extra precautions such as creating signs to assure fellow park-goers that they are not dangerous and are just birders.
      4. If that article linked above isn’t enough, let me emphasize the “birding while black” perspective with this episode of the podcast Short Wave.
      5. Parents worrying about what toys their Black children play with, the snacks their teens carry, and whether they’ll wind up as the next Tamir Rice or Trayvon Martin for playing with a toy gun or holding a pack of Skittles.
black, range finder, top, book, binoculars, birdwatching, spy ...
(photo source)

Sure, people of all races have things they worry about, but when skin color or another aspect of marginalized identity is the reason for worrying, for choosing to act a certain way, wear certain clothing, etc. in order to appease members of the dominant culture, it becomes an example of double consciousness. In many cases in the United States, double consciousness happens when “blackness” is at odds with what is expected for “American-ness.” Only white people are birdwatchers, right?

  • Artistic Expression
    • Music of Black diasporic communities is a means of exploring the transient nature of Blackness
    • Gilroy mentions the song “Keep On Movin'” by the British R&B band Soul II Soul as an example of “the restlessness of spirit which makes that diaspora culture vital.”
      • Quote: “Black music is so often the principal symbol of racial authenticity” (34). Why is that? Maybe because music is a safe space (for the most part) to express identity that matches cultural expectations; as seen in a previous post, the modern music industry was built out of Black artistic expression (even if that expression was coming partially through imitation and blackface in minstrel shows), so it was acceptable for Black people to also express themselves musically. Music performance is not a norm-defying physical action in the same way that holding binoculars to view birds is; it’s difficult for song to be interpreted as physically threatening (although music is used as a torture device in war, but that’s another story…). Even during slavery, slaves were not allowed to have instruments but they could usually sing in the fields. American society has underestimated the power music can have right from the start.
      • “Keep on Movin” is a truly transnational song; it was produced in England by the children of Caribbean settlers, includes samples of Jamaican and American records, and was re-mixed in a Jamaican dub format in the United States by Teddy Riley, who is African American.
Soul II Soul - Keep On Movin (1989, Dolby, Cassette) | Discogs
  • Modernity
    • Gilroy believes that a new definition of modernism is needed and that the Atlantic is part of that.
    • Historians’ lack of focus on the subordination of Blacks and other non-Europeans thwarts a full understanding of modernism. Simultaneously, need to avoid the possibility of achieving “tidy, holistic conception of modernity.”
    • New “center” of modernism are constructs such as master and slave. Gilroy stresses that we need to revisit modernism with the existence of racism in mind, both historically and presently (even twenty-seven years later, we still need to work on that…).

The term “Black Atlantic” opened the door for a new way of exploring ideas about race, culture, and how location and human identity are related beyond just Africa and the “New World.” It expanded the limitations of thinking within national borders and challenged scholars to consider how Black experiences resulting from racism, slavery, etc. affect modernity.


Gilroy’s ideas were impactful; his concept is referenced extremely frequently in the sources I’m reading. Here are some stand-out responses:

Where are the women?
In a review of the book, Renée R. Curry mentions that Gilroy analyzes masculinity in his writing but seems to only minimally consider feminist theory. Curry considers this to be an erasure of Black women from modern culture.

In a 1996 article, Ntongela Masilela argues that Gilroy has decentered Africa from the Black Atlantic, creating a Eurocentric vision of modernity, cultural and national identities.

Too focused on African Americans?
There are six chapters in Gilroy’s book, and despite his effort to focus on transatlantic Black experiences, four of those chapters focus on African American authors. A few reviews I read considered this to be a flaw that limits the book to African American experiences.

Limited by the term “black?”
One author on my list, Nolan Warden, feels that using the terms “African Diaspora” and “black” are limiting in his personal area of study, Afro-Cuban religious music, especially for studies of Afro-Cuban religious music practiced in the United States (outside of the music’s region of origin). Gilroy states that “black music is so often the principal symbol of racial authenticity” (1993:34). Warden responds: “This is particularly troublesome in that the use of terms such as black, white, and even the word Africa, shows how difficult it is to avoid using a lexicon ingrained during the height of European imperialism and the era of Atlantic slavery…it seems we are nearly incapable of speaking about such cultural phenomena with anything other than terms developed with divisive intent” (Warden 2010). I understand Warden’s angle, but he doesn’t offer a solution.

Privileging the Atlantic?
Paul Tiyembe Zeleza recognizes the importance of Gilroy’s work but also finds it limiting, giving preference to the Atlantic and not to other parts of the African diaspora. Rather than transatlantic, Zeleza wants African diaspora studies to have a global framework.

Do away with Diaspora?
Kamari Maxine Clarke and Deborah A. Thomas think that Gilroy’s use of the term diaspora is limiting. They appreciate his work but choose to approach their own without the term diaspora, creating what they call “a critical, historical, and place-specific approach to globalization in order to foreground an analysis of the circulations and hierarchies contextualizing black communities at particular times in particular locations and in particular relations of power vis-à-vis one another.” (2006)

Respect and Appreciation
Many scholars respect Gilroy for his concept and have expanded on his work. For instance, Shana Redmond, whose work I wrote about in my first entry in this series, follows Gilroy’s idea of Black identities being defined more by “routes” than “roots.” There are too many authors to name who use Gilroy’s work as a jumping off point; his name comes up more than any other as inspiration in the things I’ve been reading for this exam.

I could go on with this post but for the sake of time and studying, I’ll stop here. If anyone reading this thinks I’ve missed anything crucial about Gilroy’s work or his term, please leave a comment. I’ve been reading so much for this exam that a lot of it just goes right out of my head!

Works Cited

Clarke, Kamari Maxine and Deborah A. Thomas. 2006. Globalization and Race: Transformations in the Cultural Production of Blackness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1994. The Souls of Black Folk. New York, Avenel, NJ: Gramercy Books.

Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Masilela, Ntongela. 1996. “The ‘Black Atlantic’ and African Modernity in South Africa.” Research in African Literatures 27 (4): 88–96.

Warden, Nolan. 2010. “Crossing Diaspora’s Borders: Musical Roots Experiences and the Euro-American Presence in Afro-Cuban Music.” African Music 8 (4): 101–9.

Zeleza, Paul Tiyambe. 2005. “Rewriting the African Diaspora: Beyond the Black Atlantic.” African Affairs 104 (414): 35–68.

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