The Modern Paul Gilroy: Modernity, Transnationalism, and the Impact of The Black Atlantic on History

Gilroy, Black Atlantic

Events in Egypt over the past year—its apparent revolution that upended strongman Hosni Mubarak—have been hailed as a victory for democracy.  However, in recent weeks, critics decried the actions of democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, who adopted dictatorial tactics in pushing through constitutional reforms that would ultimately strengthen his power.  Though he relented, many accused Egypt’s President of betraying the revolution by his apparent return to the heavy-handed nature of his authoritarian predecessor.  While today no one would debate the accuracy of such sentiments in regard to revolution’s meaning, as philosopher Hannah Arendt illustrated in her 1963 work On Revolution, the word’s meaning has undergone significant changes over time due to historical events and forces.  In particular, the French Revolution reconfigured revolution’s meaning; if it once meant movement backward to an established past, after 1789, it stood as break from historical precedent toward an almost elemental future.

The fact that the word ‘revolution’ meant originally restoration, hence something which to us is its very opposite, is not a mere oddity of semantics.  The revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which to us appear to show all evidence of a new spirit, the spirit of the modern age, were intended to be restorations.

– Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, page 43.

Arendt’s 1963 reflections on the origin and meaning of revolution noted that “revolutions properly speaking, did not exist prior to the modern age; they are among the most recent of political data.”[i]  In On Revolution, she suggests the term only gained its current meaning through acts by political leaders of the American and French Revolutions who in actuality articulated a sense of restoration. The Glorious Revolution, Arendt notes, served as the term’s defining moment prior to 1776 and 1789: no one thought of the Glorious Revolution as a break from tradition but rather “a restoration of monarchical power to its former righteousness and glory.”[ii] One can even extend this idea, debatably, to America. Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution emphasizes that for many colonists, it was they who upheld English values.  Many had left England decades ago or had never been, but the memory of what constituted Englishness remained grounded in an identity at odds with the England of 1776: rotten boroughs, “mad king George” and the creeping influence of proto-industrialization all undermined the mother country’s claim to authenticity.  Colonists’ diminished ability toward self rule and perceived economic exploitation in the years prior to revolt only served to confirm their belief that England no longer represented the belief system the nation had long symbolized. In this regard, rebellious colonists sought to reinstate, what they believed, to be the old order, not the new.


For Arendt, despite the widely acknowledged success of the American Revolution from 1789 to 1919, the French example dominated historical and popular discourse. “The sad truth of the matter is that the French Revolution, which ended in disaster, has made world history,” Arendt writes, “while the American Revolution, so triumphantly successful, has remained an event of little more than local importance.”[iii] Ultimately, though even in the French Revolution early leaders articulated a sense of restoration, it came to symbolize an irresistible force that swept men and women into history, hence breaking sharply from the past.[iv]

The changing meaning of revolution, shaped by events themselves, demonstrates how concepts we’ve come to know rest on shifting historical definitions. Discourse regarding modernity remained subject to the same forces reshaping our understanding of revolution.   What constituted modern? How have the terms “modern” and “modernity” been used?  Considering the increase in global commerce and travel – ranging from European explorers of the fifteenth century to slave traders and slaves of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries to imperial expansion of the same era – transnational processes long exerted an influence on modernity’s meaning and connotations.  Today, many observers argue in the age of rapid communication, transportation, and capital flows, old definitions and concepts no longer suffice.

Few writers make these arguments better than the Birmingham School’s Paul Gilroy. In 1993, Gilroy published the landmark work The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Within its pages, Gilroy argues that historians should reconsider how they document the past.  In particular, Black history should be considered not in terms of nation states or ethnicities but under a different rubric. “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,” argues Gilroy, “and use it to produce an explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective.”[v] The history of the Black Atlantic, marked by movements of peoples, commodities (which regrettably included humans), and struggles (“emancipation, autonomy, citizenship”) serves as a window into rethinking nationality, location, identity and historical memory.”[vi]  Blacks occupied many positions in the Black Atlantic but slaves, sailors, and colonized subjects represent the three most dominant figures. For Blacks, the Atlantic world—tied together by ships and sailors, nascent capitalism and imperial powers and their revolutionary subjects—shifted with the movement of these transnational forces, but very often Blacks found themselves resisting physical, political, and economic domination.  Under this construct, Gilroy frequently argues, the nation state as an organizing historical principle lacks accuracy.  For too long, historians documented black subordination and resistance in monocultural, national, and ethnocentric frames, which in turn “impoverishe[d] modern black cultural history” since the transnational structures that created the Black Atlantic world “developed and now articulate its myriad forms into a system of global communications constituted by flows.”[vii]  Famously, Gilroy points to Black musical tradition to emphasize this point. “This fundamental dislocation of black culture is especially important in recent history of black musics,” he notes, “which, produced out of racial slavery which made modern western civilization possible, now dominate its popular cultures.”[viii]


Clearly, transnational forces and events have shaped life in the Black Atlantic and elsewhere.  Gilroy spends a great deal of time focusing on how the concept of modernity or “modern” came to be shaped by these processes and the impact of these new meanings. Since its publication, Gilroy’s work and that of others have led to broader debate regarding the discourse of modernity. For example, the Enlightenment gave “modern” the connotation of “newness,” which by the nineteenth century had been “shaped by its relation to other terms such as ‘progress,’ ‘development,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘revolution,’ ‘society,’ and ‘civilization,’ modern was no longer a mere temporal descriptor.”[ix]  As Chandan Reddy points out, the spread of British imperialism altered understandings such that if “antiquity” stood as modernity’s opposite, following imperialism modernity now contrasted with “backwardness, a category that encompassed both ‘older civilizations’ in decline and ‘primitive societies’ frozen in an earlier moment of history.”[x]  Perhaps this might be most clearly viewed in works such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which though sharply critical of imperialism also portrays Africans as people outside of time.  Conrad’s narrator finds them incomprehensible, assigning them a primordial nature, removed from modernity.  Without history, one lacks traditions, without traditions one lacks culture, without culture one lacks a people. The few lines Conrad does throw to Africans in the novel reference cannibalism. Edward Said (in Culture and Imperialism) and prominent author Chinua Achebe took Conrad’s work to task for such representations.

With all this in mind, Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic served to upset this dynamic. As Glen Mimura suggests, the power of Gilroy’s work lay in its establishment of the “transnational space” of the Black Atlantic.  Through this conceptual tool, Gilroy “identifies its diasporic geography, cultural forms, and philosophical ideas as a ‘countermemory’ to the legacy of European Enlightenment thought.”[xi]  Lucy Evans strikes a similar chord when discussing critical appraisals of Gilroy’s work.  The authors of Beyond the Black Atlantic, a critical reexamination of Gilroy’s original text, focused on “a rethinking of modernization in a twenty first century context” while examining Gilroy’s “counterculture of modernity.”[xii]  The writers in Beyond the Black Atlantic critiqued Gilroy for not exploring further “unique African experiences of emergency and emergence” arguing that “local articulations of modernization and modernity” must be juxtaposed against those of black diasporic communities.[xiii]  Several criticized Gilroy for his privileging of American and British blackness over Caribbean and African examples, which some of the contributors to Beyond the Black Atlantic argue repeat the work of European novelists and writers like the aforementioned Conrad, thereby situating such communities as almost anti-modern, outside of time.


In relation to The Black Atlantic, one wonders then, what does modern mean now?  Is the ultimate modernity the post-national stance that Gilroy asserts?  Have transnational movements of capital, labor, products, and the like undermined traditional nation-state conceived modernities? Alison Donnell argues the post 9/11 context reorients Gilroy’s theoretical framework to the extent that “the flows of people, capital, profits and information are directed by an increasingly militarized superpower.”[xiv]  Of course, modernity serves as only one point of contention regarding Gilroy’s trendsetting work.  Issues of diaspora, immigration, and agency all emerge as well with many scholars providing criticisms and advice on the shaping of each.

Returning to Arendt’s original point, that revolution remains a purely modern construct, Gilroy’s Black Atlantic in many ways firmly argues for a modernity that its members had been denied.  If resistance/revolution emerges as modern, then Gilroy’s residents of this transnational space emerge as purely modern, resisting hegemony and dominant culture through their own cultural productions.  Moreover, one might ask Donnell and others if the focus now placed on transnational flows might serve to redefine the modern.  Sedentary life no longer operates as a pre-requisite for modernity.  Rather, accelerating globalization and transnational flows suggest that sustained movement might soon appear just as modern as settlement. Recent efforts like those of USC scholar Nayan Shah have undertaken to better understand the effect of movement in history and identity.  In his newest work, Stranger Intimacy, Shah disrupts history’s focus on permanence, instead focusing on the intersection of three factors affecting South Asians’ place in Canadian and American West: marriage/nuclear family, polarized sexuality, and transiency.  Attempting to track transience through examples derived from permanence – homeownership, marriage, and citizenship records are just three common examples– obscures rather than illuminates. “Transience and discontinuous ties to place make tracking migrancy in conventional linear time a distortion of migrants’ actual experiences,” argues Shah.

Understandably, the growth of multinationals, the explosion in immigration and migration, and the declining power of the state in relation to non-state actors have caused many other scholars to question old approaches.  “People who are displaced might not ‘know their place’ but they might be precisely the people we need to help us discover exactly what time it is,” George Lipsitz pronounced in the late 1990s.[xv] Much like Gilroy, Lipsitz illustrates the conundrum writers of history face.  When the nation-state no longer serves (perhaps it never did, as some have argued) as our basic unit of inquiry, how do we determine place?  How do we determine time?  What are diasporas? What are identities? What is modern?

Influenced by Gilroy and others, Thomas Bender and Lipsitz envision a new, more transnational approach to the writing of history.  Bender argues observers can no longer view the nation “as hermetically sealed, territorially self contained or internally undifferentiated.”[xvi]  The vast flow of ideas, immigrants, labor, goods, and capita altered not only the structures once so dominant in people’s lives, but their relations to them.   Overlapping diasporas create new identities with new tensions and antagonisms.   For example, Arturo Schomburg’s own identity emerged from such overlap, mixing his Puerto Rican/Cuban independence affiliations with that of America’s native born blacks’ struggle for domestic freedoms.[xvii]  The question for historians must be: how do we accurately account for these new relations, associations and actors?

Arturo Schomburg

Arturo Schomburg

Robin Kelley gives clear view of the depth of Gilroy’s influence.  If transience and transnationalism signify the most modern of existences then Black historians know better than anyone how to document this history. In a popular essay, Kelley reveals the influences these diasporas exert over writers.  If current historians of American history have just begun to endeavor a transnational approach, black intellectuals enacted such techniques over 100 years ago.  Denied entrance into elite institutions (with some notable exceptions), limited in their domestic rights, subject to the history of slavery and active in social movements/diasporas, black writers located themselves within an international perspective.  Having endured the harsh aspects of nationalism, Kelley points out, most resisted the United States’ attempts at imperial expansion and jingoistic rhetoric.[xviii]  Kelly’s examples illustrate the issues that Gilroy, Bender and Lipsitz highlight.  Black writers found governments hostile to their work and persons.  Thus, they turned to non-state actors and social movements to sustain their communities and scholarship.  This adjustment created a far different historiography from that produced by institutional white authors. Today the movement of peoples, ideas, and goods across and between borders similarly changes relationships and knowledge related to these migrations. People’s strongest connections may no longer revolve around state power.  As black historians of the early 20th century reveal, writers must reorient their traditional emphasis of the state.  The state retains significant importance, but no longer a completely dominant one.  Still, as Lipsitz notes, national governments exert formidable influence.  Federal entities negotiate trade agreements, organize markets, provide “mechanisms for capital accumulation,” “discipline the labor force,” and invest in multinational “technological innovation.”[xix]

Unfortunately, good intentions fail to fulfill this vision.  Previous generations had reformulated their approaches only to neglect crucial aspects of race, gender, and sexuality, leading to consequences later. “The power of patriotism and patriarchy of war and whiteness as cultural forces in the 1980s,” reflects Lipsitz, “encouraged American studies scholars to see the price that previous movements for social change had paid by marginalizing issues of race, gender, and sexual identification.”[xx]  So how do historians place American history into a transnational context?  What are the dangers or cautions evident? What might be some issues of concern for scholars hoping to enact a transnational approach?

In the wave of scholars who followed Gilroy, it became clear writers must be aware of the tensions and differences existing between and within diasporas.  The life of Arturo Schomburg illuminates such divisions well.  Schomburg’s archival work contributed crucially to the development of numerous black scholars.  However, his own difficulties with English and his lack of formal training led many prominent black intellectuals to patronize his efforts. In Schomburg’s own life, his activity in Puerto Rican and Cuban independence movements influenced his own work, yet between these diasporas and that of American blacks there existed few relations.  Schomburg’s example demonstrates the kind of issues dividing peoples struggling for similar goals, but perhaps due to different manifestations of prejudice must resort to different solutions.  In his recent work, The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941 – 1978, Mark Brilliant examines how California’s twentieth century Asian, Black, and Latino American populations struggled to reconcile their various efforts at equality into one sustained unified movement. Historians need to be cognizant of such divisions along with what drives them; so that in writing history one can analyze the reason and effects of such cleavages.

In some ways, Gilroy raised the bar of difficulty in documenting modern history.  With the numerous but very necessary considerations regarding transnationalism, race, gender, sexuality, and gender, the field appears more complicated than in the past.  Today’s scholars must account for the roles of non-state actors from various industries and movements while according the state a proper presence as well.  Understanding the interplay within social movements and their relation to the state further complicates this process. Some historians such as David Hollinger question just how far transnational perspectives should be pushed.  Others such as Ron Robins believe that even when new transnational perspectives are adopted they frequently emerge from “questions and concerns internal to United States history.” So there are those that truly wonder just how far the discipline moves or can move in this direction. The state has not disappeared but some of its role has changed.  In the same way, American historians must adjust their views of the past, more aware of the limits of the state but alert to the transnational perspectives throughout American history. Few recognized this better than Paul Gilroy in 1993.

[i] Arendt, Hanna, On Revolution, Penguin Books: New York, 1963, 12.

[ii] Ibid, 43,

[iii] Ibid, 56.

[iv] Ibid, 44, 48-49. In regard to revolutionary leaders ideas of restoration, “We must turn in other words, to the French and American Revolutions, and we must take into account that both were played in their initial stages by who were firmly convinced that they would do no more than restore an old order of things that had been disturbed and violated by the despotism of absolute monarchy or the abuses of colonial monarchy.  They pleaded in all sincerity that they wanted to revolve back to old times when things had been as they ought to be.” As for revolution’s new meaning, “The notion of an irresistible movement, which the nineteenth century soon was to conceptualize into the idea of historical necessity, echoes from beginning to end through the pages of the French Revolution … In the decades following the French Revolution, this association of a mighty undercurrent sweeping men with it, first to he surface of glorious deeds and then down to peril and infamy was to become dominant.

[v] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 15.

[vi] Ibid, 16.

[vii] Ibid, 80.

[viii] Ibid, 80.

[ix] Reddy, Chandan, “Modern” in Keywords for American Studies, NYU: New York, 2007, 161.

[x] Reddy, Chandan, “Modern” in Keywords for American Studies, 161.

[xi] Mimura, Glen, Ghostlife of Third Cinema: Asian American Film and Video, University of Minnesota UP: Minneapolis, 2009, 11-12.

[xii] Evans, Lucy, “The Black Atlantic: Exploring Gilroy’s Legacy” in Atlantic Studies, vol. 6, No. 2, August 2009, 258.

[xiii] Evans, Lucy, “The Black Atlantic: Exploring Gilroy’s Legacy” in Atlantic Studies, 258.

[xiv] Donnell, Alison in “The Black Atlantic: Exploring Gilroy’s Legacy”, by Lucy Evans in Atlantic Studies, vol. 6, No. 2, August 2009, 266.

[xv] Lipsitz, George, “In the Midnight Hourin American Studies in a Moment of Danger, 29.

[xvi] Bender, Thomas, “Historians, Nations, and the Plentitude of Narratives” in Rethinking American History in a Global Age, 2.

[xvii]Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, “The Migrations of Arturo Schomburg: On being Antillano, Negro, Puerto Rican in New York, 1891-1930”, Journal of Ethnic History, Fall 2001, 3-49.

[xviii] Robin Kelley, “But a Local Phase of a World Problem: Black History’s Global Vision, 1883-1950” in The Journal of American History, Vol 86, No. 3, Dec 1999, 1045-1077.

[xix] Lipsitz, George, “In the Midnight Hour in American Studies in a Moment of Danger,16.

[xx] Lipsitz, George, “In the Midnight Hour in American Studies in a Moment of Danger, 24.

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