Black Atlantic as Chronotope (Notion) – Some Comments
Hans S A Engdahl, University of the Western Cape, 2016-11-03
In a post-graduate course on “African Theology, Black Theology and Gender” during the second semester of 2016 at University of the Western Cape, Black Atlantic has been used as a common denominator or chronotope.
In the following I will relate some of Paul Gilroy’s deliberations on this theme. Secondly, I will give a few comments of my own.
No doubt Gilroy is looking out for a concept that can keep away from definitions that are too confined, too circumscribed. Being black or African, just the very talk in such terms, lends one easily to start accepting identities that equals to or are similar to ethnic or national(istic) concerns. Gilroy’s errand is different and his hopes are that he has struck something that would be of great help.
So he says, having realized that living in Great Britain (Gilroy is British) or in the USA bears out similar kinds of limitations, but also some openings: “My search for resources with which to comprehend the doubleness and cultural intermixture that distinguish the experience of black Britons in contemporary Europe required me to seek inspiration from other sources and, in effect, to make an intellectual journey across the Atlantic. In black America’s histories of cultural and political debate and organisation I found another, second perspective with which to orient my own position. Here too the lure of ethnic particularism and nationalism has provided an ever present danger.”
Having moved westward over the waters to Yale University he knew very well that there was much more to say than just something on ethnic or national lines. From within the black community there were other dimensions: There were thinkers “who were prepared to renounce the easy claims of African-American exceptionalism in favour of a global, coalitional politics in which anti-imperialism and anti-racism might be seen to interact if not to fuse.”
Settling for talking about Black Atlantic Gilroy has several things in mind. There is the sea and its borders like the continents of Africa, the Americas and Europe. There is the continuous movement west and east, north and south. There are ships and there are people of various categories on these ships. Things here are never standing still. There is perpetual motion. Not to be forgotten, this fluid, ever moving reality also has a long and very deep history. Gilroy concludes: “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, micro-cultural, 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.”
One can easily see that the very nature of an ocean would work against any definitive understanding of social reality in terms of for example nationalisms or ethnicities. But change does not come easy. In passing Gilroy mentions two famous Britons from the 19th century, the master of water colours J.M.W. Turner and eminent art critic John Ruskin. The latter was for many years the owner of Turner’s famous “picture of a slave ship”. Ruskin developed, along with his pursuits in architectonic and arts criticism, a social concern relating to the New Left, albeit on conservative grounds. Gilroy uses Turner’s slave ship as a chronotope that cuts through and opens up well established rigidities. The picture portrays how dead and dying slaves are thrown overboard in a severe storm. Eventually Ruskin put up the painting for sale as “it is said that he had begun to find it too painful to live with”. The painting ended up in Boston.
Gilroy draws conclusions. “Its exile in Boston is yet another pointer towards the shape of the Atlantic as a system of cultural exchanges. It is more important, though, to draw attention to Ruskin’s inability to discuss the picture except in terms of what it revealed about the aesthetics of painting water.” It seemed as impossibility for a Briton of this time to register that slavery was an economic system orchestrated by the west, not least by the British, and as we will find out, to Gilroy the relationship between modernity and slavery is an unfinished business. Britain, in some form of nationalism, is an entity in itself, inventing and re-inventing itself. “[T]he aesthetic and cultural tradition in which Turner and Ruskin stand compounded and reproduced its nationalism and its ethnocentrism by denying imaginary, invented Englishness any external referents whatsoever. England ceaselessly gives birth to itself, seemingly from Britannia’s head.”
Even though Gilroy shuns essentialist ways of understanding peoples and cultures it goes without saying that in the west at least the very notion of a black Atlantic creates a barrier. Who is on board and who is not? But this is exactly the point. Without such a notion the African diaspora emerging into America and now Europe is made invisible. The first step is to see this diaspora as a western reality as well. At the back of it all, and for good reasons, Gilroy does not go so much into that, there remains the hard questions regarding Africa itself and how the continent of Africa stands in relation to the rest. Another way of putting it would be to say that the only way for the west to recognize the continent of Africa in a proper sense is to take black Africa in the west seriously.
Again, Turner’s painting is such a powerful image talking about England’s ethical and political degeneration but also about means of communication. “Turner’s extraordinary painting of the slave ship remains a useful image not only for its self-conscious moral power and the striking way that it aims directly for the sublime in its invocation of racial terror, commerce, and England’s ethico-political degeneration. It should be emphasised that ships were the living means by which the points within that Atlantic world were joined.”
Then, if you want to lay bare the intricate relationships between industrialisation, modernisation on the one hand and slavery and oppression on the other, it may indeed be quite necessary to talk explicitly about the black Atlantic. “Ships also refer us back to the middle passage, to the half-remembered micro-politics of the slave trade and its relationship to both industrialisation and modernisation.” The task then is to “rethink modernity via the history of the black Atlantic and the African diaspora into the western hemisphere”.
It is most likely in the end that Gilroy here is cutting through severe criticism from two sides in one go. The west (whites) may loathe any talk about black(s), and on the other hand, among blacks themselves there is a strong move towards identity markers for good reason. Without saying it in so many words one can surmise that to Gilroy it is not about colour or race but about a condition and possibly about a “post-condition”, that are all but ignored in the modern and post-modern west.
It could be said that there is an Africa factor in this discourse that operates in a liberative way, at least from a diaspora perspective, and here people living on the continent of Africa could play a definite role. Minority statuses in the west put pressure relentlessly even towards elaborating on confinement either into the existing nation state or the minority group.
Gilroy here refers to W. E. B. Du Bois and what he and others represent. “Du Bois’s travel experiences raise in the sharpest possible form a question common to the lives of almost all these figures who begin as African-Americans or Caribbean people and are then changed into something else which evades those specific labels and with them all fixed notions of nationality and national identity. Whether their experience of exile is enforced or chosen, temporary or permanent, these intellectuals and activists, writers, speakers, poets, and artists repeatedly articulate a desire to escape the restrictive bonds of ethnicity, national in identification, and sometimes even ‘race’ itself.”
One should bear in mind that Gilroy wrote this text more than twenty years ago. The formation of the European Union was well underway and there must have been rather more of hopefulness toward a transnational existence generally then than now after Brexit in June 2016. Be that as it may, for anyone originating in Africa and then ending up in a diaspora in the west much of the nation states particularities in Europe must seem almost absurd. At best Gilroy may act as a wise go-between, opening up venues even for a reasonable togetherness.
So he summarizes his belief that a black Atlantic could be an instrument in political and cultural transformation: “The specificity of the modern political and cultural formation I want to call black Atlantic can be defined, on one level, through this 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 organising and cultural criticism. They have always sat uneasily alongside the strategic choices forced on black movements and individuals embedded in national political cultures and nation states in America, the Caribbean, and Europe.”
Some brief comments on Gilroy’s usage of the chronotope Black Atlantic
There are three comments at the moment that needs formulating. First, in Gilroy’s presentation there is a clear emphasis on the other side of the Atlantic, so to say. This could easily be ascertained regarding the other black scholars presented in his book as well (Martin Delany, W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, etc.). However, this need not be so. What I find exciting is that the notion is just as relevant for those still remaining on the continent of Africa, not least those who live in South Africa. It is a myth to say that real Africa is only on the continent of Africa. The continued brain drain from Africa to Europe and America speaks for itself. The African intelligentsia today are often to be found in the west with some also in South Africa. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press do not come easy. It is not possible to understand what is taking place on this continent if one does not see the continued movements across the Atlantic (and Mediterranean). And it goes for the very needy as well as for the very clever. There is a continued dependence of Africa on what is on the other side, for better, for worse (and for the moment one can actually leave new players like China and Brics aside). The challenge is of course for Africa to take on the enormous potential to influence what is on the other side and not only focus on the old dependency syndrome, leading to renewed calls for decolonization, but the one does not exclude the other.
Second, Gilroy does not aim at doing away with the doubleness that is there. He actually declared from the beginning that his hope was that “the contents of this book are unified by a concern to repudiate the dangerous obsessions with ‘racial’ purity which are circulating inside and outside black politics. It is, after all, essentially an essay about the inescapable hybridity and intermixture of ideas.”
And yet, his whole book seems to go in another direction. It is about knowing and understanding the vital role played by African and black people in forming what is today Europe and America (not only the USA). Another way of expressing the underlying idea is to say that an emphasis on black consciousness is necessary. White west may loathe any such talk as black Atlantic, and that is just the point. Whites (not least the political and economic power structures in the US, the current president included, not only the president elect) are still living in denial when it comes to the crimes against humanity that have been committed against blacks coming over the Atlantic. There is therefore a direct link between Gilroy’s discourse and South African insistence on black consciousness, but this is, for various reasons, not spelt out in his book.
The third comment, and an unavoidably important one at that, is how theology would relate to Gilroy’s notion of Black Atlantic. You can certainly do as Gilroy does, deal with the cultural and literary politics. Gilroy also talks about the church, and it is basically about that hidden place where the slaves could find solace for a while, undisturbed by the master, and the church as the place where black could articulate their creativity, one of the very few places where this was possible.
This is a major question I agree and here I will only point out two to me unavoidable comments which have a direct bearing on theology. The first is the theological claim of the preferential option of the blacks. The other is the theological claim that the church is catholic.
One would have heard that to Jesus it was about giving the poor the privilege to make judgements on the world, as he said the kingdom of God would be theirs (Matthew 5.3, Luke 6.20). But, and here western theology is under severe judgment, it is not only about Jesus feeling sympathy with those who are in trouble, it is definitely not about mere charity. In terms of theology it seems that Jesus’ pronouncement regarding the poor, the persecuted (and who would be more in the mainstream than Africans/the blacks who underwent slavery through the Middle Passage and/or severe, ruthless colonization on the very continent of Africa) is a statement also about himself: as you now suffer, I am also going to suffer, even unto death. And the theological key in Christian theology is this identification and has come to mean a preparedness to suffer likewise, and (in order to stave off Protestant purists) that such preparedness is constituted by grace alone. You may call this sacrifice, sacrificial.
The second point is linked to the first in the sense that the end result of Jesus’ ministry was not to serve one category only but to serve all. Even the rich need to hear and receive the gospel (the story of Zacchaeus, Luke 19). That is also why the church is said to be catholic. This is a strong statement about being for “the common”, “with regard to the whole”. This concept links the idea of God as father of all with God as identified with those who are at a disadvantage. The concept is totally anti-race and anti-ethnicity as decisive identity markers.
The history of the church and the blacks is one long litany of failure, and the writing on the wall is particularly visible in the US. In other words, Gilroy is coming up close to some, fundamentally important theological statements.
The early church, before the establishment of the Constantine state church apparatus in the 4th century, sometimes was able to make this catholicity very explicit. The following quote from the second or third century speaks for itself:
“For [the Christians] do not inhabit cities in some place of their own, nor do they use their own strange dialect, nor live their own sort of life… Rather, living in Greek or Barbarian cities, according to the lot of each, and following the local customs, in clothing and dwelling places and the rest of life, they demonstrate the amazing and confessedly paradoxical character of the make up of their own citizenship. They are at home in their own countries, but as sojourners. They participate in all things as citizens and they endure all things as foreigners. Every country is their homeland and every homeland is a foreign country.”
Let me then sum up what should have to be a lengthy theological argument. This early church explication of being a Christian, i.e. being a catholic, may seem to stand in stark conflict with any talk about black consciousness. However, this is not so. Rightly understood, it is the other way round. And that is why the chronotope of Black Atlantic could be found to be a superb servant in the serious attempt to be or become catholic in an authentic way.
 See footnote 5.
 Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic. Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003 (1993), 4. Gilroy, who is British (European) and black begins his book with the following words: “Striving to be both European and black requires some specific forms of double consciousness. By saying this I do not mean to suggest that taking one either or both of these unfinished identities necessarily exhausts the subjective resources of any particular individual”, ibid, 1.
 “A unit of analysis for studying texts according to the ratio and nature of the temporal and spatial categories represented…”, M.M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. And trans. Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981, 426, ibid 225. Chronotope is of course derived from the Greek words chronos, time and topos, place, therefore one could say it is integrating history and geography into one reality (my comment).
 Ibid 14.
 Ibid 16.
 Ibid 17.
 Ibid 19.
 Ibid xi.
 A similar discussion one can find in Lawrence Burnley, The Cost of Unity. African-American Agency and Education in the Christian Church, 1865 – 1914. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2008, for example in the last chapter “For the sake of unity: A time to integrate and a time to separate”, 265ff.
 Epistle to Diognetus 5:4-5, in The Apostolic Fathers, volume 2. London: Heinemann, 1959, 358ff; also in Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground. A Liturgical Cosmology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003, 92.