BOOK REVIEW / Still ain't no black in the Union Jack: 'The Black Atlantic' - Paul Gilroy: Verso, 11.95

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The Independent Culture
PAUL GILROY is one of the most incisive thinkers of his generation. He is best known for There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack (1987), a controversial exploration of anti-black racism in Britain. He shrewdly refrains from the usual explanations of racism as a peculiar evil on the margins of British society and shows how the history of British racism is bound up with an imaginary English 'national culture' which is supposedly homogenous in its whiteness and Christianity.

Gilroy's latest work takes this insight a stage further. He shows how a diasporic black identity in the West has, historically, refused to be constrained by any one 'national culture' - whether it be predominantly Euro-American or Afro-Caribbean. The term 'black atlantic' is an admittedly tentative expression of a hybrid 'double consciousness' which emerges from those who are both 'insiders' and 'outsiders' at the same time. This 'unstable' and 'promiscuous' identity is, for Gilroy, characteristic of an important element of black political culture today. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness is an ambitious account of how this cross-cultural history came about and how it has always potentially threatened the very idea of a dominating single national tradition in Europe and America.

While this argument might sound rather abstract, Gilroy is at pains to illustrate it with detailed reference to modern black thinkers - such as W E B Du Bois and Richard Wright - as well as contemporary black popular culture. Small Acts (Serpent's Tail, pounds 12.99), a collection of recent essays and interviews, gives something of the range of Gilroy's interests. Whether it be a comprehensive dialogue with the novelist Toni Morrison or the critic Bell Hooks, or a pointed discussion of the films of Spike Lee, or a chilling analysis of the current British love affair with Frank Bruno, Gilroy attempts to find associations between these 'local' achievements and more 'global' concerns.

Black vernacular music is especially seen by Gilroy to be both 'local' and 'global'. Following on from the novelist James Baldwin, who described music as 'our witness and our ally', Gilroy traces the history of black music initially to the songs that arose out of slavery. But this is far from thinking of music as an expression of an authentic or 'pure' blackness. Gilroy instead shows that black music is a prime example of a 'counterculture' - available to both black and white youth - which is, above all, a discernible alternative to the seemingly unstoppable appeal of ethnic or national 'rootedness'.

This timely repudiation of any notion of 'ethnic absolutism' is at the heart of Gilroy's work. That black culture only has meaning in Africa is, as he shows in The Black Atlantic, the mirror image of the insidious belief that European culture is essentially white. The recent unholy alliance between the politicians Winston Churchill and Bernie Grant, in this regard, attests to the importance of Gilroy's message. Anglo-American black nationalism is challenged in his work precisely because its 'Africentrism' both reinforces and is an integral part of Europe's own absolutist history.

The complexity of Gilroy's position, it has to be said, makes The Black Atlantic somewhat hard going in places. But it is his steadfast refusal simply to oppose black nationalism with an equally fixed version of 'diasporism' that makes Gilroy such a sane commentator on these contentious issues. On the one hand, he wants to hold on to a notion of a distinct black history and culture that transcends all national boundaries. At the same time, he also wants to show that this history and culture has been unquestionably shaped by the West.

Gilroy squares this particular circle by thinking of the history of slavery not as an aberration but as a key component of Western modernity. Most of the interesting work on the idea of modernity has, in recent years, been written from the viewpoint of its victims. The history of genocide, colonialism and warfare - as products of a rationalising scientific vision of the world - has seriously challenged the civilising pretensions which remain at the core of Euro-American self-understanding. If this oppressive potential within modernity is complicit with the history of slavery, as Gilroy argues, then it also locates black history and culture in the West.

The Black Atlantic ends by making explicit the many points of connection between black and Jewish nationalists in the early part of the 20th century. This is not merely to show the similarities between two of the most obvious victims of Western modernity. Gilroy instead wishes to tease out both the pitfalls as well as the utter necessity of making connections across obviously differing histories. One can only hope that his voice travels far and wide.