EASA, 2006: EASA06: Europe and the world

Bristol, UK, 18/09/2006 – 21/09/2006


Reassessing the Black Atlantic

Location Queens Pugsley LT
Date and Start Time 19 Sep, 2006 at 11:30


Livio Sansone (Federal University of Bahia) email
Stephan Palmie (University of Chicago) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

The workshop will critically revisit Paul Gilroy's contribution to the anthropological study of African and African American cultures with a particular emphasis on new conceptual developments and the politics of scholarship.

Long Abstract

Disrupting notions of simple linear relations between African and African American cultures, and replacing searches for 'roots' with an epistemology aiming to trace 'routes' of intercontinental movement and cultural exchange, Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic posed a powerful challenge to the anthropology of African American cultures. Arguing that the demographic, economic and cultural flows (and counter-flows) between Africa, the Americas and Europe represented both focus and fulcrum for the emergence of western 'modernity', Gilroy urged the recuperation of a 'countermodernity' that emerged among enslaved Africans, and which has since become a template for increasingly global processes of cultural and ideological production. This panel will critically revisit Gilroy's contribution to the debate on the emergence of racial subjectivities and systems of domination in the larger Atlantic basin and their significance for an anthropology of capitalist modernity. But it also seeks to probe the range of concepts such as 'Black Atlantic', 'African Diaspora' and 'Afro-Atlantic World' from epistemological vantage points that remained peripheral to Gilroy's original account. These include Africa itself, Latin America, the non-Anglophone Caribbean, and the African and/or black presence in Europe. Finally, we encourage critical perspectives on the politicisation of 'Black Atlantic' scholarship itself – eg in regards to new racial or cultural essentialisms, or the monopoly North American and European scholars have, so far, exerted over the debate. What we call the 'Black Atlantic' was never politically innocent. But it is less so now than it ever was. Thus, our aim is not just to celebrate a key contribution to the debate about 'multiple modernities' but to also reintegrate African Americanist anthropology into the historically sensitive, translocally oriented and politically engaged vanguard of anthropological theorising which it once, arguably, anticipated.

Chair: Stephan Palmie and Livio Sansone


Beyond scale and teleology in the Black Atlantic

Author: Peter Wade (Manchester University)  email
Mail All Authors

Long Abstract

Gilroy's notion of the Black Atlantic heralded a multilateral approach to crossings and re-crossings of both time and space in the way cultural formations emerge and take shape. This paper argues that concepts of modernity (and tradition), and theories of globalisation and cosmopolitanism, imply taken-for-granted assumptions of scale and historical teleology that go against the grain of such multilateralism. A more radical approach is needed to avoid conceptual processes of scaling and lineally teleologising processes of social change.

Gilroy on the beach: on the Black Atlantic, the 'Brown Atlantic', and postcolonial Portugal

Author: Miguel Vale de Almeida (ISCTE, Lisbon)  email
Mail All Authors

Long Abstract

My talk will be an attempt to situate the vantage point of a Portuguese

anthropologist who is looking at his country's colonial past and at where his

discipline stands in times of "postcolonial" concerns. In what regards empirical

material, it stands halfway between fieldwork done in Brazil (see Vale de Almeida

2000, and chapter 2 in this book), work on constructions of

creoleness and hybridity in colonial and postcolonial times, and on-going attention (in collaboration with graduate students in Lisbon) to the politics of "multiculturalism" in Portugal.

It starts with a critical analysis of postcolonial studies; goes on to an approach to the issue of "Anthropology and Postcolonialism."; and culminates in a section on the Portuguese colonial experience and its consequences in postcolonial Portugal. Throughout it will dialogue with the

notion of "the Black Atlantic", and its heuristic value for an analysis of what ironically is called "the Brown Atlantic." It will pay particular attention to an event in 2005 - the news coverage of a mass robbery by hundreds of Black youths in a Lisbon beach that did not, after all, happen at all…

Down by law: the Black Atlantic & its vicissitudes in the era of Thomas and Scalia

Author: Christopher Davis (SOAS)  email
Mail All Authors

Long Abstract

I begin from the notion that Gilroy's Black Atlantic is best considered as an intervention in the cultural politics of new world black identifications. We can say that the very conditions which made "The Black Atlantic" possible as a paradigm-shifting text were also the conditions which had already made "race" obsolete as an effective proxy or rallying point in the emancipatory process. The de-naturalization of race, which was the accomplishment of the civil rights movement, has given way to a reconstruction or reconstitution of the political condition of being black - the pixelation of race, so to speak - a state of being rebuilt as/in codes. Jim Crow laws have given way to the laws of economic probability as definers of the parameters of life. Whitness too has been dismantled and reconstituted as ethnic identity - a reconstruction based around the narrative of the immigrant experience. We have seen the emergence of Ellis Island rather than the Mayflower as emblematic of the "White Atlantic" crossing. The two justices exemplify the present situation; progressivism dispossessed of its most prominent proxies. So, the questions will be: How do we come to understand/formulate the new terms through which the emancipatory project must now be continued? What are the new objects which can serve as proxies in the political process? What are the implications of this for the practice of Africanist anthropology?

Their modernity matters too: exploring the Black Atlantic of the working poor

Author: Francio Guadeloupe (University of St. Martin, Dutch Caribbean)  email
Mail All Authors

Long Abstract

If as the saying goes a black man is a century, and a black woman the embodiment of world history, then the lives of the Dominican-born sisters Elza, Tica, and Amelia, symbolizes the Black Atlantic sojourns of the working poor. In terms of family ties, and their actual travels, these three sisters connect the Spanish, French, Dutch, and British Caribbean to the Western metropoles of Amsterdam, New York, and Toronto. Theirs is a tale of struggle, perseverance, and a will to live despite treble oppressive structures of race, class, and gender. In this essay I argue that paying equal attention to those 'uneducated' blacks who did not directly engage with Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit or Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals complements Paul Gilroy's explorations of black counter-modernity.

Fetish power of commodities structured by a transatlantic dialectic of race

Author: Michael Ralph (Cornell University)  email
Mail All Authors

Long Abstract

As we know, the concept of the "fetish" first arose during the fifteenth century in a west African commercial zone frequented by Portuguese and African merchants. The pidgin term fetisso was coined as part of a European commentary on the gold statuettes and assorted ritual paraphernalia, Portuguese traders believed, Africans misrecognized as having mystical propensities instead of belonging properly to the sphere of capitalist value.

For reasons having to do with its theoretical signficance and its location in an Atlantic sphere of exchange, this concept is of crucial importance: in treating the commodification of black basketball players as a historical process structured by economic and symbolic forms of value, this paper examines efforts to recruit Senegalese athletes by building upon the idea that a "fetish" effectively bridges both domains. In doing so, I suggest the way Senegalese players are fetishized has as much to do with what recruiters no longer want to see in the NBA as what they hope to introduce to it. The quest to find a basketball player who fits the definition of a "natural"—a player with certain gifts with which he is endowed by nature, but which he improves upon by developing a disciplined work ethic—has arisen during a moment when the NBA is seemingly plagued by African American players (like Allen Iverson or Ron Artest) who are rowdy and rambunctious, from a certain perspective. In exploring these assumptions, this paper paves the way for a view of the commodified basketball player as structured by a certain Trans-Atlantic dialectic of race, one which—in contrast to the idea of the "Black Atlantic" developed by Paul Gilroy—attends to the place of Africa in these transnational figurations.

Divining the past: a critical reassessment of the linguistic reconstruction of 'African' roots

Author: Kristina Wirtz (Western Michigan University)  email
Mail All Authors

Long Abstract

The "Black Atlantic" is a chronotopically charged concept whose elaboration requires us to attend to how meaningful historical connections are forged, both locally and in wider circuits, with a past variously imagined as "African" and "diasporic." Anthropologists of the Black Atlantic such as Stephan Palmié and Kevin Yelvington have begun to explore how modes of historical consciousness inform racial subjectivities. And yet, issues of time, historical consciousness, and historicity remain insufficiently explored, especially in that corner of Black Atlantic studies that focuses on African diasporic language practices. In most linguistically-oriented studies of the African diaspora, the search for "Africanisms" continues unabated within paradigms of historical linguistics and creole studies.

In this paper I critically examine how such scholarship itself produces particular modes of historical consciousness and therefore of history by comparing scholars’ and nonscholarly ("local") recuperations of African diasporic history through their language practices and linguistic ideologies. For example, practitioners of Cuban Santería seek to reconstruct the "roots" of Santería's "Yoruba" ritual register and thus to recuperate history both via more textual etymological analysis and via more performative "divinations" of hidden or lost meanings. They also engage in ritual modes of "temporal telescoping" through which the recuperated past becomes transcendent and mythic. I suggest that Cuban religious practitioners’ efforts to recuperate the past can illuminate the efforts of linguits and other scholars of the Black Atlantic, who are also often engaged in "divining" the past by recovering "lost" or hidden memories and meanings and by their own modes of "temporal telescoping" to show the relevance of those histories in the present.

Transnational networks in Orisha worship and the making of a religious 'Black Atlantic'

Author: Stefania Capone (CNRS/Université de Paris X, Nanterre)  email
Mail All Authors

Long Abstract

Afro-American religions are historically distinguished by their extreme fragmentation and lack of a superior authority that could impose orthodox rules and practices to its followers. Nonetheless, some religious leaders aim today for an unification of their practices that highlights the existence of a common ground in all Afro-American religious modalities. Since the early eighties there have been various attempts to standardise the different Afro-American religious practices on the American continent. The International Congresses of Orisha Tradition and Culture (also called COMTOC or Orisa World Congresses) have helped to create a wider network between the initiates of Brazilian Candomblé, Cuban Santería, Haitian Vodu, North American Orisha-Voodoo and Yoruba "traditional religion". These attempts generate new ways of religious "creolization," in which the syncretic work - the historical base of these types of religions - is resignified, giving preference to African or Afro-American endogenous variables instead of European or Catholic exogenous influences. The ritual borrowings, in the lucumí religion of Cubans living in Miami, of practices that originated in Brazilian Candomblé are a telling example of this founding tension between unification and fragmentation within these religious phenomena.

In this paper, I will address the issues of tradition and preservation of a "collective African memory" within Afro-American religions, focusing on Brazilian Candomblé. We will see that the tension between continuity and discontinuity, between Africa and the New World, can also be found in other religions originating in Africa, such as Cuban Santería. The COMTOC congresses are key to the diffusion of several practices, values and views of tradition in the core of a transnational network that unites African initiates and their diaspora counterparts in the Americas, in that translocal field referred today as the "Black Atlantic". In this confrontation of different practices and ethics, two definitions of "African" tradition seem to represent the often difficult relationships between "orisha religion" practitioners: one tradition linked to the diaspora and another to Yorubaland. This paper aims to draw attention to the contribution of Latin-American religious elites to the making of the "Black Atlantic", as well as their participation to the rise of new cultural essentialisms in this transnational field.