Monday, January 25, 2010

Out of Africa

Paul Gilroy offers a provocative, albeit muddled, transnational vision in Darker than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture

The following review was posted yesterday on the Books pa
ge of the History News Network.

Over the course of the past two decades, Paul Gilroy has emerged as a highly influential international scholar of "the Black Atlantic" -- the title of a landmark study he published in 1995. A product of the Centre for Contemporary Studies at
Birmingham University in the UK -- the so-called "Birmingham School" -- Gilroy has become a renowned chronicler of the black diaspora as both a transnational event in the history of racism and an ongoing struggle for post-colonial emancipation. So it seems appropriate that his latest book, Darker than Blue, would be published under the imprimatur of Harvard University Press as part of the university's W.E.B. DuBois Lecture Series. It's in this context that I say the book showcases the impressive strengths of this interdisciplinary discourse as well as some its glaring weaknesses. As an experience in reading, Darker than Blue is perplexingly fragmented: striking insights mingle with inadequately supported assertions, garbled prose and a vision that seems surprisingly parochial.

This decidedly mixed quality is typified by the first of the book's three essays, "Get Free or Die Tryin,'" which tweaks the title Get Rich or Die Tryin,' a 2003 film and album starring 50 Cent. The piece rests on an arresting fact that Gilroy cites but does not document (in footnotes that are often intriguing but not particularly well aligned with the text): that African Americans constitute roughly 12% of the U.S. population but constitute about 30% of the domestic automotive
market, spending close to $40 billion annually. This prompts Gilroy to make a cultural excursion on the implications of African Americans' century-long romance with cars. His analysis here is often both nimble and deeply provocative, as he uses figures ranging from bell hooks to Ralph Ellison (and an honorable mention of Rosa Parks and the unsung heroes who ran the driving pool at the Montgomery Bus Boycott) to note both the liberating, but, more decisively, geopolitically problematic, consequences of that obsession in terms of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, climate change, and other issues.

Gilroy m
akes the shrewd decision here to focus considerable attention on the music of Chuck Berry, whose artistry in capturing the complexity of American automotive culture is unparalleled. He portrays Berry as a proto-Marxist critic in songs like "Maybellene" and "No Money Down," which is fair enough. But he sidesteps the Berry who celebrated the (imperial) joys of the American Century as it crested in songs like "Back in the USA," a (guilty) pleasure if there ever was one: "Did I miss the skyscrapers did I miss the long freeway? . . . I'm so glad I'm livin' in the USA." Berry's deserved reputation rests at least as much on the sensuous joys of the consumerism he celebrates as it does the capitalist ideology he critiques.

Throughout the book, Gilroy expresses dismay that the emancipatory effects of black popular culture have curdled into decadence: "The contemporary contrast between Kanye West's ironic appetite for branded finery and 50 Cent's scarred, muscular Republican frame prompts us to ask: Where can [Curtis] Mayfield's dignity and seriousness have gone?" An interesting question, but a bit problematic for a discourse, which, however stretched and textured, finally rests on a foundation of dialectical materialism. It hardly seems surprising that those who experience any lessening of their oppression would choose to cash in on their freedom, whether it's inside or outside the borders of the American empire.

Such reservations aside, Gilroy is notably informed and insightful in his readings of popular music, which include Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix. But all too often this book is written in academese that's dense to the point of impenetrable in ways that suggest laziness more than sophistication. I've read it a number of times now, and still can't make sense of this description of a Primo Levi's work: "It [the referent is not clear whether Gilroy is speaking of a specific essay or the book in which it appears] lies at the centre of his exploration of civilisation's inner tensions and the implication of decivilising racial tensions that are not to be dialectically resolved into a reconfigured narrative of progress." Or this passage from the same Gilroy piece on human rights: "the racialisation of war and law is retained as an overspecialized topic relevant only to a few exceptional places characterized by openly racialised polities and forms of citizenship that, in turn, institutionalize the patterns of exclusionary inclusion which race hierarchy facilitates and renders acceptable." At times like these, and there are many of them, one wishes Gilroy would take a page from Marley and write in a vernacular language more redolent of the people for whom he presumes to speak.

This insularity extends to asides and allusions whose meaning and interpretation Gilroy takes for granted. He complains that liberal intellectuals tend to celebrate western European contributions to Human Rights, refusing to consider the colonialism that spread in tandem with this self-congratulatory discourse; he criticizes "scholars worthy of the name [who] would never raise the topic of racism as an object of inquiry." But few liberals I've encountered fail to raise it. Racially-based analysis hardly seems lacking in any number of disciplines in the academy, which in recent decades has also witnessed the growth of Africana studies as a discrete discipline, along with the concomitant appearance of scholars like Michael Eric Dyson and Tricia Rose on cable news programs (not to mention Gilroy's own institutional perches at places like Yale and the London School of Economics, where he currently teaches).

Near the bedrock of this book is a generational lament, "an acute sense of being bereft of responsible troubadours," as Gilroy puts it near the start of the book's final essay. The world has changed, and the issues he cares about are not necessarily as central as they once were, even among blacks who have sold their soul (or chosen a president). Gilroy legitimately criticizes the standard conservative response to anti-racist demands that "we should all become resigned to racial orders because they are natural kinds and therefore a permanent, significant, and immutable aspect of human social and political life." But does he really think that the somewhat diffuse anti-colonial project he advocates will actually bring about an unprecedented world of perfect social justice? No: He does not "argue naively for a world without hierarchy, but practically for a world free of that particular hierarchy which has accomplished untold wrongs." Fair enough. But given that there are manifold others -- hierarchies of gender, and intelligence, and physical appearance and the like that are simultaneously within and beyond the reach of social redress -- it is perhaps not surprising or inappropriate that collective gazes may shift over time.

Nor is it surprising or inappropriate that those gazes linger on approaches other than the one he advocates. The subtitle of this book invokes "the moral economies" of Black Atlantic culture. Though never explicitly explained, the core of that morality is apparently egalitarian, adapted with supple postmodern skill from a notably plastic template of Marxism. Yet Gilroy glancingly at best acknowledges other moral economies, like organized religion, which, like Marxism, have done much evil in the world, but which also have occasionally done an immense amount of good by way of defining egalitarianism in a somewhat different way. Christianity gave the Black Atlantic slavery, but it also gave us King. No Allah, no Malcolm. No Exodus, no Exodus. One could argue that a history without colonialism would have rendered such blessings unnecessary. But the hurts of history are inescapable, and their balm can never be entirely political. Here I would point to the example of Cornel West, who whatever nuances he would surely apply to this observation, is nevertheless more attuned to the spiritual dimension of modern life than Gilroy is.

But as Gilroy suggests in the closing pages of Darker than Blue, such arguments are increasingly beside the point. A millennial wind is blowing, one hard to ignore wherever one stands. Gilroy understandably welcomes the prospect of sunset for Western global hegemony. I'd be interested to know how he regards the moral economies of a Confucian order, and how he imagines the wretched of the earth will fare under it.