Fisticuffs

Adam Lively

  • The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness by Paul Gilroy
    Verso, 261 pp, £11.95, November 1993, ISBN 0 86091 675 8
  • Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Culture by Paul Gilroy
    Serpent’s Tail, 257 pp, £12.99, October 1993, ISBN 1 85242 298 X

In The Morris Book (1907), a work that did much to foster the 20th-century revival of interest in English folk dancing, Cecil Sharp both acknowledges and attempts to repress the hybrid, extra-national origins of the morris dance:

The weight of the testimony must be held to show Morocco as the fount and origin, no matter if the genius of our own folk – so far removed from anything native to Africa – has, in the process of the centuries, altered it until it bears, in spirit, little resemblance to the parent stock ... Tabourot ... tells us that when he was a youth – that would be early in the 16th century – it was the custom in good society for a boy to come in to the hall after supper with his face blackened, his forehead bound with white or yellow taffeta, and bells tied to his legs. He then proceeded to dance the Morisco the length of the hall, forth and back, to the great amusement of the company ... The Morris, then ... danced by armed men to represent a conflict between Moors and Christians, is in all probability Moorish in origin: never mind if in our own country it is become as English as fisticuffs.

The Portuguese mouriscada, the Dalmatian moreska, the German Moriskentanz, the Austrian Perchten, the Romanian calusari, and the Spanish Moros y Cristianos (which is still performed in Mexico) shared the elements of plumed hats, breeches with bells and ribbons, and the carrying of battle emblems – sword, staff, trident or handkerchief. The practice of ‘blacking up’, which has died out in the surviving forms of the morris dance, may in fact have had its roots in the pagan ritual of smearing ash on the face, and the elements of battle mime may have originated in vegetation symbolism based on the battle of the seasons. But it is clear that by the 16th century the dances had acquired strong religious and racial connotations, as reflected in their names.

Sharp’s gloss on the history of the morris dance represents not so much an invention of tradition as its purification – an attempt to cleanse a popular cultural practice of its confused and heterogeneous origins in order to give it a retrospective Anglo-Saxon pedigree. He succeeded. Morris dancing has become part of postcard England, a quintessential antidote to all that urban multi-culturalism.

Central to the sustained scholarly argument of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, and to the shorter pieces that make up his Small Acts, is an attack on ethnic absolutism, on the conflation of race and culture and the identification of the latter with a ‘tradition’ based on anteriority and ‘roots’.

Black cultural politics have in recent years tended either towards a racial essentialism that harks back to 19th and early 20th-century romantic nationalism, or towards a Post-Modern anti-essentialism that sees ‘blackness’ as no more than ‘the ultimate trope of difference’. Gilroy is attempting to mark out a third way, one which recognises that race is more than a trope without retreating into ‘Afrocentricity’ or a feel-good celebration of racial identity. Against a definition of blackness based on the myth of a homogeneous, single-line tradition stretching back to an African origin, Paul Gilroy uses the metaphor of fractal geometry, in which criss-crossing lines of infinite length can enclose a finite area. Historically, these crossings and intersections are represented by the comings and goings of people and cultural goods between those points of the African diaspora originally mapped by slavery’s ‘triangular trade’. Two substantial chapters are devoted to W.E.B. Du Bois and Richard Wright, who are seen as embodying this diasporic consciousness. Du Bois, a pioneer of pan-Africanism, was influenced by the nationalism that he encountered as a student in Germany in the 1890s, and sought to place American racial conflict in a global context. Wright, the most successful black American author in history, emigrated to France and involved himself in both global pan-Africanism and European intellectual life.

Paul Gilroy defends Wright’s later, Parisian work – the novels The Outsider and The Long Dream as well as studies of Ghana and of Franco’s Spain – against the charge, frequently made by African-American critics, that by moving to Europe and dabbling in European Existentialism he was betraying his ‘authentic’ American protest fiction. Much of Gilroy’s polemic is directed against an American parochialism that equates black culture and history with that of African-Americans. It will be interesting to see how the book is received in the new Ivy League citadels of Black Studies.

The Black Atlantic is also taken up with an extended analysis of black vernacular expression. According to Gilroy, the importance of music in black culture poses severe problems to those post-structuralists who reduce the world to nothing more than texts interacting with each other, missing the ways in which black musical expression relies on beliefs about human agency, subjectivity and the possibility of transcendence and transfiguration. This argument could be applied generally but Gilroy is more interested in tracing the fractal lines, the complex counterpoint of similarity and difference, that describe the shifting and contested field of black music. He shows, for example, that far from being simply an American successor to rhythm-and-blues, hip hop was born in the Bronx out of Jamaican sound-system culture. This intra-racial, diasporic borrowing has its own history in the transatlantic influence of the 19th-century Jubilee Singers, the first group to bring slave spirituals into the concert hall.

It is a line of analysis that is open to elaboration. One could follow the Caribbean presence (what Jelly Roll Morton used to call ‘the Spanish tinge’) in the history of jazz. But Paul Gilroy’s great contribution is to relate this way of looking at black expression to wider political and cultural concerns. Gilroy’s concentration on the theme of black ambivalence towards modernity (the ‘double consciousness’ of the title) leads him to argue that the black of the African diaspora is the quintessential product of modernity – New World slavery was once memorably described as ‘capitalism with its clothes off’ – and also the main witness to European modernity’s atavistic side and the cultural alternatives to it. Gilroy makes a persuasive case for seeing this ambivalence as central to the writings of Du Bois, Wright and Toni Morrison, and to black music.

Some of the essays in Small Acts are rehearsals for The Black Atlantic, and there is a certain amount of repetition within the collection. But there are also valuable pieces on popular culture – Frank Bruno, Spike Lee, the iconography of album covers; and an emphasis on the relationship between race and nation, the possibility of Black Britishness, that ties it closer to his earlier There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (1987). Gilroy’s insistence that it is meaningful to describe oneself as Black British (or Black English) is unfashionable at present, and not just on the right. As Gilroy sees it, a rethinking of both sides of the equation is necessary rather than a mere grafting of ‘black’ culture onto pre-existing notions of national identity. This task of challenging received ideas of black and British identity is particularly important at the present moment, he argues, because of a shift in attitudes on the right from pseudo-biological to cultural racism: blacks are not inferior, they merely belong to a culture incompatible with the indigenous one.

This antithesis between ‘biological’ and ‘cultural’ racism is, I believe, a false one, and the weight that Paul Gilroy puts on it in Small Acts reflects a more general weakness in both books. Gilroy accepts the ‘radical contingency’ of black self-identity – the way in which acts of ethnic self-definition have in large part been shaped as responses to white racism. His account of that white racism, however, is thin, and over-dependent on the ‘scientific’ racial thinking of the 18th and 19th centuries. In this respect his work belongs in the tradition of historiography that tells the story of European racial attitudes primarily in terms of the development of the new ‘science’ of anthropology. This emphasis on the link between racism and the Enlightenment tends to obscure the fact that 18th-century European attitudes to the Negro were as likely to be shaped by prejudice rooted in Biblical Christianity as by abstruse debates between monogenists and polygenists. And it is sometimes forgotten that the polygenist position – that the human races are in effect different species, the result of separate creations – was always an extremely marginal one, precisely because it contradicted the fundamental Christian doctrine (reiterated by Augustine and other Church Fathers) of the unity of mankind. Indeed, some polygenists – like Voltaire, who opposed New World slavery – were motivated not so much by hostility to the Negro as by religious scepticism.

The argument that European racial prejudices have broader and deeper roots than are traceable to Enlightenment anthropology takes us back to Cecil Sharp and his morris men. The racial/religious conflict enacted in mummers’ plays, the Harlequin buffoon character of Commedia dell’ Arte, are evidence that there was a black ‘presence’ at an early stage of European culture, related to ideas of racial difference and colour symbolism that drew sustenance from the Bible. A much more influential text than anything by the Philosophes is the strange passage in Genesis where Ham sees his father Noah naked in a drunken stupor: Ham’s descendants are consequently condemned by God to be ‘slaves of slaves’. By the end of the 16th century the connection of the ‘Hamite curse’ with black skin, with evil and with transgression (especially sexual transgression) was established. In his pioneering Othello’s Countrymen (1965), Eldred Jones showed how Shakespeare played upon and subverted associations of blackness and stereotypes of the ‘villainous Moor’ that were widespread in Elizabethan theatre. The pseudoscientific racists of the 18th and 19th centuries were putting old wine into new bottles.

The influence of Christian colour prejudice goes deeper still. The orthodox monogenist view that the Negroes’ blackness was caused by environmental factors, and that given different conditions they would revert to an original whiteness, was closely allied to the Christian idea that the stain of blackness masked a white soul. A typical example is Richard Crashaw’s poem ‘On the Baptised Aethiopian’ (1646), which plays on the ancient tag ‘To wash an Ethiopian white’, meaning to attempt the impossible:

Let it no longer be a forlorne hope
  To wash an Aethiope:
He’s washt, His gloomy skin a peaceful shade,
  For his white soule is made:
And now, I doubt not, the Eternall Dove,
  A black-fac’d house will love.

A hundred and fifty years later we find William Blake putting forward the same idea in his ‘The Little Black Boy’ (1789):

My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white

Blake has his little black boy meeting a ‘little English boy’ in heaven, and the final image of the poem is of the black boy’s identification with the white boy:

And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him, and he will then love me.

Thus we are all equal under the skin, meaning we are all white under the skin. The Christian notion that black skin embodies the stain of sin – and that redemption consists in the revelation of an inner light and whiteness – influenced the language and iconography of abolitionism. This is hardly surprising, given the origins of the abolitionist movement in evangelical Christianity. What has been less explored by historians is the possibility that later liberal thought, with its complex attitude of pity, guilt and fear towards blacks, is a part of this Christian and abolitionist tradition, and that alongside the tradition of pseudo-scientific, ‘biological’ racism there is another, more widespread, older and more insidious form of prejudice.

This limitation in Paul Gilroy’s treatment of white racial attitudes may stem in part from his Black British perspective. African-American writers have long peered into these recesses of the liberal psyche – possibly because white liberal integrationism, the ideology of the ‘melting pot’, is a central part of the pervading American culture. James Baldwin, for example – who had a profound personal feeling for the emotional knot formed of race, religion and sexuality – returned again and again to the gulf between black and ‘well-meaning’ white. And it is surely no coincidence that essentialist black self-definition has had the highest currency in those Francophone and American societies where liberal integrationism or assimilation has been the dominant or official ideology. This suggests at least a caveat to Gilroy’s picture of cultural free-trade within the black Atlantic.

There is a tendency among white liberals to regard the whole subject of racial identity with a mixture of impatience and distaste. Since ‘race’ is merely the product of old, discredited science, why are educated people still taking it seriously? Why does Paul Gilroy put so much thought and erudition into this shadowboxing, this re-enactment of what he himself calls the ‘antique drama of racial metaphysics’? What this impatience reveals is both distance from the black experience and an unwillingness to recognise that liberals themselves may be written into the script of that antique drama.