By Dalia Griñan
PhD candidate, History, Rutgers University
On November 20, RBSC and the Slavery and Freedom Studies Working Group co-hosted a three-scholar panel, “The Black Atlantic in the Age of Black Lives Matters.” To learn more about the work of the panelists visit their websites linked below.
Nathalie Batraville, Assistant Professor, Simone de Beauvoir Institute, Concordia University
Christopher Freeburg, Professor and University Scholar, Department of English, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Michael Birenbaum Quintero, Associate Professor of Musicology & Ethnomusicology, Boston University
There is a current across some Black scholarship and activism that operates around the act of unsettling paradigms that are assumed to be fixed. In the global Black Lives Matter uprisings of 2020, the paradigms in question are the police (as enforcers of “safety”) and the carceral state (as an appropriate vehicle of punishment and reform). In Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), the paradigms are modernity and the nation-state as they are typically conceived. Through his critiques, Gilroy speculated on the counter-modernity of Black cultural production, the limits of racial or cultural “purity,” and non-belonging—or elsewhere-belonging—of Black subjecthood. Employing the literal and metaphorical significance of ships, his book discussed the Atlantic as “a continent in negative” around which people, ideas, and expressive culture circulated as a result of transatlantic slavery and its legacy. Gilroy’s ideas around diasporic intimacies have felt all the more tangible this year as we have witnessed not just massive movements of solidarity, but the parallel perils faced by Black people across nations. RBSC and the Slavery and Freedom Studies Working Group’s co-hosted event, “The Black Atlantic in the Age of Black Lives Matter,” invited scholars to link these historic intellectual and political developments. Reading Gilroy’s writing alongside their own areas of scholarship, Nathalie Batraville, Michael Birenbaum Quintero, and Christopher Freeburg pulled ideas forward from The Black Atlantic into our contemporary moment.
Batraville’s presentation was entitled “Atlantic Refusals: Kinship and Belonging Beyond Transnationalism in Dionne Brand’s Land to Light On.” For Batraville, Brand’s refusal of the nation, belonging, or linear time pulls at Gilroy’s theorizations on transatlantic circulations of Black modernity. To refuse belonging to the state is to form community across space in new ways: to be a people of sea and sky, creating a world beyond the most extreme of margins. It is a refusal that is also embedded in the demands to defund the police and abolish prisons. The invocation of Black, queer love in Brand’s poetry is not incidental; in like manner, it is central to how Batraville's scholarship attends to solidarity, the political potential of love, and alternative belongings. As Batraville pointed out, many leaders behind the movements this year have been Black, queer folks whose organizing strategies are formed around a praxis of accountability and non-carceral justice. In particular, Batraville shows how Gilroy stops short of the refusal she finds in Brand’s poetry. Brand’s lines on giving up on a land to light on push Batraville’s thinking about the relationship of Black people to land. She sees refusal as grounds for uniting Black and Indigenous organizing beyond sovereignty, a means to demand accountability and disrupt the reach of state suppression.
Quintero’s presentation, “The Black Pacific: Black Cultural Politics on the Margins,” was steeped in a passion for his ethnomusicological research on Black Colombian communities located on the Pacific coast. For the near-century between the abolition of slavery and WWII, Quintero posits, these communities were largely unbothered by the chugging engine of “modernity.” Incorporating these communities into the conversation on diaspora expands the geographic scope of Gilroy’s ideas of the Black Atlantic. As Quintero showed, in a place where “the drums were not banned,” music is a central part of the story, functioning as a site of relational belonging in community and kinship formation. The music carried by sailors from places like Harlem and Havana in the 1940s, and later from Jamaica, constitutes “Black texts of modernity.” Quintero also points out that it has been a one-sided conversation where the waves of commerce have flowed to but not from the Pacific region. He is interested in what we can learn from these Black Colombian communities both through music—as a site largely considered outside of Western intellectual production—and from their fights for land sovereignty alongside their indigenous neighbors. How, Quintero asked, might these negotiations around shared space and coalitional organizing inform resistance strategies for the encroachments of gentrification and the contradictions for descendants of forcibly relocated settlers on stolen land?
Freeburg’s presentation “Phillis Wheatley’s Passages: Sleeping on Phillis,” spoke to multidimensional worlds of being and imagination. Where persistence, resistance, and acquiescence orbit each other in sole beings or organized communities. Freeburg reads Wheatley’s poetry as a body of knowledge, rippling and reminding us that something very much alive is breathing below. Freeburg does not sanitize Wheatley’s experience, calling attention to dimensions of her life often left unspoken. Wheatley was a child survivor of the Middle Passage and the auction block, vulnerable to sexualized violence, who cultivated community with fellow displaced Africans. Though Wheatley did not write about the Middle Passage that we have a record of does not mean it did not impact her sense of self. It is this self-fashioning that most interests Freeburg, “her voice, her transformative space of utterance, image, and form.” Wheatley’s role as a space creator in ideas about the origins of Black cultural traditions is part of what is at stake in Freeburg’s presentation. Her poetry exemplifies instances of double consciousness, first articulated by W.E.B DuBois and built on by Gilroy. Freeburg ends his presentation by citing June Jordan on Wheatley’s persistence and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon on the legacy of Black women poets who narrate perspectives on survivorship—and imagine more.
The synchronous event allowed for the speakers to reiterate in short form the content of their presentations before opening to questions. The Q & A portion, moderated by Yesenia Barragan, inspired a lively discussion. The audience returned to the key themes of refusal and love; connection, kinship, and knowledge beyond the Western canon; other-worlding and resistance. Barragan talked about the tension between recognition and refusal through the “insurgent Black geography” of giving up as a means to produce something new. It is this lingering curiosity for the something new that ran through a discussion about alternative futures informed by love, expressive culture, and expansive understandings of knowledge. These topics register deeply with me as part of the activist work I have been doing at the intersections of anti-sexual violence and anti-racism. In my scholarship, I take a comparative approach to Black Caribbean women's history, embracing a refusal to be limited by colonial, national, or linguistic boundaries. Further, expressive culture represents an avenue for me to read beyond the “traditional” archive and seek historical knowledge in expressive or embodied knowledge. In the shadow of slavery, enslaved and free Black women formed kinship, innovated tradition (Gilroy’s “changing same”), and lived their methodologies of refusal. I am keenly interested in Batraville’s reminder that academic intellectual production tends to neglect love. Like Quintero, I am intrigued by how knitting together cultural texts and liberation struggles lends to new strategies, and, like Freeburg, I believe we all can play a role whether as scholars, activists, or both. In the near two decades since Gilroy’s influential text, developments in scholarship, activism, and digital technologies have afforded us ever more dynamic ways to engage across Afro-Diasporic communities and to circulate Black text not of “modernity” but futurity.