Imagine: From the Black Atlantic to a New World Order

Some people ask why this blog dredges up the history of the Middle Passage. What is the point of looking back to a time of such pain and misery, a time when millions of Black people were so systematically abused? Why dwell on such horror? It’s a good question, however; one worth answering from time to time as we try to connect events in the here and now to what has taken place in the past.  Of course people can not know where they are going unless they understand where they have been; that idea is very powerful and absolutely true when we see it played out before us. For example, one young man found it embarrassing to display a calendar with a slave ship pictured next to an image of President Barack Obama. The election of a Black President in a land where Blacks were enslaved is astounding, whether this is “progress” for all Black people or not. Obama’s election does not feed the hungry or shelter the homeless, but it is one event among many, many that tells millions of Black ancestors lost in the Middle Passage, who died never seeing the New World, that their souls shake us still. We honor the ancestors as it turns out, when we do not just hang on, but shock and awe even ourselves by exploding the myths of our limitations. Please see the Lift Every Voice and Sing clip in the blog post of March 1, 2012 for a compressed history of struggle and victory played forward to this very day.

Upon reflection, just how far can we extend the historical reality of Black achievement in any part of the African Diaspora?  Are Black people in the Americas and Europe the most capable of creating a new world order? In the last decade of the 20th Century, sociologist Paul Gilroy published The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1992). In summary, his thesis was that based upon racism and enslavement, people of African descent in the Western Hemisphere have developed an intellectual body of thought related to society, politics, culture, art and history that simply transcends national boundaries. Not limited to country or continent, and exhibiting common threads of shared African origins and slave experiences, Black Atlantic intellectual thought spanning more than 250 years now provides the basic framework for the study of both American and Africana studies in most academic institutions. More than any other academic approach, the culture of Africa, African-America, and America itself exhibits and requires a larger approach based in the African Diaspora. When delving into any particular subject area –  economics, health, religion, art, etc. – race must be a constant factor in examining and assessing patterns, behaviors, beliefs, motives, values and history.

Fifteen years after publishing his landmark work, Professor Gilroy during an extensive interview with Max Farrar for darkmatter, challenged progressives of all backgrounds to not give in to nationalism. He stated that the pursuit of knowledge, analysis and policy-making should not have as the ultimate objective nation-building, but rather the creation of a humane world. Those who have contributed and built upon Black Atlantic intellectual thought must stay removed from nationalism which traditionally incorporated racism. He asked political leaders, intellectuals and analysts to create a world where the objective is to establish accountability and to demonstrate responsibility in fashioning a new civilization. A universe in which “racial differences” are accepted and become ordinary, “not burdened with risk, fear and anxiety or exoticism, opportunity, play and desire,” should be the desired outcome. Professor Gilroy wanted us to imagine a world in which encounters with others are routine, “not exciting, transgressive or fearful… we must learn to place value upon the successful versions of multi-cultural interaction.” He admonishes us to shift away from race-based politics and reconstitute our identities as progressive people.  John Lennon might say “Imagine” life along the lines of “A New World Order” that Curtis Mayfield describes.

The vehicle which Gilroy most enthusiastically employs to demonstrate the possibilities of creating such a world is music. Citing the introduction and creation of distinct music forms such as jazz, gospel, hip-hop, reggae, rhythm and blues, bhangra, he negates the interpretation that these art forms are marginal or derived from dominant national cultures. Instead, he argues that they were formed and worked in a transnational context with only a superficial association with their country of origin.

To become autonomous at this level is what Gilroy is demanding of “modern progressives.” That is not an easy thing to do, especially when we consider where we live. However, of all the people in the Western Hemisphere, the children of Africa might be the best equipped to accomplish this vision. Our historic position of living in two or more worlds with a particular means of expression and interpreting, have equipped us to use language and art as public expressions of human consciousness. Gilroy says we begin by identifying ourselves as world citizens. To what or whom do we pledge our allegiance? What shapes our individual roles?  What have we already achieved?  It does not stop with the improbability of a Black President.  Who dares define a people’s limitation or possibility?

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