This article is a part of our Series on Memory, History, and Power. Read the Series Introduction here.
The Black Atlantic
One of the major contributions of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: modernity and double consciousness[i] is its insistence that the (de)formation of modernity should be understood in relation to the ‘Black Atlantic’, an internationalized and racialized place. ‘Place’, I want to suggest, is not as a pre-defined coordinate, but an ever-changing spatio-temporal hub across which subjectivities are (re)produced and through which patterns of discrimination are constantly set, as well as contested. By stressing the internationality of the Black Atlantic, Gilroy unsettles and destabilizes the “national” unit and the way subjectivities are conceived in terms of their “roots”, and moves the focus towards circulations, interchanges, cross-fertilizations, movements, routes.[ii] Moreover, the attention this move brings to processes of racialization leads to a problematization of the way markers of discrimination are imbricated into, or constitutive of, modernity – including its corresponding conceptions of citizenship, statehood, and the very notion of the ‘international’.
‘Discrimination’, as proposed here, is a heterogeneous practice advanced by human beings in their attempt to distinguish themselves from non-humans, as well as from what is variously identified as natural, divine, barbaric, primitive.[iii] Although Gilroy’s book emphasizes processes of racialization across the Black Atlantic, it is certainly the case that these processes are connected, in imbricated and intersected ways, with other markers of discrimination, such as class, gender, sexuality, capacity, religiosity, among others.[iv]
From this perspective, the Atlantic makes untenable the still-prevailing accounts that take modernity as an outcome of diffusionist processes starting in Europe, and then encompassing the whole world.[v] In this way, it becomes a crucial place to the interpretation of how modernity has been formed and deformed through routes that do not conform to linear conceptions of history; or to nationally circumscribed or universalizing notions of subjectivity and power. The (de)formation of modernity is inseparable from the dynamic intersection and imbrication of multiple markers of discrimination.
The Red Atlantic
I recently came across the notion of the Red Atlantic, which names one of the projects from the visual artist, researcher and educator Rosana Paulino. From her perspective, this is a place whose routes have been traced by multiple markers of discrimination, put forward by science (even before nineteenth-century scientific racism), as well as by religion; and transversally connected to politics, economy, history, culture. Paulino’s project interacts with Gilroy (and others), but emphasizes how blood is a fundamental part of the Atlantic histories. Moreover, she brings to her oeuvre, as a whole, the centrality of the Afro-Brazilian culture, focusing on questions of race and gender from a diasporic perspective, and therefore contributes to addressing what Gilroy himself once identified as the marginalization of Brazilian history in accounts on the Black politics in North American and the Caribbean.[vi]
Supplementarily, I would like to suggest that the potentiality of the expression Red Atlantic lies also in that it is more apposite to approach the intersections and imbrications of those markers of discrimination mentioned above. The Red Atlantic, following that proposition, comprises the Black Atlantic, but also the Indigenous Atlantic, the Workers’ Atlantic, in sum, the Atlantic of the heterogeneous ways through which processes of subalternisation have been combined, but also contested. In other words, at stake is how modes of coexistence have been negotiated, disputed, resisted, subverted, struggled for and against. If blood has been shed in genocides and other modalities of violence across the Atlantic, it has also vitalized various modalities of contestation from the subalternised subjectivities that have traced, and have been tracing, the multiple routes of the Red Atlantic, navigating with and against the imbrications and intersections of gender, class, race-ethnicity, capacity, sexuality, religiosity…
Tracing Red Atlantic Routes
To conclude this intervention, I would like to indicate one of the Red Atlantic routes one can map in certain contributions coming from Brazilian traditions of thought. After Lélia Gonzalez, I name it an Amefrican route. ‘Amefrica’, according to Gonzalez, combines Black past and contemporary references with African and American (including Amerindian) ones.[vii] ‘Amefricanity’ is a categorization that aims at shedding light on the diasporic and internationalized dimension of the ever-changing historical articulations of the markers of discrimination constitutive of modernity, and of their various reinterpretations and/or ressignifications traced across what Paulino named as the Red Atlantic. Gonzalez’s proposition takes part in the way Brazilian Black thinkers have been reinterpreting the quilombist historical experiences into something permanent, but not crystallized, throughout the (de)formation of Brazil and of modernity.
Since the 1970s, quilombism has been increasingly understood as the force of an ideal in constant rearticulation, and that gathers multiple acts of antiracist contestation.[viii] This Afro-Brazilian concept is part of an Amefrican Red Atlantic route that has been constructed by practices aiming at ‘a single human, ethnic and cultural affirmation, integrating at the same time a liberation practice and taking charge of history itself’.[ix] It destabilizes the national unit and the universalizing conceptions of history from an afrodiasporic perspective that can be read in terms of Robbie Shilliam’s proposition of a ‘decolonial science’, since it seeks to ‘repair colonial wounds, binding back together peoples, lands, pasts, ancestors and spirits’.[x]
It is important to have in mind as well, that quilombism, as a force of an ideal linking past and contemporary acts, enables one to grasp the various ways through which Black, Indigenous, and Poor White people put forward modes of coexistence that challenged, and continues to do so, the markers of discrimination constitutive of modernity. Therefore, quilombism is one of the Amefrican routes that connects the (de)formation of Brazil to the Red Atlantic and the multiple acts of discrimination and contestation it gave, and has been giving, rise to.
When Walter Benjamin famously stated that ‘there is never [niemals] a document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’[xi], and that barbarism equally permeates the way this document is transmitted through tradition, he also posed that the task is to ‘brush history against the grain’.[xii] On the one hand, the Red Atlantic has been one of the places where the very notion of ‘barbarism’ has been (re)produced in connection with notions of class, gender, race-ethnicity, capacity, sexuality, reliogiosity… On the other hand, it has been (t)here as well where contesting routes have been traced by those very subjectivities that, considered ‘barbarians’ from a certain map, are historically brushing history against the grain, enacting liberating maps – and worlds.
[i] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London, New York: Verso, 1993).
[ii] This has been noted also by Stuart Hall, The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017), 159-160.
[iii] Here I follow the definition of “discrimination” proposed by R. B. J. Walker, After the Globe, Before the World (Nova York: Routledge, 2010), 97.
[iv] For a relation between intersection and imbrication, see Andrea Gill and Thula Pires, “From Binary to Intersectional to Imbricated Approaches: Gender in a Decolonial and Diasporic Perspective”, Contexto Internacional, vol.41, no. 2 (May/August 2019): 275-302. Not to mention the rich intellectual Black feminist tradition on intersectionality.
[v] Robbie Shilliam, “The Atlantic as a Vector of Uneven and Combined Development”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, v. 22, no. 1 (2009): 69-88, p.72. See also Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu, How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism (London: Pluto Press, 2015), ch.5; and Onofre dos Santos Filho, “Ultra Aequinoxialem Non Peccari: Anarquia, Estado de Natureza e a Construção da Ordem Político-Espacial”, Monções: Revista de Relações Internacionais da UFGD, Special Issue Theories of International Relations in Brazil, orgs. João Nackle Urt, Lara Selis and Victor Coutinho Lage, vol. 8, n. 15 (2019): 486-518.
[vi] Paul Gilroy, O Atlântico Negro: Modernidade e Dupla Consciência (São Paulo: Editora 34, 2001). To address this marginalisation is also what motivates recent works such as Petrônio Domingues and Kim D. Butler’s, Diáspora Imaginadas: Atlântico Negro e Histórias Afro-Brasileiras (São Paulo: Perspectiva, 2020).
[vii] Lélia Gonzalez, “A categoria político-cultural de amefricanidade”, Tempo Brasileiro, n. 92-93 (1988): 69-82, p. 77. For two recent collections of her works, see Gonzalez, Primavera para as Rosas Negras (São Paulo: UCPA Editora, 2018) and idem, Por um Feminismo Afro-latino-americano (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2020).
[viii] See Abdias do Nascimento, O Quilombismo: Documentos de Uma Militância Pan-Africanista. 2.ed (Brasília: Fundação Cultural Palmares, 2002). See also Abdias do Nascimento, “Quilombismo: An Afro-Brazilian Political Alternative”, Journal of Black Studies, vol.1, no.2 (1980):141-178. Beatriz Nascimento has also insisted since the 1970s on “quilombo” as a concept linking past and contemporary contestations. “I am Atlantic”, said her. See Maria Beatriz Nascimento, Beatriz Nascimento, Quilombola e Intelectual: possibilidade nos dias de destruição (Diáspora Africana: Editora Filhos da África, 2018), 326. Recently, some of her texts were translated into English; see Christen Smith, Archie Davies and Bethânia Gomes, “’In front of the world’: translating Beatriz Nascimento”, Antipode, vol.53, no.1 (2021): 279-316.
[ix] Abdias do Nascimento, Ibidem, 265.
[x] Robbie Shilliam, The Black Pacific: anti-colonial struggles and oceanic connections. (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 13.
[xi] Walter Benjamin, “Über den Begriff der Geschichte”, in Gesammelte Schriften, Band I (Frankfurt am Maim: Suhrkamp, 1991), 696.
[xii] Ibidem, 697.