Paul Gilroy’s book previous to Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Linewas the much-lauded The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993). For those interested in the field of culture studies, The Black Atlantic was simply the book that one had to read. In terms of its impact on African American studies, it stands as one of the handful of works from the 1990’s that offered a fundamentally fresh way of looking at the field. That was the case not so much because no one had ever considered Gilroy’s central thesis that the commonalities of black life on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean transcend national boundaries, but because Gilroy was able to put together knowledge of Frederick Douglass, Phillis Wheatley, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Oluadah Equiano, among others, to show the importance of this transnational, boundary-crossing identity in a new way. It turned out that literary critics who had spent the last decade learning their Georg Hegel and Michel Foucault had the perfect background necessary for understanding Douglass, Du Bois, Richard Wright, and Bob Marley. At a time when the push for literary theory was under attack from all angles, Paul Gilroy seemed to redeem it by standing apart from the debate, not attempting to justify or attack theory, but simply using it with an almost surgical incisiveness. It helped that his references to contemporary pop culture seemed completely natural and easy; here was an academic who had actually listened to rap music before writing about it.
If that earlier work had a flaw, it was its brevity. Gilroy’s offhand comments about Martin Delany, Alexander Crummell, William Wells Brown, and William Blake suggested much more than they actually said. For his academic audience, however, this flaw may have been the book’s single greatest virtue in that it suggested fresh new directions for research, even in fields that had seemed to be well trodden. Still, it seemed to have all the earmarks of the prologue to a longer, fuller work that would be even richer. That work turns out to be Against Race, a careful depiction of the inextricable relationship between race theories and fascism.
In an admittedly utopian work, Paul Gilroy (who, after writing the book, left Great Britain for Yale University, partly over his frustration at Britain’s inability to deal with its own race problem) tries inAgainst Race nothing less than to eliminate once and for all the idea of “race” as an intellectually valid concept. In this respect, the culture studies specialists his work is geared toward—anthropologists, sociologists, literary theorists, and historians, for instance—are well behind biologists, who have long since noted the insufficiency of race as a category. Gilroy’s essential point is that race is an artificial category created to control and dominate, and as such it should be given no validity for those who wish to undermine racism.
The suggestion that a humanistic discourse that opposes oppressions should view race as an obstacle and not a tool may sound like a pipe dream from the 1960’s. Certainly, during the 1980’s and 1990’s, what is sometimes referred to as “identity politics” emerged as a key point of opposition to the homogenizing force of a mass consumer culture that prefers to paint all right-thinking folks as striving, middle-class Americans in search of golf club memberships and shiny new sport utility vehicles. Paul Gilroy is well aware that the alternatives for people of color have been popularly presented as assimilation into the mainstream culture or marginalization in balkanized nationalisms. That is why this book is necessary. Gilroy rejects this binary opposition and suggests instead that there is another model implicit in the example of the black Atlantic. Gilroy would replace the belief in racial “essence” with a model of selfhood that assumes an intrinsic cosmopolitanism as its most common characteristic. Black people, his work points out, are defined less by skin, hair, and biology than by communities, settlements, and travels—and so it is with all people.
However, no abstract summary, not even the one the author himself provides in the opening chapters of his book, can do justice to the importance of this work. Another way of understanding what Gilroy is trying to accomplish would be to say that he is trying, at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, to understand why, as W. E. B. Du Bois predicted would be the case, the color line was the problem of the twentieth century. He is trying, in short, to understand fascism. Drawing his inspiration from the work of Michel Foucault, he points out that the lack of a coherent critique of fascism has left the topic a “floating signifier” that can be attached to any cause to denounce it. Seeking to correct this, Gilroy pulls together research from a number of...
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