Adam Shatz: Welcome to the London Review of Books podcast. I'm your host, Adam Shatz. Today we have a very special guest, Paul Gilroy, one of our foremost thinkers on questions of race, nation, and belonging in the modern world. Gilroy is the founding director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the study of racism and racialisation at University College London. A protégé of the late Stuart Hall, Gilroy is probably best known as the author of The Black Atlantic, published in 1993, a book that not only coined a new term, but helped revolutionise the study of the cultures of the black diaspora. In all of his work, he has celebrated the creativity and inventiveness of the writers, artists, and musicians of the black Atlantic, while also warning against what he has called the lure of ethnic absolutism, cultural nationalism, and other forms of essentialist thinking. Last year Gilroy received the Holberg prize, awarded to a person who has made outstanding contributions to research in the arts, humanities, social science, law, or theology. After you've listened to this podcast, I urge you to go online and read or better yet listen to his Holberg lecture, ‘Never Again: Refusing Race and Salvaging the Human’, a powerful reflection on the crisis of our contemporary politics and imagination. Gilroy's writing on race and racism is distinguished not only by the way it cuts across sociology, history, aesthetics, and philosophy, but by its worldliness, its expansive frame of intellectual reference and its profoundly ethical underpinnings. Ever since the anti-racist protests in the States spread to Europe and the UK, I've been eager to hear Paul's thoughts about the growing global insurrection against white supremacy and the residues of colonialism, and about the state of contemporary anti-racist discourse.
So it's a pleasure and an honour to have him as our guest. Paul, welcome to the LRB podcast.
Paul Gilroy: Thank you, Adam.
AS: Paul, it's well known that you're a member of this remarkable generation of thinkers and artists in Britain who looked to Stuart Hall as a teacher and mentor, thinking of people like Hazel Carby, Kobena Mercer, John Akomfrah. But it's not as if your intellectual life began with Stuart Hall, as influential as he was. Your mother Beryl was an ethno-psychiatrist – or psychologist, rather – a teacher and novelist born in Guyana, your father a scientist and conscientious objector in World War II. You were born a decade after the war’s end, and in your book Against Race you talk about growing up in East London where some of your neighbours were Holocaust survivors, and about the impact that Primo Levi and Jean Amery had on your thinking. So one of the aspects of your writing that's always struck me is its sensitivity to the psychological dimensions of politics and its sense of human vulnerability in the face of violence. I'm wondering if we can trace these concerns and this awareness to this childhood that you had?
PG: Hmm, interesting place to begin. Yes, I grew up in North London and London was in the 1950s and early 60s not so different in its heterocultural and creole patterning to the London we know today. Among our neighbours were certainly Holocaust survivors. I can remember sitting in the garden with my mother and my baby sister and asking Mrs Neckar about the tattoo on her arm because as a child I never seen that, and I had no idea of what it might mean. I don't recall what she said to me about it, although I do recall the taste of her poppy seed cake, which has always been something that has travelled with me in the intervening decades. But around us were many people coming from lots of different parts of what had been the empire, different parts of Europe. We had Italians who'd come from the European voluntary workers scheme. We had fugitive Jews from the camps, from the lagers. We had enormous numbers of South African refugees who were my peers and friends, active politically, often from these very damaged families that were part of the agency project. We had Cypriots, we had Sikhs, we had Caribbean folks, we had Indians, and the flats where we lived were full. There was obviously a turnover among the other tenants, and so I was exposed to all manner of things. And I don't know that the question of violence ... where it enters, I think, is not there exactly because it enters for me in knowing that there were certain places, even as a young child, that I couldn't walk, even in North London. The Teddy boys were there, my mother had run from them as a young woman herself. Run for her life. And then of course the Teddy boys were soon replaced by the skinheads, who represented another kind of immediate danger in our everyday moving around. They were in a sense easier to see coming. There was a kind of violence there also just among a good percentage of the regular English people who were around us. There was a resentment, a hatred, and it would bubble up periodically at school or in transit. So these hazards were just routine features of our everyday life even at that point, even before Enoch Powell’s intervention which formalised the backdrop of race war as the ground against which we had to make a life. And those hazards were not agonised over. They were, I guess, considered like the weather or something like that. You accept them as conditions of your existence and you choose to move forward and move around and move through those hazards, alert as you can be. And I was still in primary school when I was attacked in the street by people, and I think that was part of that awakening for me. Because although as quite a young child I moved around the city quite a lot on my own – we did that in those days – I can remember very clearly having thoughts about why I had been attacked, what it meant, what the words they had said to me when they assaulted me might mean, and what this might reveal about the larger processes of racial division and racial conflict that were no longer hidden, they were absolutely visible. You could touch them.
AS: Your mother, who published a novel in 1976 called The Black Teacher, was herself involved in anti-racist organisations and black women's groups. Am I right?
PG: She was. We’ve got to periodise that carefully, I think. It wasn't a novel, The Black Teacher, it was a memoir, a life writing exercise. And she had been involved with the Race Relations Board, so that was, for those who are unfamiliar with that moment, the leaders of the Labour Party in the era of Roy Jenkins and Harold Wilson, Jenkins was determined that our country wasn't going to go down the road of an American future. So to avoid the prospect of fire and race war, he dispatched his civil servants to the United States on what was then called a fact-finding mission. I liked that phrase, it's kind of quaint. So the fact-finding mission went off to look at America on fire and came back with the news that if you didn't bring in anti-discrimination legislation, then an American situation was waiting for you. And that anti-discrimination legislation required the formation of panels of people who would judge particular complaints that were made, a kind of paralegal process. And my mum was certainly involved in that because I can remember again, a little bit later, when the hate mail began to turn up at the house, being as a child a little bit puzzled at some of the things that were being sent through the post, and being actually not very satisfied with the kinds of explanations that I was getting about why this was going on, and why we had to be a bit careful or a bit frightened in case other things came through the door that we weren't looking out for. So, yeah, those things were going on, and those things were around us. And one layer of my parents’ life was among people who had dissenting opinions of one kind or another, so I was quite used to that.
AS: And you clearly had a very strong sense of internationalism, growing up in a community composed of so many different ethnic groups and refugees and political exiles and so on. I wonder, in your formative years in the 70s and 80s, there were very significant anti-racist movements in the UK, and in activist circles at the time ‘black’ was a political category, not a racial one. And it embraced not just people of Afro-Caribbean descent, but also South Asians. I remember reading Mona Hatoum, an artist of Lebanese Palestinian descent, calling herself black. Now Stuart Hall defended the term on anti-essentialist and political grounds, but he also said that one unfortunate effect was that it obscured the particular experiences of Asians in Britain. And now we have this strange term ‘BAME’, which I gather you're not supposed to call ‘bame’, to refer to black and ethnic minorities. Is this an improvement or is this a regression? What's your feeling about this?
PG: Well, to me, the word ‘BAME’ just highlights the absurdity involved in the politics of race. I wouldn't use it in polite company, but I think it does. I like the absurdity of racial hierarchy, the absurdity of racial differentiation. I want to keep in touch with that, and not because it's a source of humour alone. People are victimised and the violence is palpable and recurrent and communicates powerful and important things about the nature of these relationships. But the absurdity is fundamental, I think, to the kinds of political responses that we require. There's not much I can say about Stuart, but let me just correct you on one point here. Yes, everything you said is right. But I remember one of the very first times that I heard Stuart speak in the late 1970s. And I remember the debate that followed his intervention in that academic activists’ kind of grey zone, and I can remember being really shocked and deeply disagreeing with him about the idea that there was a moment in the life of movements as they move where people had to pretend to be more unanimous than they really were, that identity, if you like, would be considered through an idea of hyper-similarity in certain critical moments. And that really bothered me. I guess it's a political point, really. And we associate it nowadays with the work of people like Gayatri Spivak, who spoke of ‘strategic essentialism’. I guess I always kind of recoiled from that idea because it creates a kind of hierarchy of credibility, that you allow people into the illusions of this racial unanimism that you yourself don’t really suffer from. You're the one who's tied to the mast who can hear that call while the others have their ears stuffed up with wax. So I feel very uncomfortable with the idea that you feed that possibility whilst yourself luxuriating in the possibility that you know better, really. You don't really buy in. And I think the reason that troubled me then, and the reason it still troubles me in some of its more recent iterations, that particular notion, is because that's a problem I associate with some political movements that I've really recoiled from. And if one looks at the history of the 20th century and thinks about the growth of fascism in its inter-war formations, we characteristically encounter patterns where the dupes involved are offered some sort of antisemitic conspiracy theory, or rather…let me put it a different way. The dupes are offered a theory which focuses on anti-black racism, but once you're really initiated into the higher layers of this movement, you get the real deal, which is that Jews are responsible for everything. So those kinds of hierarchies in the flow of information, all of those use those perspectives which suggest that we are much more able to manipulate identities and orchestrate identities on behalf of others. I feel uncomfortable with that idea, because once some of these images, some of these rhetorics, some of these political ideas are out of the box, they are loose in the world. And it's delusional to imagine that you can orchestrate them, even for the good.
AS: Black cultural studies in Britain in the 80s and 90s had quite a profound effect overseas, above all in the United States. But it was, if I'm not mistaken, quite a challenge to pursue that work at the time, even though it grew out of the Birmingham school and Raymond Williams’s work, and so on. I remember reading you saying somewhere that you were often told at that time to go back home, as if you had another home than Britain. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to pursue that kind of work in Britain at the time, that placed questions of race and racism at the centre of an understanding of the British experience?
PG: Hmm. That's a wonderful question. I am of the generation who drifted into higher education, looking for information, wanting to follow my curiosity into an understanding of the racial ordering of the world. Of course I was interested in other things, but I felt under incredible pressure to do that and to seek that information. And at the time the only place that you could do that really in universities was by studying American history and American culture and American literature. So that's what I went to do. And I was very fortunate, actually, in the teachers I found in the moment, because I can remember the day when I was talking to my tutor and my tutor said to me, Oh, well, you're interested in that stuff. Well, I just supervised Ben Sidran’s PhD, it's over there in the library, maybe you should go and take a look at it, or whatever. And this is a moment really, I guess, when the incendiary possibilities that have been unlocked by Baraka’s reading of African American music and African American culture and society are absolutely effervescent.
AS: You're talking about blues people and black music…
PG: And black music in particular. Yes. And through all that I guess I found Ellison and other things that were connected. I was guided by my teachers into that. So – and this is going to sound odd – I arrived at the point of entry into thinking about black life in Britain via a kind of American intellectual detour. Now that's not the same as me as a child being attacked in the street and wondering why I was being attacked or being frightened moving around the city, there's another layer of it there. And that's asking questions about why this is happening and how to keep safe as I move through it. But in terms of the intellectual apparatus that I required, it wasn't something that emerged from the Caribbean side of my family. That happened later, but it didn't happen straight away. So I wasn't at that stage reading James or thinking about Caribbean poetry or trying to understand what Wilson Harris was doing or any of those things. I was looking at the world through a set of lenses that were to do with the development of black studies transnationally, which were fundamentally rooted in African American life history and experience. And my guide – Du Bois is still my guide – but I can remember sitting down reading The Souls of Black Folks when I was still at school and reading Martin Luther King, or thinking about these things as part of what drove me into university as an American studies undergraduate looking for the truth of black life. And so after a while, writing my work at university, you begin to say, because things have moved on politically and culturally, I have to find a way to adapt this toolkit to my own circumstances. I'm not American. I've been to America, I've seen a little bit what that's like, and it is incredibly inspiring and compelling, but I didn't see my future in the United States. I saw it here. And so I wanted to create a toolkit. I wanted to find the weapons of criticism, to borrow a phrase, that would unlock my own predicament historically.
AS: And also to find some more local ancestors, as it were.
PG: And to find some local ancestors. And for me, cultural studies was a way of doing that, and it was tremendously exciting. I'd read The Making of the English Working Class when I was still at school. So I had some idea of that project, although I didn't really understand the Communist Party historians’ project. All of that came to me through my time in Birmingham. And that was very welcome to me. But trying to develop that in the Birmingham context was weird because people didn't…if they had read LeRoi Jones Baraka, they didn't take it seriously as a whole critical paradigm for thinking about black life and culture and aesthetics. If they'd read Ellison, they didn't see Ellison in that way. If they'd read Wright – you know, Stuart loathed Wright, dismissed Wright as a didactic, somebody who was writing the wrong kind of literature. And the other side of Wright was unknown, I guess we could say. There was, I guess, some familiarity with C.L.R. James as a figure in the history of communism, someone who'd been and talked to Trotsky, and so on, and who was at that stage, after all, living in London at the end of his life. So he was around and was associated with other interests and forces on the ground. James is in the picture, but people are terribly unfamiliar with that archive. And I felt there had to be a way of connecting what was most inspiring and useful drawn from the writings of African Americans, some of whom we've talked about, but there were others as well who were very important to me, and not being distracted into the kinds of arguments about African American culture, which are inevitably part of that territory, but borrowing in a selective way to find resources with which to unlock my own situation.
AS: I think we certainly hear echoes of, for example, Baraka’s idea of the Changing Same in your study The Black Atlantic. And it seems to me that what you've done in The Black Atlantic and in other books such as Between Camps, or what was published in the States as Against Grace, is to take some of these figures like Wright, like Ellison and Du Bois and to de-provincialise our understanding of them. You were talking about some of these people in Britain who dismissed Richard Wright, or who dismissed Wright’s work published in Paris once he left the States, didn't see them as thinkers about the world. And you've taken them and said these people were not just writing about “the black experience” or “the black American experience”, they were writing about the world, a world that had been profoundly shaped by slavery and its aftermaths.
PG: Yeah, that's right. And I think I was encouraged to do that by someone else that I met, African American scholar Cedric Robinson, who was over in England, I guess it must have been ’80,’81, finishing this book Black Marxism that he was writing at that time at a village called Radwinter up there on the edge of Cambridgeshire, and close to actually where Raymond Williams was living, funnily enough, although I don't know if they ever encountered one another at the shops or something! Anyway, Cedric was around and I found Cedric was an incredible custodian of the history of those thinkers who had, from a variety of different directions, come into African American life, and also found Marxism in that context and had moved through it and then left, often with a powerful exit velocity. Like Wright, in fact. What is it Wright says – ‘Marxism is but a transitory makeshift, pending a more accurate diagnosis, and containing within it a definition of humanity only by default.’ So Marxism becomes this kind of transitory makeshift, a signpost on the road to a richer conversation about what we can do with this world and how we can transform ourselves and our hopes through a different kind of discussion about what it is to be a human being in the 20th century.
AS: For you Marxism was not really even much of a transitory makeshift, although you of course drew upon Marxist ideas and traditions, because I think you said in an interview that what made you recoil from Marxism was its productivism. And that for the black intellectual tradition work has been servitude, right? It hasn't been this site of liberation.
PG: Mm. No, I think that's true. That's one of the things that drew me to Adorno because Adorno's critique of Marx is something that works along similar lines, although of course now we've got John Bellamy Foster and a whole lot of other voices who look at the history of Marxism from a different angle, that's connected up with ecological and other questions.
I'm very stimulated by that. I just still don't buy the idea that Marxism isn't productivist in its constitution. I think that it is, but that's a good argument to keep rolling along.
AS: I'm struck by what you were saying about having started out, having launched your inquiry into questions of race and racism by reading the work of black American writers. And I don't think you were alone in that regard at all. And it seems to me that…well, I'm going to quote something that you said. You wrote that ‘African American culture offers the world this conception of freedom which is more complex, more compelling, more poetic, more important. There's something in that experience which articulates a conception of freedom which is not “freiheit”. It's not “liberté”. This is a different freedom. This is not the freedom of the ancient Greeks. This is not the freedom of the Prussians. This is a distinctive conception of freedom, which is won from an experience of suffering, not the redemption of that suffering, but the product of it.’ And as you said, you went on to write about some of the great figures in West Indian thought, C.L.R. James in particular, about Bob Marley. But you were always writing in the shadow of black American culture. And I wonder, is this because of this extraordinary imaginative and political contribution, or is it also to some extent because of the fact of American power? Why has black American culture so dominated discussions of black diaspora culture?
PG: Hmm. Well, Du Bois would have said, and I follow him, that it's exactly this conception of freedom that has been so compelling and so useful. Even I think James, at a certain point in Notes on Dialectics, with Hegel in his pocket, would also have had a view of how conceptions of human freedom might be thought of in some sort of teleological sweep. Obviously it's not the last word on human freedom, but it is for much of the 20th century, something which has the wind of history behind it. Does that reflect other aspects of American power in the world? Of course it does. Actually, to really unlock that one would have to start to look at the history of the music which has been bequeathed by African Americans to the rest of the planet. I know that there are other components of that which relate to a larger understanding of black Atlantic life and history, but let's think about what the life of that music has been and how it has been transmitted. And obviously I used the story of the Jubilee Singers in Black Atlantic, because it seemed to me to represent a different starting point for that conversation than the starting points which had become habitual or conventional in the larger narratives of African American music on its travels across the world.
AS: I want to talk to you about the electrifying effect that the protests in the States have had in the UK, especially among black Britons. George Floyd was not the first black person in the States to be murdered by the police. Yet this killing more than any other generated not just a powerful protest wave in the States, but a similar wave overseas –statues taken down, calls made to decolonise the university and other public spaces. Why do you think that this killing in particular was so galvanising in the UK?
PG: I don't know the answer to that. I don't know why this killing, the murder of George Floyd, was so potent transnationally, why it had such a long reach, such a powerful resonance. It may be that I don't know because I haven't watched that video. I try to protect myself from things like that. And I don't feel there’s an ethical obligation to immerse myself in that suffering. It's something I recoil from, and I want to protect that part of myself which is sensitive about those exposures and those contexts. So I think perhaps part of it must be to do with that video and the particular nature of the violence in that example. It has to be that, because we've heard ‘I can't breathe’ before, we've had videos of murder. We've had people being shot, etc, etc. So that must be part of it, but I can't offer a reading of it that would help that. The other thing is when we think about the global event that grows from the seed of George Floyd's murder, I know that the new technologies that are at our disposal, the way that things can be passed on and passed around, multiplied through an electronic network of a very plastic, very mutable kind, this is also a big part of it. And it may well be that there's a technological story to be told about the viral nature of those events on their travels. Maybe there's just a kind of quantity aspect too, that we reach a certain point after years and years of ever more vivid presentations of this violence that something snaps, something breaks. But of course we can't overlook the role of the Covid crisis in this. And I would say that the Covid pandemic reveals the racialised character of vulnerabilities and risks in a way that we know every other form of chronic disease already does. But there's something about the intensity of the Covid pandemic revealing that to everybody which means that there's a kind of connotative resonance. A resonance is established between the deliberate and calculated or indifferent killing of this man and the forms of vulnerability which have been underscored through the pandemic, and the official failure of governments to be able to not just manage it, but to see the racialised dimensions of that risk as something that is sufficiently important to engage governmentally.
AS: In your 2019 Holberg lecture, which seems to me even more prescient now in 2020 than it was when it was published last year, you write of a kind of civilisational shipwreck, and of what you call ‘disaster ethics’. And in a sense the Covid crisis was this shipwreck that revealed this anatomy of racial and class injustice that you just described.
PG: Yeah. I've been influenced for a long time as a teacher by Hans Blumenberg's exercises in metaphorology. And Blumenberg has a story about the shipwreck as a metaphor in the history of thought, one that he takes back to the ancients and sees as part of the beginnings of theoria et al. But the person who's witnessing this tragedy from the land comes to understand that the obligations that fall to them by virtue of their witnessing of this horror, which is a sublime thing, they can't necessarily intervene at the distance or in the perspective from which they behold these things. And I've been working on a book about imperilled humanity for a long time, and finding that a useful place to enter those arguments and to connect them to other things in the black Atlantic archive that relate to the history of liquid modernity, fluvial thinking, riparian thinking, pelagic thinking, abyssal thinking, fluministic thinking, to really try and make the meeting place of land and sea into a kind of standpoint from which certain creative, imaginative and ethical possibilities begin to force themselves into consciousness.
AS: Well, the idea of the sea as a place of horror, especially because of the history of the Middle Passage, but also of freedom, has appeared in your work from early on. I remember the allusions to Turner's 1840 painting in The Black Atlantic.
PG: It was interesting, that painting, because the people who were the guardians in British culture of the legacy of Turner…
AS: They didn't want that painting.
PG: They weren't terribly interested in that painting! When I think of all the things that I've done by mistake in my career as a writer, I'm very proud, actually, of restoring The Slave Ship to people's imaginative purview. It was wonderful, actually, we had a day some years ago at the Turner Centre behind Tate Britain, and Gordon Parks came to speak. Because Gordon Parks in his later years was somebody who became progressively more obsessed with Turner. So Gordon was there and an art historian from Boston, Eric Rosenberg, was there and we had a wonderful rich day of thinking about how Turner might figure in this story. Of course, the history of that painting is interesting because of the slave ship painted, because it was exhibited in 1840 at the time of the anti-slavery convention. And there's a certain amount of contemporary critical commentary on it where people don't really know quite what to make of this as an intervention and whether it's appropriate in the light of the anti-slavery struggle.
AS: And it's an image of slaves dead and dying, being thrown overboard.
PG: Yes. It's a horrible one. And of course it belonged to Ruskin too, for an interesting period of time. So it's got a history. We were talking earlier on about trying to connect together the worlds of English cultural reflection, criticism and art with the world of African American critics and voices, and the larger story for black Atlantic. To me that painting... I remember dragging my poor children to go and look at it in the museum in Boston where it was located when they were very young. I just remember thinking, well, of course in a way this is an amazingly useful object that conjoins those histories, that enforces their mutual conditioning, that nobody can deny what’s going on. Of course once you delve into the archives of Turner scholarship, you find that there's an awful lot of denial going on about that.
AS: We can also connect this imaginatively to Derek Walcott's poem ‘The Sea is History’, and to John Akomfrah’s work.
PG: Yeah. To go back to Wright for a moment, one of the things I've been working on most recently are the stories that Wright wrote in response to the Mississippi flood. And thinking about flooding, really, more than the sea as such, trying to get into stories about where the racial nomos of the land breaks down in conditions of emergency, but also in contact with water, with this kind of liquid force that pushes everything aside. Wright was very early into that, and I think inspired a number of later writers, Black Power writers like Henry Dumas, for example, who has this unfinished novel, Jonoah and the Green Stone. So you've got the figures of Jonah and Noah brought together in the context of an exploration of the flood and the aftermath of flooding. It's a very powerful body of work, very stimulating to return to that in the context of discussions about climate change.
AS: Now Henry Dumas was a very gifted black poet, part of the black arts movement who was killed by a New York city transit cop in 1968 at the age of 33, supposedly in a case of mistaken identity, never resolved. How did you come to return to his work recently?
PG: Well, I've always taught him, but I've always taught…a lot of his work, the side of his work that is read, there are two things that are read because of his association with Sun Ra. In fact, I think when he was killed he was on his way home from a rehearsal with Sun Ra. He was on his journey homeward, so there's a very intimate connection between him and Sun Ra, of course. And there is…how can I put it? There are ways of looking at his short stories, and his more rural writing, that open into a discussion of what people tend to think of as the magical realist side of Toni Morrison, who was after all, his editor. She was his editor. And in the same way I think we've got Gail Jones on one side in one ear of Morrison, and then we've got Dumas on the other. They’re her Jiminy Cricket figures, calling into her ears from either side of her head. There's something very interesting about putting those two figures into the mix. Now Dumas is the writer par excellence of those stories about black rural life, which confuse the politics of time. And he's remembered, if he's remembered at all, really, as an Afro-futurist writer. So there are these stories where two cracker policemen who want to go and murder this guy who's got a bit uppity, get him in the police car, and he's not frightened and they don't really understand why. But as the diegesis of this little story unfolds, it turns out there's a spaceship around the corner and actually the people in the spaceship are on his team. So there are those aspects of Dumas that people find very interesting and important. And I do too, but I think for me the nature of the writing demands what some would call an eco- critical reading, as well as an Afro-futurist one. And I don't see those things as opposed to one another.
AS: In The Black Atlantic and in other books you've used a word that oddly enough seems at risk of falling out of fashion. And the word I'm speaking of is ‘racism’. Today the preferred term for many activists and writers is ‘anti-blackness’ or ‘white supremacy’. How do you understand this discursive shift? Is it comparable to the shift from ‘negro’ to ‘black’, or in the 1990s from ‘black’ to ‘African American’? Which of course has been reversed since then, but how do you understand it?
PG: Well, there's a generous answer to that and an ungenerous answer. I think the generous answer would say that in the light of the horrors that have unfolded in the last 20 years, since the advent of the cellphone made the presence of violent racism in everyday life a routine feature of African American experience, and offered it to the world as incontrovertible proof that people want a vocabulary, a constellation of concepts, which allows them to zoom in on the particular nature of those horrors, and they see in the vocabulary of anti-blackness that opportunity. I'm not entirely convinced by that. I associate the vocabulary of anti-blackness with two writers in particular. One's Lewis Gordon, who's really a phenomenologist, a pupil of Maurice Natanson, etc. And the other one, of course, is the great African American luminary, an unsung intellectual presence in African American life, St Clair Drake. Now St Clair Drake was a black Quaker (they're always interesting), someone who did their pathbreaking field work on the city of Liverpool. And in Drake's magisterial two-volume series of writings on the African diaspora of black folks, Black Folks Here and There, he opens up this discussion between the general forms of racism and its specific anti-black forms. I don't see those conversations as being weakened by being connected to one another. We live in a situation where I think the histories of suffering and the ontological responses to them, the need to ontologise in response to suffering, is really a dominant motif. And that's as true of African Americans as it is, I think, of some versions of Jewish life and thought. One mustn’t now by some lights compare antisemitism to other forms of racism. If we do that, we are in danger of diluting the historical specificity and significance of antisemitism. I think the shift to anti-blackness is rather like that. If we talk about racism too generally, we are in danger of diluting our fundamental reckoning with the historical uniqueness and significance of this outrage. So I see those terms as part of the moods of the moment that we're in.
AS: You've described this ontological turn in black studies – and I take that to be an implicit reference to Afro-pessimism, as well as to some extent to the decolonise movement – and both, it seems to me, depict the world as if once you scratch the surface it hasn't changed, except in appearance. For Afro-pessimism black people are still slaves, socially dead (they use the term from Orlando Patterson, although Patterson rejects that usage). And for the decolonised movement, the ancestors of the colonised are still colonised. And it seems to me both movements, as alive as they are to the enduring power of oppression, have a hard time imagining chains or any kind of social horizon or historical dynamism.
PG: Yeah. I think we have to take the two cases separately. Obviously if you're told in your theorem that the only thing you have to do in order to challenge this…in fact the order that you inhabit as a black person, as a black body, as they would have it, is so uniquely sealed off to the possibility of historical transformation, that leaves you with one mission. And that mission is to be black. And in some ways that's a very comforting option. Because it really does mean you don't actually have to do anything at all. And I think that's nourishing maybe to that generation of people who see the racial settlement they took for granted as the more privileged daughters and sons of a certain kind of caste within African American life, who see that settlement being washed away, to stick with the earlier metaphor. So I think it’s very comforting to feel that all you have to do is just be, and that's the limit of your responsibility. And as you know, some of the femininist critics of Afro-pessimism who've published work recently have pointed out – and I'm thinking here not just of Annie Teriba’s wonderful essay, but also of the work that's been published in Dutch by Gloria Wekker in Amsterdam – this is a very joyless project. It's a very joyless masculinist , slightly weird approach… you're an American. Maybe you would understand its relationship to the culture of debating more than I do. I wasn't a sports debater at school. So I don't really know. I can see the structure of the argument might correspond and work very well in the context of a sort of anthropological account of high school debating culture, as a competitive sport. That's where it belongs and that's probably where we could park it.
AS: It seems that in left liberal culture today, there are two choices when it comes to anti-racism. There's an anti-racism that logically dismantles the concept of race, but seems to overlook the persistence of racism, on the one hand. And then on the other, you have this anti-racism that shades into a strategic, if not ontological essentialism. So you have this colourblind voluntarism that pays too little attention to injustice. And then you have this colour-conscious nationalism that seems wedded to monolithic thinking about race. Why does it seem so hard to argue, as you have, for an anti-racist critique of raciology for an appreciation of black culture that avoids a kind of racialist romanticism? You've described your approach as ‘strategic universalism’, and you’ve risked a lot, I think, in making a case for that, because it remains quite unfashionable now. Why is that so hard?
PG: Why is it so hard? Maybe it's got to do with the retreat of the left and the defeat of the left. I know Fanon wasn't a Marxist, obviously, but he's someone who you can't deny is a humanist voice of some sort. It's not the humanism of the liberals. It's not the humanism of the Cold War. It has a longer lineage, maybe. It connects up to certain motifs in French intellectual life in the 19th century. It has a certain association with motifs drawn from the early Marx. It preserves the concept of alienation, although it's not quite the alienation of Marx, it's not quite the alienation of Hegel, it's not quite the reification of the later Marx.
AS: There's a bit of Rousseau as well.
PG: There's a bit of Rousseau. There's a little bit of Nietzsche in there. There's a number of other things that we can identify, but it is a humanistic project. And there are some commentators on Fanon – I'm thinking here of the Ghanaian Ato Sekyi-Otu, of course Achille Mbembe and others – mostly Francophone, interestingly, because they go and read the work closely, and they understand what Fanon said in a way that some of those English translations which sought to Americanise the words at a critical point, the life of black power and so on, they invite a misreading. So there are some questions there that one would have to answer about the power of those translations. But there are other explanations too about why it's so difficult, because it leaves you in a situation in our country – you look at the number of black people in our country, look at the number of black and other brown minority ethnic people, whatever you want to call them. You add all of us up together. And then tell me that our political body can be instrumental in protecting ourselves and in moving this society to a better place. It's not going to happen. We have to seek alliances. We have to make spontaneous connections with people. There was a long time, you pointed earlier on in our conversation back to the moment where black was considered to be a political colour. We have a history of leftism, which is very specific, but is dropped out because it's so little known and understood. There were trades union stories, there were local trades councils in numerous parts of our country. There's a story to be told about the Labour party itself, which is a more interesting one. And similarly in the United States, one has to say that African Americans are standing on their own in their sublime objection, are not going to be able – maybe this is not for me to say actually, but you asked me, so I'm going to say it – they're not going to be able to protect themselves adequately, never mind defend themselves politically.
AS: Forging alliances is an existential as well as a political necessity …
PG: Exactly. Thank you. I have friends who live in Alabama, I've been in the South. You look at these questions of ontology and belonging and singularity and all of this stuff.It looks very different from different parts of the country than it does when the motif of who can catch a cab on the corner of New York City becomes the ground zero of racial vulnerability and racial violence. Catching a cab? Well, until recently we could actually catch the subway and not worry too much about what the cab drivers thought.
AS: Barbara Fields in a recent piece in Dissent questioned the now ubiquitous use of the concept of white privilege, to mean not subject to a racist double standard. She writes, ‘this is not a privilege, it's a right that belongs to every human being.’ And of course, Du Bois famously described the ‘wages of whiteness’, and the wages of whiteness still exist. But for many people they’ve become quite meagre. So I'm wondering, do you think that it makes sense today politically to speak of white privilege? How useful is that term?
PG: I'm with Barbara on this. I know that David Roediger, who's another descendant of Du Bois, has tried to argue, I think very positively, for a slightly different vocabulary for pinning down these mechanisms. He speaks of ‘white advantage’, for example, which I think is perhaps a more refined way for beginning to think about the dynamics of this. ‘Privilege’ sounds so fixed, so final, it's not subject to any kind of historical limits somehow. So I’m not drawn to the vocabulary of white privilege. I'm not drawn to the vocabulary of white fragility, either. One does understand a little bit about what that's getting at, but I think there's some more conceptual work required. So absolutely we need a better vocabulary, and of course Barbara Fields and a number of other people who've also taken that risk, they're also people who I think remain faithful to a certain politics of intellectual work which is associated with different sets of interests, generationally, and in disciplinary terms in the politics of higher education in the US and elsewhere, actually. So 100 percent with Barbara Fields on that. And I think I feel more comfortable in returning to these questions than I did 20 years ago when I wrote that book, because really all it did was unleash a whole torrent of violence and abuse towards me from African Americans. And that of course began with Black Atlantic. I won't name people, but you'd get quite distinguished African American academics coming to Britain to give lecture tours. And they would say, who is this Gilroy? He must be stopped from teaching your children, seriously. It would be foolish to say that my encounter with those arguments about the limits of racialised forms of political action wasn't in some ways conditioned by my reluctant exposure to the idea that black nationalism could be as toxic as any other form of nationalism. It's not always, but it can be.
AS: From the time that you published your first book in 1987, There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack, you've written about race, nation, belonging. In the aftermath of the civil rights and anti-racist movements in the US and the UK, politicians on the right were in some ways obliged to practice what you and Stuart Hall called an inferential racism, racial politics with a nod and a wink. But thanks to Donald Trump and other racist authoritarian leaders, Victor Orban, Bolsanaro, racism is as brazen and crude as ever. It's been uncorked almost like a bottle of champagne drunk with pleasure by its supporters as if they've been released from an inhibition, from the muzzle of political correctness, they would call it. Now much of your recent work has addressed this recrudescence of brazen racism, and it seems in your analysis tied in complicated ways to economic crisis, to the collapse of the socialist left, and to a wider assault on truth and public trust. How do you think we should understand this wave of anti-black, but also anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim racism? Do you see this as the last gasp of a white majority that is becoming a white minority, or do you think it's something that might have staying power?
PG: I don't know. It depends on which day you catch me. There are certainly some days when I think it's the last gasp historically, because I think that the nature of the crisis… in the same way that we began our conversation by discussing the way in which the pandemic has engulfed and transformed institutions and moved things very, very quickly in some directions, whether that mobilisation is in fact sustainable I don't know. But there is a huge mobilisation. Can it become a movement? We don't know. That's being settled around us now. So I think it could be the last gasp, because I think the nature of the climate emergency is accelerating towards us so fast that all sorts of new possibilities, alliances and connections across national boundaries, across regional areas across the globe, will inevitably emerge from that. But yes, there's a lot of distance to go before we can turn around and place that in the cold storage of history and say that we're past it, we're through it. You said earlier on that whiteness wasn't worth what it used to be worth. I think a lot really depends on how we calculate that value or how that value asserts itself in people's consciousness over the immediate period in front of us. So we know that it's not worth what it was, but we don't really know quite yet what it is still worth. And their cri de coeur, as you know, from Paris to North Carolina is ‘you will not replace…’
AS: ‘You will not replace us.’
PG: Yeah. So we'll see!
AS: On the last page of The Black Atlantic, you envisioned a politics of a new century in which ‘the central axis of conflict will no longer be the colour line, but the challenge of just sustainable development, and the frontiers which will separate the overdeveloped parts of the world at home and abroad from the intractable poverty that already surrounds them. In these circumstances, it may be easier to appreciate the utility of a response to racism that doesn't reify the concept of race.’ How far are we from this conception of politics? Are we arriving at it? Is it too early? How do you see this in relation to the anti-racist protests that have emerged in the last several months? Because we've seen in some ways, at one and the same time, a very powerful critique of institutional racism and at the same time, a slide back into certain essentialist thinking.
PG: Well, we see the slippage because it's easier. And it's why the question really for me now is, what comfort do the fading certainties of a racial identity afford you in the context of – well, we could start with the pandemic, right? We could start with that – are those certainties as resonant, as solid, do they offer the kind of ballast in terms of your psychic disposition that they might have done in other circumstances? Your anxieties, your fears, do they mediate them in some way? I don't know. And when the water is lapping up the road, I don't know that people are going to be fretting so much about their whiteness. Maybe they will. Maybe the appeal of a racial war has its own psychic magnetism for some folk. But I would like to think that in the teeth of the emergency, if that awaits us, there will be other options there which are more future oriented, which allow us to live life relative to a future that we can't quite anatomise from this distance. So that's my hope. And I guess I do believe as a scholar, as a writer, as a voice, that there are certain obligations that fall on people like myself. And one of them is to offer shards of hope, even in the teeth of things that seem intractable. So I would just throw that out there as an image of it. Wright wrote very powerfully about the period of 20th-century life that had formed him as an interlude. I used it as one of the epigraphs for Ain't No Black in the Union Jack, one of the epigraphs is drawn from Wright where he's reflecting on this sentimental interlude that created his political imagination. I guess I'd want to stretch that time a little bit and say my political imagination has been created in this sentimental interlude. And I want to use that fortuitous outcome as a way of finding images that can endow contemporary anxieties with a measure of hope.
AS: Paul, it's been such a pleasure to talk with you and to think with you. And thank you so much for joining us on the LRB podcast.
PG: Thank you so much.