Tradition and the Black Atlantic—Critical Theory in the African Diaspora

by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Basic Civitas, New York | 2010 | ISBN 978-0-465-01410-1 | $23.95 | 205pp

Reviewed by Herb Boyd

henry gates

Within the confines of African American literary theory, Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. is practically peerless.   It’s when the Harvard professor ventures from these precincts that his authority weakens; his expertise turns less formidable.   A good example of this diminution occurred earlier this year when he authored an op-ed piece in the New York Times that set off a chain of reaction from mainly black public intellectuals and activists who felt he had done the reparations movement a gross disservice in his contention that African chiefs and rulers were complicit in the European transatlantic slave trade.  They charged that he tipped the scale much too unfairly.

Many believed that his thesis there, a possible chapter, was a harbinger and a mere pre-pub announcement of his forthcoming book, Tradition and the Black Atlantic—Critical Theory in the African Diaspora, which was mentioned at the end of his article.  But, to some degree of relief, such is not the case, and Dr. Gates aligns his impressive bona fides with at least two other notable scholars who have traversed this rarely discussed intellectual terrain—Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall. In fact, the book is dedicated to Hall, a Jamaican-born, cultural theorist who resides in Ireland.

To Gilroy, Hall’s estimable colleague in the discipline, Gates extends a host of attributions, and well he should since it is Gilroy’s Black Atlantic that paved the way in this complex field of study.

Tradition and the Black Atlantic is not an easy book, which should stand as my most profound understatement.  Unless you are well schooled in Diasporan studies with a tad of modernist palaver, you might consider spending your time acquiring a headache in a more rewarding endeavor.  For the more adventurous, and certainly the most curious among us, prepare for a thicket of unfamiliar concepts and terminology.  I thought I had a reasonably good command of academic jargon, but Skip—and you’ll notice that I refer to him with alternate names given the nature of the review—will send you to the thesaurus with regularity, and sometimes the search for comprehension remains inexplicable.

Let me tease you with a few terms—rhizome, pleonasm, imbrications—that were absolutely baffling and you wonder if Dr. Gates couldn’t have found more familiar synonyms to make the points.  If arcane and difficult language slows the reading, his long exegesis on the importance of Edmund Burke to anti-colonial thought will probably bring it to a screaming halt.  Yes, Burke may be the father of anti-colonialism but it was his children, so to speak, the Nkrumahs, the Lumumbas, the Cabrals, the Mandelas and the Fanons who turned theory into practice and waged the revolutions to bring about change.

Gates devotes an entire chapter to Fanon and it’s somewhat of a return to the book’s first familiar references, those Francophone activists and artists who were at the fulcrum of negritude, particularly Aime Cesaire, Leopold Senghor, Leon Damas, and Jacques Roumain.   His take on Fanon is breathtaking and to some extent the power of his persuasion resumes what he began in the former chapter “Fade to Black,” though you wish he had spent more time on the real Langston Hughes rather than Isaac Julien’s somewhat interpretative film “Looking for Langston.”

And one more point on impetus.  In the Prologue to his opening chapter (a rather strange division), Dr. Gates—and he can be astonishingly brilliant and captivating—subtitles it “The Wright Stuff,” as in Richard Wright.   He recounts the third day of the First International Conference of Negro Writers and Artists, where Wright and James Baldwin are the two African American luminaries among such headliners as Senghor, Cheikh Anta Diop, Alioune Diop (of no kin), Jean Prince-Mars, and Frantz Fanon.   Assembled here in the Sorbonne in Paris in September of 1956, is “practically every major black critical thinker of the age,” Gates observes.   And it’s good that he conditioned this comment because beyond the Francophones are George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, and C.L.R. James who were around at that time, and I wonder if any women of prominence were at the event. 

If the book appears to be a smorgasbord of topics with a narrative that here and there adheres to his theme of comparing the “culture wars” in America in the 1980s with the British Black Arts Movement, it’s because the chapters were written as stand-alone items between 1989 and 1992.   In short, Skip has revisited some of his fugitive pieces and woven them under a fresh rubric.  Following this narrative thread through such a dense subject will challenge even the most informed doctoral candidate in philosophy.

Perhaps the least opaque, least impenetrable chapter is the final one.  Gates offers a timely critique of the current culture wars presently raging during the Obama administrati on.  His analysis resonates with clarity and conviction as he announces that the culture wars—exemplified on the right today by the emergence of the Tea Party and its allies in the media—is a war for the soul of America, no the “war is the soul of America,” Gates corrects.

To be sure, the book is an amalgam of scholarly essays straight from such publications as Critical Inquiry, but two of the chapters, rather than veering toward dissertation territory, cry out for a larger treatment in the more accessible realm of the common, everyday reader.  Over the years Gates has demonstrated his ability to operate in both spheres, but Tradition and the Black Atlantic unfortunately gets too tangled in mangrove and thereby more fit for the seminar than your local reading room.

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