Mask Paul Gilroy’s abiding contribution to our understanding of black identities is his systematic prising apart of ‘essentialist’ assumptions about race and racism. For many he has become a weathervane for thinking about ourselves ‘from within and without’ and has become a ‘global intellectual’ of race relations along with other expansive thinkers like Amartya Sen and Tariq Ramadan.  

Gilroy’s first books were written as a post-graduate at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University. His self-penned There ain’t no black in the Union Jack and the co-authored Empire strikes back sought to bring to our attention the neglected analysis of the politics of race.  

It was during these studies of the 1970s that Gilroy started to question whether the Marxist analysis of class struggle could explain race exploitation. ‘In dealing with the relationship of race to class it is has been commonplace to recall Stuart Hall’s suggestive remark that the former is the modality in which the latter is lived.'

This relative distancing from Marxism led to Gilroy’s search for new ways of theorising race and is why he has become one of the most quoted of black intellectuals today.

In his critique of essentialism, Gilroy drew on Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952). To form a politics of black self-determination, Fanon held two principles still cherished by Gilroy – there is no ‘natural solidarity’ based on an African past and black intellectuals need to adapt to modern European culture.’

Fanon thought both black and white were imprisoned by race. ‘The white man is locked in his whiteness. The black man in his blackness. We shall endeavour to determine the tendencies of his double narcissism and the motivations behind it.’ Without such a challenge black people would continue to be captured by and wear a ‘White Mask.’

Gilroy’s critique of essentialism is evident in his piece ‘Jewells Brought from Bondage: Black Music and the Politics of Authenticity’*.  For Gilroy, understanding musical forms is a visceral and gut matter. ‘Thinking about music – a non-representational, non-conceptual form – raises aspects of embodied subjectivity that are not reducible to the cognitive and the ethical.’

Music can be politically inspirational but beguiling too and it is too easy get seduced and reduced by the antiphonal call and response forms of the slave plantation song. ‘The original call is becoming harder to locate.

Rather than search  for the so-called ‘mouldy fig’ caricature of the authentic blues singer,  a stereotype of wishful imagination, Gilroy decries the search for authentic icons as little more than a recourse to a romantic tradition serving a ‘culture of compensation.’) Top of his challenges to such atrophied thinking about black identity is the nostalgia about ‘Afrocentricity.’

In musicological terms such essentialist assumptions are known as the error of ’homology’ where music could be thought to somehow represent a society or culture as having innate and intrinsic qualities.  

In terms of race Gilroy clearly rejects the notion that a musical form can sum up a pure identity in a once-and-for all way. Rather musical genres produced repertoires not fixed canons.  

It is from here that Jo Haynes, in Music, difference and the residue of race, can spread her musical wings because of the constant re-workings of musical repertoires albeit often through the medium of re-worked references to race.

Gilroy’s writing became more expansive and international while teaching at Yale in the United States. In Between camps (2000) there is a appeal for ‘planetary humanism’ to defeat ‘race’ as an organising concept which reproduces oppressive racial hierarchies.  There are echoes of Fanon.

‘Black and white are bonded together by the mechanisms of ‘race’ that estrange them from each other and amputate their common humanity.’)  In After Empire (2004) he found Britain still entranced by a post-Empire ‘melancholia’ but one increasingly  transformed by a new ‘conviviality’ which has emerged because of the relative success of multiculturalism. 

Much social science writing is derivative and predictable – not Gilroy. He has an independent turn of mind and has the ability to surprise the reader as well as affirm.  

In the Black Atlantic, for instance, there is a profound discussion about the concept of diaspora and how much he empathises with the Jewish experience.   Most of all he challenges complacency and simplistic essentialist thinking. Sometimes his work makes for a hard read but it is a good one if you dream of a world rid of racial hierarchy.

*This is a chapter in The Black Atlantic. Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993)