1 Feb

Map of the Week: The Black Atlantic


By Phoebe Hill

This map was originally created by Léopold Lambert for a 2021 issue of the Funambulist Magazine – The Ocean…From the Black Atlantic to the Sea of Islands. It acts as a visual representation of the idea of the Black Atlantic, a concept first coined by sociologist Paul Gilroy in his 1993 book, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. In his book, Gilroy mobilizes the Black Atlantic concept as a new way of seeing Black identity; Rather than something static and nationally defined, Blackness is multifaceted and constantly changing, shaped by forces which transcend national borders. Gilroy uses the Atlantic Ocean, the body of water through which so many enslaved African people were forcibly transported, to ground his transnational understandings of Black identity, focusing on the exchanges and movements between Atlantic coasts. The fluidity of the ocean connects to the multitude of narratives of belonging and history of the Black Atlantic, as well as the flows of community found beyond borders. This map acts as a visual support to the Black Atlantic concept which has grown beyond Gilroy’s initial use to be embraced by intellectuals, artists, and authors alike throughout the Black Atlantic and the world. 

Most importantly, this map expands the scope of understanding regarding the Trans-Atlantic slave trade from the national to the transnational. The red arrows chart the journeys taken by ships carrying African people away from their homelands towards the so-called “New World”. Gilroy utilizes the imagery of the slave ship to demonstrate the position of Black bodies between two (or more) lands, identities, cultures, unable to be defined by borders. Each red arrow points towards a distinct destination, with the magnitude of the arrow correlating to the number of African people who were transported there. The red arrows help contextualize the story of slavery, framing the arrival of enslaved people on American shores, for example, within a broader movement of enslaved people across the Atlantic towards the shores of Latin America and the Caribbean. The map’s representation of the geographical extent of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade relates to Gilroy’s efforts to develop race as a transnational idea. 

Moreover, this map and the Black Atlantic concept act as a reminder of the transnational nature of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and draw attention to the networks and strategies of resistance to racism that transcended, and continue to transcend, national borders. According to Gilroy, Black resistance, much like Black identity, is transnational. In particular, Gilroy examines the transnational countercultures of identities. He argues that Black people across the Black Atlantic constructed such identities in response to racist societies. Gilroy underscores artistic expression as a way to explore the transient nature of Blackness, as a way to embrace a communal identity despite many individuals in the diaspora having had their original cultures stolen from them. He points particularly to the subversive power of music as a tool to oppose racism and construct new identities. These countercultures again stretch across the Black Atlantic, connecting far-off people and places in the practice of resistance and cultural construction. 

This map acts as a powerful accompaniment to Paul Gilroy’s idea of the Black Atlantic. Building upon the intellectual achievements of earlier thinkers such as W.E.B. Dubois, Gilroy has ushered in new understandings of race and culture. Just as this map is tilted on its side, Gilroy’s Black Atlantic concept asks the reader to turn their ideas about race and culture on their heads – to look and to understand from a different angle. When seen from this perspective, slavery and its legacy emerge more clearly as an international phenomenon, fundamental to the story of the modern West.