Below is an alphabetically listed glossary of terms relevant to the field of Black Atlantic studies.

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A movement originating in the late eighteenth century which sought the abolition of slave trading and the emancipation of slaves in Europe and the New World. Criticised by some religious groups and condemned by Enlightenment thinkers as a violation of the rights of man, the slave trade (specifically the enforced transportation of African slaves) was made illegal in Britain in 1807, in large part due to the efforts of politician William Wilberforce. Slavery itself was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833. In the United States political tensions between slavers and abolitionists resulted in the American Civil War (1861–65) and the ultimate abolition of slavery in 1865. In the Caribbean, the abolition of slavery occurred at different times through the nineteenth century: Haiti (1804), Trinidad (1834), Jamaica (1834), Martinique (1848) and Cuba (1886). Brazil did not abolish slavery until 1888, making it the last nation in the Western hemisphere to do so.


A broad term referring to those strands of twentieth-century transnational black art and literature affiliated to global modernism and composed of disparate strains of African tradition and experience. Afro-modernism embraces the networks of hybridity evident across Africa and its diaspora and rejects the exoticising tendencies of modernist ‘Primitivism’.


A conflation of ‘African’ and ‘cosmopolitan’, the term refers to an emergent, internationally mobile group of people of African origin able to exert cultural and economic influence on the world. It has also been used to describe a community of artists originating from Africa but living in alternative locations, and thus part of a more recent and mobile diaspora.


A political and cultural movement arising in the early 1960s, developed by Édouard Glissant (b. 1928), which sought to celebrate and assert a distinct Caribbean identity, Antillanité was a reaction to the idea of a single African identity shared across the diaspora proposed by the earlier Négritude movement, of which Glissant has been the principal critic. Antillanité espoused the convergence of a multiplicity of ethnic and cultural elements, including African ones, in the creation of a syncretic Caribbean identity.


A Brazilian artistic and cultural movement heralded by the poet Oswald de Andrade (1890–1954) in 1928, Antropofagia was a response to the cultural legacies imparted by European colonialism and aimed to assert the distinctively hybrid aspects of Brazilian art and literature. The term ‘antropofagia’ translates literally as people-eating, therefore meaning cannibalism, and Andrade’s usage refers to the idea of Brazilians devouring or appropriating foreign cultural influences rather than being colonised by them. Tarsila do Amaral (1886–1973) was the artist most closely related to the movement and her paintings Abaporu 1928 and Antropofagia 1929 explore this theme.


A geographical term used to describe a chain or cluster of islands, or a sea containing a large number of scattered islands, such as the Caribbean.

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Black Atlantic

A term defined in Paul Gilroy’s book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), describing an alternative space for cultural and intellectual interchange and experience with specific regard to the African diaspora. Emphasising the hybridity and transnationalism of African diasporic experience the term challenges the legitimacy of cultural nationalism and racial essentialism, and questions notions of regional intellectual autonomy. A key motif in the book is the idea of the Atlantic Ocean as a ‘continent in negative’, a network of cultures spanning Africa, North and South America, the Caribbean and Europe.

Black Orpheus

Referring to the myth of Orpheus, the title of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1948 essay analysing Négritude that introduced a volume of francophone poetry called Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache, compiled by Léopold Senghor, was ‘Orphée Noir’ (Black Orpheus). From 1957, in its English form ‘Black Orpheus’, it was used as the title of a literary and artistic journal published by the Mbari club in Ibadan, Nigeria; it featured the work of African, Caribbean and African-American writers and artists. In 1959, Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus) became the title of a film made in Brazil by the French director Marcel Camus which updated the myth of Orpheus and set it in the favela (shanty-town) communities and carnival of Rio de Janeiro. Thus, the term links the different continents around the Atlantic, through the context of different manifestations of Négritude and the negotiation of modernism and cultural hybridity.

Black Power

A political movement originating in the USA in the 1960s and greatly influenced by Malcolm X (1925–65), Black Power was developed into a coherent ideology by Stokely Carmichael (1941–98) and Charles Hamilton. It called upon African-Americans to take pride in their culture and their descent. By exhibiting a sense of solidarity, they could create a distinctively Black economic and political base to further their claim for full equality in US society. As these goals were seen to be unfulfilled, Black Power adopted an increasingly confrontational approach. The most prominent of the Black Power groups became the Black Panther Party (1966–c.1976), which, as well as adopting a community-oriented stance, also advocated the establishment of paramilitary self-defence units. Some adherents believed in Black autonomy, nationalism and separatism. Its actions resulted in a significant increase in cultural awareness among many young African-Americans, manifested in political activity, slogans such as ‘Black is Beautiful’, and in movements such as the Black Arts Movement.

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An African-Brazilian folk religion practised chiefly in Brazil, but also found in other areas of South and North America and Europe. Candomblé originated in the region of Bahia, the capital of which, Salvador, boasts the the country’s largest Afro-Brazilian population. The religion is based on a form of animism (the belief that within every animal, plant, and inanimate object there dwells a spirit or soul capable of governing its existence and influencing human affairs). Candomblé arose from the rituals practised by peoples of the African diaspora, principally inspired by the Yoruba veneration of orishas. It also refers to the customs and rituals associated with the religion.


A concept arising from the study of language (linguistics) and developed by Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975). The term refers to the idea that narrative is defined by the interdependent and indivisible temporal and spatial conditions in which it is formed. Bakhtin defines a chronotope as the intersection and fusing of given spatial and temporal coordinates. For example, a specific point in time within an inhabited landscape can be seen as a chronotope. Time is able to take physical form and become visible for human contemplation. Furthermore, space itself is shaped by a chronological element, as well as by the distinctive mental and moral character of its inhabitants. In this way a chronotope can be regarded as a symbol of community itself. Gilroy applies the term to ships, as spatially and temporally defined units.


Closely identified with hybridity, creolisation describes the appropriation and reinterpretation of non-native cultural elements into a single creole, or multi-ethnic society. ‘Creole’ also describes a form of language evolved from sustained contact with a range of vernaculars and traditions, whose increased usage means that it becomes the mother tongue of a speech community. Creole languages have had difficulty in being recognised as independent languages in their own right or as written languages, something the Négritude and Antillanité movements sought to address. Striking similarities have been noted in the structure of all such languages, suggesting that what is common to creoles in widely scattered communities may also underpin the acquisition of languages everywhere.


A literary movement originated in 1989 by Patrick Chamoiseau, Jean Bernabé and Raphaël Confiant on the French Caribbean island of Martinique. It was a response to the ideology proposed by the writers of the earlier Négritude movement who, rejecting the dominating influence of French colonialism, defined themselves in terms of their cultural, racial and historical ties to the African continent. Créolité regarded this as a form of ‘fake universality’, instead proposing that Caribbean identity be defined by plurality and hybridity informed by indigenous peoples, and other diasporic communities, as well as by the heritage of ex-slave and European colonialists. As such, Créolité shares the concerns of Antillanité regarding what it considers to be the falsehood of the assertion that a single shared cultural tradition exists across all elements of the African diaspora.

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The term refers to a permanently displaced or relocated population with a shared ethnic identity, originally arising in relation to Jewish exile from Israel in 607 BC and successive subsequent expulsions in diverse times and contexts. Diaspora describes the process of forced emigration as well as voluntary relocation on a large scale. The African diaspora in particular refers to descendants of black Africans who were forcibly enslaved and dispersed as a result of the Atlantic slave trade. It is estimated that at least 12 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic Ocean between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, though some believe the true figure to be much higher.

Double consciousness

Developed by African-American activist, historian and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963), double consciousness is a concept describing the felt contradiction between social values and daily experience for black people in the United States. It refers to the state of belonging to a culture but being simultaneously outside it, denied access or ignored within it. For Du Bois being black meant being deprived of a ‘true self-consciousness’ insofar as black Americans’ perception of themselves is framed by a generalised contempt on the part of white America. To be black and American thus implied a range of contradictions between American social ideals, which blacks shared, and the experience of exclusion from American life. The term was later used in cultural studies to describe conflicting and/or overlapping forms of identification, for instance in Paul Gilroy’s work on Atlantic culture.

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A European intellectual movement of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it refers to a period of political, philosophical and cultural life during which Reason was seen as being the key source of human knowledge and, crucially, underpinned the belief in progress. It challenged hitherto accepted social, political and religious traditions. With its inherent criticism of government and Church, the ideas of the Enlightenment are associated with revolution and political upheaval, including the American War of Independence (1775–83), the French Revolution (1789) and the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804).


A branch of the social sciences arising in France in the early twentieth century concerned with studying human societies and individual cultures, thus closely related to anthropology and sociology. In the UK it is often called social anthropology. While not prescribing any particular research method, ethnographers rely principally on direct first-hand observation and social engagement as methods of research and understanding. Ethnography is underpinned by the idea that humanity is best understood through the study and acknowledgment of its fullest possible context.

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A term encompassing the work and philosophy of Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), a prominent black nationalist and Pan-Africanist who founded the UNIA-ACL (Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League). It defined a movement of ‘African Redemption’. Garveyism can be regarded as a movement towards the realisation of a transnational African identity with the ultimate aim of political and social union among all those of African descent. It also called for all European colonial powers to leave Africa. It inspired later figures such as Malcolm X (1925–65) and movements and organisations such as the Nation of Islam.

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Harlem Renaissance

A cultural, literary, artistic and intellectual movement originating in New York during the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance was an early manifestation of black consciousness in the United States. It was through this movement that black writers and artists expressed and asserted their sense of modernity. It was a celebration and exploration of African-American history, identity and expression and exerted influence until the 1930s, though many of its ideas resonated long afterwards. Profoundly influencing the cultures of the African diaspora in Europe and the Caribbean, the movement questioned the cultural authority of the Western canon and challenged white paternalism and societal racism. Writers such as the poet Langston Hughes (1902–67) became icons of this movement.


In post-colonial terminology hybridity alludes to racial and/or cultural mixing, usually with reference to the legacy of imperialism. Theorist Homi K. Bhabha noted that the concept of hybridity undermined the strict opposition of coloniser and colonised and challenged the legitimacy of imperial authority, while raising issues around race and multiculturalism and the construction of identity.

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An Afro-Cuban religion practised in Cuba by people of African ancestry. When African slaves were transported to Cuba, they brought with them their religious beliefs and evolved groups or associations depending on their respective African backgrounds (e.g. Bantu, Arara, Yesa). The Yoruba people of South-West Nigeria left Africa from a slave port named Lucumi, which subsequently became the name of their African-Cuban religion.


Lwa (also loa or l’wha) are spirits central to Haitian folk religion (the most well-known form of which is called voodoo, vodou or vodun), derived from a combination of West African and Catholic beliefs. In the practice of voodoo, they function as the spiritual intermediaries between religious devotees and a supreme divinity. There are many lwa, for instance protective spirits of African tribes, or deified ancestors. Lwa are grouped into families, or ‘nations’.

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Although a variety of meanings for the word exist, primarily macumba refers to a range of syncretic religions or rituals of African (Bantu) origin commonly practised in Brazil, including Candomblé, Umbanda, Quimbanda and Omoloko. The word is also deployed pejoratively to connote black magic or witchcraft, though among macumba practitioners it is not interpreted in a negative sense.


Derived from the Spanish for fugitive or runaway, ‘maroon’ was the name given to escaped slaves, and their descendants, in South, Central and North America and the Caribbean. The maroons established independent communities, or maroon republics, sometimes joined with indigenous populations, but separate from the principal colonial settlements. These communities were often the source of attacks on plantations and of slave rebellions, particularly in Haiti, Jamaica, Suriname and Brazil. Over time, they developed their own specific cultures and creole languages. Many maroon communities continue to exist, notably the Jamaican Maroons, remaining virtually autonomous and independent from mainstream society and culture.


Originating in the context of Spanish and Portuguese colonial contacts, the term denotes a person of mixed racial heritage. The term is distinct from ‘mulatto’ (referring to a person of African-European parentage) in that it refers to Latin Americans of mixed European and American Indian descent. The term can be used much more broadly, however, to describe many different variations of racial and cultural mixing.

Middle Passage

The transatlantic route upon which African slaves were transported to New World plantations, the Middle Passage refers to the central portion of the triangular trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas. The triangle operated thus: commercial and manufactured goods from Europe were imported into the African market where they were bartered or sold for slaves. The slaves were then transported across the Atlantic and sold onto plantations. The raw materials produced by these plantations (sugar and tobacco among others) were in turn exported to Europe. The Middle Passage was therefore the scene of appalling conditions of confinement, death and terror, and involved barbaric acts such as throwing sick or unruly slaves overboard. It was also the means by which African slaves became violently separated from their families, culture, religions and history, resulting in conflicted states of belonging and identity.

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The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is a major Civil Rights group founded in 1909 as a result of race riots in Illinois. In the first half of the twentieth century the NAACP was instrumental in enfranchising African-Americans and the passing of anti-lynching laws. Its mission continues to focus on political, educational, and economic equality for all and on the eradication of racial hatred and discrimination.

Natural Synthesis

Devised by the artist and theorist Uche Okeke (b. 1933) following the independence of Nigeria in 1960, Natural Synthesis was intended as an artistic manifesto for a nation reborn. For Okeke any revival of traditional art was regressive. Acknowledging a break from this past, he envisioned a Nigerian art which celebrated the heterogeneity of its cultural traditions while simultaneously confronting the immediate philosophical and artistic landscape in which it dwelt.


A cultural and political movement founded during the 1930s by a group that included Martinican poet Aimé Césaire (1913–2008), French Guyanese poet Léon Damas (1912–78), and the future Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906–2001), Négritude, which affirmed consciousness of the value of blackness and African culture and identity, was influenced by Surrealism in Paris and the Harlem Renaissance in New York. The movement celebrated a rediscovered African identity, culture and expression, challenging the inherent racism of colonialism. It was underpinned by the belief that the shared heritage of members of the African diaspora was the best tool for combating colonial and cultural hegemony.


A tendency in 1920s’ Paris through which avant-garde artists celebrated black culture, primarily as a means of reacting against what they deemed to be bourgeois sensibilities and rejuvenating European culture in the aftermath of World War I. It found manifestation in art, literature, music, fashion, dance and design and was styled as a craze or epidemic. The emphasis and fetishisation by white artists of the so-called ‘primitive’ often created a stereotyped image of black culture. Prominent personalities associated with Negrophilia include Josephine Baker (1906–75) and Nancy Cunard (1896–1965).

New Negro

A term associated with the Harlem Renaissance, though used in African-American race-conscious discourse since the late nineteenth century. In 1917, Hubert Harrison (1883–1927) founded the Liberty League and The Voice, respectively the first organisation and the first newspaper of the New Negro movement. Alain Locke’s (1885–1954) anthology of art and literature, The New Negro (1925), contrasted the Old Negro with the New Negro, who was associated with a newfound assertiveness, racial pride and self-confidence in the years following World War I.

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In the Yoruba tradition orishas (orixas in Brazil) are spiritual manifestations of a supreme divinity. In the syncretic religions of African origin (such as Candomblé and Santería) dedication to orishas has been conflated with the Catholic veneration of saints; individual orishas thus include characteristics of their Catholic counterparts. Orishas are broadly synonymous with the lwa of Lucumi people.

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A sociopolitical philosophy which strives to recognise the shared ethnicity, cultural and historical traditions of all the indigenous inhabitants of Africa and its diaspora with the ultimate aim of social and political unification. Pan-Africanist ideas originated in the eighteenth century, and can be seen as a product of the international slave trade rather than as a position that arose within Africa itself. Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832–1912) and W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) have both been called the father of Pan-Africanism. It was Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), however, who played the most prominent role in advancing and disseminating a Pan-African philosophy and a Back-to-Africa movement, embodied in his Black Star Line shipping company.


Pau-Brasil was a literary manifesto of 1925 by Oswald de Andrade which anticipated elements of his Antropofagia manifesto of 1928. Pau Brasil demanded the rejection of what Andrade regarded as the dominating influence of Portuguese cultural and literary tradition. Extending the theories of European modernism, Andrade championed the primitive spontaneity of Brazil’s indigenous cultural traditions as the basis of renegotiating and recreating the nation’s identity and expression in the modern world.


Phrenology was developed as a techique based on the belief that the personality and mental attributes of a subject can be deduced from the study of the shape of the skull. Founded in Germany and common among nineteenth century anthropologists and ethnographers formulating theories of racial difference and national character, phrenology had been largely discredited by the beginning of the twentieth century. It is now viewed as one of the methods by which Western powers sought to justify colonialism and racism through what appeared to be science and rationalism, though was in fact a kind of pseudo-science.


A term coined in the 1990s, it refers to the social position and self-definition of black peoples, though it has largely been applied in an African-American context. Post-black art refers to a genre of contemporary art created by a young generation of African-American and diasporic artists. While post-black art may incorporate a concern with black culture and identity and the assertion of a black presence within what proponents deem to be the racially exclusive territory of Western art-historical discourse, these themes and concerns are often dealt with implicitly rather than in the explicit manner in which many artists of the previous generation had addressed them. It is, therefore, a self-consciously paradoxical genre in that it aims to address racism, even while evading an overly explicit concern with racial identity. The strategy of avoiding culturally and ethnically loaded classifications such as Black Art aims to challenge the legitimacy of categorising art in racial terms.


A critical theory dealing with the social, political and cultural consequences of colonialism, post-colonialism examines the after-effects of colonisation (and is thus concerned with the entire colonial period), as well as the concerns of formerly colonised peoples, particularly with regard to national identity, culture and history in the wake of independence. It examines the means by which power is justified and exercised between coloniser and colonised, and the inevitable processes of hybridity and cultural transfer which occur. It has more recently been extended to embrace examinations of the nature and effects of globalisation.


A term used to describe the appropriation by early modern European artists within their work of what was then called ‘primitive’ art. This included tribal art from Africa, the South Pacific and Indonesia, as well as prehistoric and ancient European art, European folk art and pre-Columbian art. The discovery of African tribal art by Picasso was a major factor in his move towards Cubism. Primitivism can also be interpreted as the search for a simpler way of life away from Western urban sophistication and social restrictions, and in this sense was also important for Expressionism. Curator William Rubin’s controversial exhibition Primitivism in Modern Art, at the Museum of Modern Art New York in 1984, served as a catalyst for a re-examination of this genre and the use of the term ‘primitive’ itself. Thus, the term is now generally avoided unless qualified by inverted commas. Furthermore, some scholars have transformed the term ‘primitivist’ into ‘primitivising’, to highlight the transformation of the object by the attitude of the person regarding it.

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Racial essentialism

The belief that every given race has a set of characteristics or traits which makes it what it is. From the standpoint of racial essentialism, every ethnic group can be described and defined in terms of fixed traits, discounting variations among individuals or over time. While racial essentialism has been used to support racist ideology, in the sense that it suggests a fundamental difference between races, the emphasis on distinctiveness or uniqueness has also been used strategically to further the objectives of groups engaged in identity politics.


A mode of philosophical and intellectual outlook and inquiry, originating in Enlightenment thought during the eighteenth century, in which reason and deduction, as opposed to experience or spiritual revelation, are held to be the principal means of attaining knowledge and defining truth.


A term central to the philosophical method and theory of knowledge developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus (1980). Deleuze and Guattari propose a multiple, non-hierarchical and de-centralised approach to research and understanding, modelled on the rhizome, in opposition to the binarism, dualism and totalising principles, which they termed ‘arborescent’. The rhizomatic approach can be seen as a reaction against dialectical research and understanding.

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The word can be loosely translated from Spanish as the ‘Way of the Saints’. It refers to a hybrid and pantheistic Afro-Cuban religion developed from the beliefs of the West African Yoruba people, but which also contains elements of Catholicism.

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This term refers to an action or activity that involves the crossing of national borders. It is constructed in direct opposition to and challenges the apparent unity of the nation state and all those things belonging to or synonymous with it, such as national identity. Thus it can also refer to a state of being (transnationality) that encompasses and describes associated terms such as diaspora, exile or nomadism, as well as pointing to instances of cultural hybridity.

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