Paul Gilroy

The last humanist: how Paul Gilroy became the most vital guide to our age of crisis, Yohann Koshy

It was after a conversation with a musician, David Hinds, of the reggae band Steel Pulse, that Gilroy grew the dreadlocks that he keeps to this day. Interviewing him for a music zine during his Birmingham days, Gilroy spoke with Hinds late into the night, debating black power and music, and discussing Rastafarianism, a socio-political religion that connected people across the black Atlantic world. Growing out dreadlocks was a way of signifying one’s ethical commitment to the “sufferers” of the world. In the Britain of the 70s and 80s, it was also a dangerous way to stand out.

When I asked him about this, more than four decades later, Gilroy resisted divulging what in particular prompted the decision to grow dreadlocks. I could tell that I was encroaching on personal territory. Instead, he answered by way of analogy. He talked about George Orwell, a figure whom he admires in all his contradictory complexity. In his essay A Hanging, set in Burma where he was a colonial officer, Orwell describes accompanying a colonial subject to the gallows. During this short journey, a dog runs up to the condemned and tries to lick his face. Moments like these humanise the prisoner, which horrifies Orwell, as it makes the injustice of what is happening inescapable.

In Burma, Orwell decided to tattoo his hands. “He did this to make sure he would never be comfortable in polite society,” Gilroy said. “He marked his body in a way that said to them: I am not one of you.”

Anti-racism has changed since Gilroy’s youth, its edge blunted. For much of the 20th century, being against racism meant being for a radically different political and economic settlement, such as socialism or communism. Today it can mean little more than doing what Gilroy mockingly calls “McKinsey multiculturalism”: keeping unjust societies as they are, except with a few “black and brown bodies” in the corporate boardrooms. (“I’m not very interested in decolonising the 1%”, he told me.) What is left is a more individualistic anti-racist culture, which is keen on checking privilege and affirming the validity of other people’s experiences, but has trouble creating durable institutions or political programmes.

(“Bringing the word identity together with the word politics,” Gilroy once told me, “makes politics impossible, actually, for me, in any meaningful sense. Politics requires the abandonment of identity in a personal sense.”)

Gilroy doesn’t endorse a colour-blind politics that pretends the idea of race can be wished away. The post-racial world has to be fought for, against the odds. When Haider asked if Gilroy would provide a quote for his book, which he did, Gilroy sent him a favoured photograph of his, taken at the Manchester Pan-African Congress of 1945. The scene features placards with slogans like “Arabs and Jews united against British imperialism!” and “Labour with a white skin cannot emancipate itself while labour with a black skin is branded”.

Paul Gilroy