In October 1699 a ship called the Liverpool Merchant set sail for Africa, proceeding thence to Barbados with a cargo of 220 slaves. Among the ship’s owners was Sir Thomas Johnson, who that same year joined with a movement of slave traders to establish Liverpool as an independent parish. And so the port city in what was then still part of Lancashire was initiated into the Triangular Trade. Between 1700 and 1807, about 1.5 million African slaves were transported across the Atlantic on ships that had set sail from Liverpool. Controlling 40 percent of the European slave trade and a similar proportion of the world’s trade in general, Liverpool rivaled London in terms of wealth.
The grandiose architectural offspring of the city’s former shipping might are still visible on its waterfront. One of the more recent is the Cunard Building, completed in 1917 in ornate Italian Renaissance style. The Canadian-born Samuel Cunard had parlayed a contract for transatlantic mail shipment into the world’s most prestigious passenger cruise line; he represents an era in which Liverpool’s maritime industry had sloughed off the shame of the slave trade. His great-granddaughter Nancy Cunard was an energetic promoter of literary and artistic Modernism who also edited the 1934 collection Negro: An Anthology, a landmark of the Harlem Renaissance that has been called "the first publication to voice freely perspectives and ideologies from diaspora blacks and Africans."
If there is any doubt that coming to terms with this history remains painful, consider what happened in 2006 when the Liverpool city council decided that street names linked to the slave trade should be changed to honor abolitionists. When it emerged that Penny Lane, the subject of the famous Beatles song, was named for an eighteenth-century owner of slave ships who testified in favor of the slave trade before Parliament, and that it therefore would be one of those renamed, there were howls of rage. "Few songs are lodged in the national psyche like Penny Lane," the Guardian conceded. "Penny Lane should keep its name, but its fame should be used to make people aware of its shameful history." (In a letter to the editor one of the paper’s Australian readers took sweet reason to even greater lengths: "The solution to the Penny Lane problem is obvious: commemorate the song instead and rename it Penny Lane Lane.") The street remains Penny Lane, and tourists still go there looking for the shelter in the middle of a roundabout.
Tate Liverpool is located in a considerably less flamboyant structure than the Cunard Building, a former warehouse in the Albert Dock, but given the city’s history it is hard to think of a more apt setting for its current exhibition, "Afro Modern: Journeys Through the Black Atlantic" (on view through April 25). As the subtitle discloses, the exhibition takes its inspiration from British sociologist Paul Gilroy’s groundbreaking 1993 book, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Thanks to its international reach, Gilroy’s notion of the Black Atlantic offered one of the most suggestive distillations to date of an idea that was broadly articulated by Alain Locke nearly seventy years earlier, that "to be ‘Negro’ in the cultural sense" is "to be distinctively composite." It’s peculiar, then, that Gilroy is not among the contributors to the exhibition catalog. (Music and the written word, rather than the visual arts, have been Gilroy’s primary cultural sources, as reaffirmed by his provocative new book Darker Than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture, with its more somber view of the cultural scene Gilroy evoked in 1993.) By the same token, as Courtney Martin points out in her contribution to the catalog, even before Gilroy, Robert Farris Thompson had written of a "black Atlantic visual tradition"–though Thompson is not a contributor either.