The Intertwinement and Dependency of Capitalism, Oppression, Artistic Expression, and Freedom

A critical point raised in chapter two of Gilroy revolves around the centrality of capitalism to pre-modern as well as modern society. Gilroy expresses that while the evil of slavery is simple to identify as exploitation of human rights and freedom, perhaps the true and most evil culprit is the driving force behind slavery; capitalism. According to Gilroy, 

“Plantation slavery was more than just a system of labour and a distinct mode of racial domination. Whether it encapsulates the inner essence of capitalism or was a vestigial, essentially precapitalist element in a dependent relationship to capitalism proper, it provided the foundations for a distinctive network of economic, social, and political relations. Above all, “its demise threw open the most fundamental questions of economy, society, and polity,” and it has retained a central place in the historical memories of the black Atlantic” (Gilroy, 55).

Since the abolition of slavery in America, Gilroy argues, this driving force of capitalism and human exploitation as embodied by slavery has simply evolved and taken on different forms. That is to say that the system of capitalism and the notion of meritocracy in America continue to exploit Black Americans as a result of the rippled effects of the original capitalistic evil of slavery. One such example that comes to mind regarding the exploitation of Black people by White people is an argument that has been made about professional sports. In a 2019 article published in the New York Times titled “Is Slavery’s Legacy in the Power Dynamics of Sports,” author Kurt Streeter raises concerns about the white “owners” of majority Black NBA teams who are profiting at a rate exponential based on the physical work of “their” team’s players. 

Another point Gilroy raises in chapter two is that within the realm of slavery and continuous capitalist exploitationm, artistic expression has provided a means of escape to some degree. 

“Art, particularly in the form of music and dance, was offered to slaves as a substitute for the formal political freedoms they were denied under the plantation regime. The expressive cultures developed in slavery continue to preserve in artistic form needs nad desires which go far beyond the mere satisfaction of material wants” (57). 

While enslaved people sought some spiritual freedom through song, Black people in modern times continue to fight oppression through means of artistic expression. In “Atlanta” Paper Boy is one such rapper who seeks some degree of social and economic liberation from his music. However, while relying on his music as a significant source of income, he is subject to the same capitalistic exploitation and oppression that he may likely draw much of his artistic expression from. Nonetheless, Gilroy proposes the despite the cycle of capitalistic oppression that artistic expression exists within, there is an undeniably important “link between autobiographical writing and the project of self-liberation. Its fundamental importance lies in the clarity of its announcement tha truth to the self takes priority over what the reader may think is acceptable or appropriate to introduce into an abolitionist discourse” (Gilroy, 70). The reader’s notion of what is appropriate in regards to biographical self expression reminded me once again of Paper Boy’s struggles on “Atlanta.” While he is condemned as being “too gangster” by the NewsCaster, “Black Justin Bieber” is celebrated for his works which we can assume are more tolerable and easy to digest for a White fan base. 

These questions of capitalism and self expression of course are also heavily related much of Donald Glover’s other works which we have examined, namely the song “This is America” which exists also within his film “Guava Island.” In “Guava Island” As he expresses that capitalism is the essence of America, and that anywhere that anyone is working to make someone else richer is America, he fights to maintain that sanctity of his own artistic expression within the system of capitalism that exists on the island. As a result of his preference for artistic expression and preservation rather than succumbing to the system of capitalism and the value of money over spiritual freedom, Denny pays the ultimate price and is killed. Denny’s preference for death rather than to be a part of the system of capitalism is echoed heavily in the latter half of Gilroy’s chapter two…Gilroy writes that…

“This inclination towards death and away from bondage is fundamental” (68).

“This turn towards death as a release from terror and bondacge and a chance to find substantive freedom accords perfectly with Orlando Patterson’s celebrated notion of slavery as a state of “social death.” (66).

“The repeated choice of death rather than bondage articulates the principle of negativity that is opposed to the formal logic and rational calculation characteristic of modern western thinking and expressed in the Helegian slave’s preference for bondage rather than death” (68). 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Can America exist without capitalism?
  2. Are racism and oppression able to exist without capitalism or are they dependent on material wealth and consequent exploitation of “other” groups?


  1. Similar to last week’s discussion on freedom versus independence, perhaps capitalism and self-expression specifically within the realm of the arts, is of similarity when it comes to how an individual may behave and move. We see with Earn’s character, that his movement is at times altered based on his capital means.

  2. Suzanne, I like your recapitulation of Gilmore’s point about art and autobiography as forms of self-construction and self-emancipation in connection to black musicians, Paper Boi and Black Justin Bieber. When the news reporter instructs Paper Boi – “play your part” – she draws a border, or a wall, between two identities or two styles of music. She draws from the popular ideology that ‘black’ and ‘white’ bear absolutely separative histories and that trying to blend their histories will cause conflict, or as Gilmore puts it, “where racist, nationalist, or ethnically absolutist discourses orchestrate political relationships so that these identities appear to be mutually exclusive, occupying the space between them or trying to demonstrate their continuity has been viewed as provocative” (1). In the beginning of that episode, Paper Boi flirts playfully with the reporter, but also asks her to tell the story of the real Paper Boi, beneath the surface. She rejects him. Paper Boi acts in a provocative way because he dares to invite the public into his complex identity, but the reporter (the vehicle of knowledge dissemination), refuses him and responds in saying play your part. The public want PB to be black, and JB to be white. Any action that disrupts this divide is provocative.

    In response to your question about the link between racism and capitalism, my understanding is that Gilmore says slavery was either the essence of capitalism or a byproduct of the epoch prior to capitalism (from your quote in P2). That’s a hard question, but I think that Gilmore’s proposal of the Black Atlantic as an identity that merges two commonly separated histories begins to point towards an advance beyond racial oppression.

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