Challenge to the Centre

One natural result of one’s culture being subjugated to an dominant alien culture, which therefore implies the lower status of one’s own, is to attempt to reassert the value of one’s own culture. A number of writers have wanted to establish a distinct ‘black voice’ in literature, which can express the black consciousness of colonised cultures which has hitherto been suppressed. Key figures in establishing the idea of Négritude were Aimé Césaire, from Martinique, and Leopold Sedar Senghor from Senegal. Both these men were French-educated, under French colonial influence.

They sought to establish black consciousness and black writing as something altogether different from the European model, based on different principles and understanding. In this way, they wanted to establish a black identity of thought and writing, and their influence can be seen in the Afro-Caribbean black consciousness movement in the United States. However, there are problems with this approach.

As soon as you define something as consciously other, it becomes runs the risk of being fixed and stereotyped, and can only be understood by reference to the other other. In many ways the characteristics of black consciousness in Négritude fitted some of the prejudices preconceptions of European thought, suggesting values in the instinctive and the emotional, as opposed to the rational and analytical. It can be said, therefore, to function only as an opposite to the central European model, rather than something independent. Some of the most trenchant criticism of Négritude has come from Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka.

Négritude on the Post Colonial Web
Soyinka’s response to Négritude discussed on the Post Colonial Web
Student responses to Things Fall Apart and Négritude

Another key figure is Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist who approached colonisation from a more directly political perspective, arguing that all colonised peoples shared a common ground in the colonial experience, whereby their own cultures had been marginalised and replaced with the coloniser’s culture. Oppression had denigrated blackness, and he argued that racial stereotyping was at the heart of colonial thought, where the opposition of white/black also reflected an opposition of civilised/uncivilised, good/evil and so on. Some of these assumptions, for example, can be clearly recognised in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (qv. extracts from Week 1). Fanon was also acutely aware of how easily colonised peoples could assimilate the values and manners of their colonisers, associating them with power and privilege, and thus further denigrating the indigenous culture.

Chinua Achebe (Nigeria) argued that one key difference between European and African artistic expression was that European expression was individual, whereas African was linked to society and social function. He wanted African literature to be read an understood in the context of the society which had produced it, and in that way promote a positive view of African civilisation and its unique characteristics.

In his most famous novel, Things Fall Apart, he clearly establishes a vibrant Ibo (the tribes occupying Iboland, the area of Africa now called Nigeria) culture, with its system of beliefs, traditions, education and justice before the white colonisers arrive. The novel charts the beginning of the decline of the Ibo culture under the influence of the Christian missionaries and the beginning of colonial rule. Arrow of God shows the arbitrariness and lack of comprehension of European law applied to Ibo society.

Achebe said that the writing of Things Fall Apart was “an act of atonement with my past, the ritual return and homage of a prodigal son… It’s that fascination with the scraps and pieces of information I could gather about my ancestors that developed into a desire to write my story. Colonial education was saying that there was nothing worth much in my society, and I was beginning to question that, to see there were things that were beautiful even in the ‘heathen’.” He added “I must not make this story look nicer than it was. I went out of my way to gather all the negative things, to describe them as I think they were — good and bad — and ordinary human beings as neither demons nor angels.”

He also commented on colonial attitudes to Africa: “The vast arsenal of derogatory images of Africa amassed to defend the slave trade and, later, colonisation, gave the world not only a literary tradition that is now, happily defunct, but also a particular way of looking (or rather not looking) at Africa and Africans.” It is certainly worth reading An Image of Africa, his essay on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Extracts from African novels with notes
Essay on Achebe and Heart of Darkness
Student essay on Achebe’s challenge to Conrad
Student essay on Conrad’s and Achebe’s presentation of Africa and Africans

You might also consider Ngũgĩ’s novel A Grain of Wheat, which directly challenges British colonialism in Kenya by charting the resistance to it which led up to independence, (or Uhuru, the Swahili word for freedom). His novel challenges the imperial view of Kenya’s history by presenting the Kenyan perspective, where the Mau Mau movement is sympathetically portrayed as a band of courageous freedom fighters, rather than as insurgents or terrorists. The novel describes the decline in imperial idealism as well as the brutality of the British military regime in Kenya in the face of resistance. However, he is equally uncompromising about the prospect for independent Kenya, describing ‘a feeling of inevitable gloom’ as Uhuru approaches because of the pain of Kenya’s past and the corruption which is already evident in the new independent government.

Another way the centrist, European view is challenged is by challenging not only the history, but the literature too, with its perceived and inherent values. This is known as rewriting the canon, the canon being the ‘approved’ body of literary texts, which makes an implicit judgement about what texts are seen as literature, and therefore worthwhile, and those which are not. A good example of rewriting the canon is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which tells the story of Rochester’s mad wife in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre. Bertha Mason, the mad wife, is, like Jean Rhys herself, a Creole from the Caribbean, and in the nineteenth century novel is a dispensable plot device, the mad woman who prevents Rochester marrying before burning down the house, killing herself and allowing Rochester to marry. Her past, and the reasons for her madness, are never explored. Rhys’ novel does that exploration, reclaiming Bertha’s past and finding her madness rooted in the colonisation of the Caribbean. The telling of the ignored woman’s story is a feminist issue as well as a post colonial one, and you will find that feminist considerations are often very important in post colonial literature. Colonialism can be seen to follow a patriarchal model, subjugating nations as women have historically been subjugated in patriarchal societies.

Essay on Rewriting History in Post Colonial Literature

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