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Part III - Interdisciplinarity and Literary Studies

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 November 2023

Ato Quayson
Stanford University, California
Ankhi Mukherjee
University of Oxford


Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2023
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This content is Open Access and distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence CC-BY-NC 4.0

Chapter 14 Literature, Human Rights Law, and the Return of Decolonization

Joseph R. Slaughter

Ousmane Sembène’s 1974 film Xala opens with a tight focus on a beating drum amid an ecstatic celebration. The scene shifts between a jubilant crowd outside the Chambre de Commerce in Dakar and the postcolonial power drama taking place inside, as a voice-over, speaking in formal French tones reminiscent of Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor, delivers a rousing declaration of independence: “Mr. Minister, Deputies, and honorable colleagues. Never before has an African occupied the presidency of our chamber. … We must take control of our industry, our commerce, our culture” (my translation). Seven men in chic West African dress enter the Chamber to confront three White French administrators; they seize two alabaster busts of Marianne, placing them on the steps outside the building and then expel the Frenchmen, as the voiceover resumes: “Our march is irreversible. … We are businessmen. We must take control of all directorships, including the banks. … This is the culmination of our struggle for true independence.” On the Chamber steps, the Senegalese men raise their arms in victory as the colonial administrators depart; drums beat; dancers whirl; decolonization is done!

And yet the farcical aspects of the scene already anticipate the hairpin turn in decolonization that follows the native bourgeoisie’s occupation of the Chamber of Commerce. The old French administrators march back into the building carrying seven hefty briefcases. The independence speech voice-over returns as well: “We have chosen socialism, the only true socialism, the African path of socialism, socialism on a human scale. … Our independence is complete.” The speech is undercut instantly as the camera finds the seven Senegalese “businessmen,” now attired in full tuxedos, sitting silently as the former administrators place an attaché case before each of the new deputies, stepping back to assume the attentive position of ministerial advisors. With big smiles, the businessmen unlatch their briefcases to find stacks of West African CFA franc notes. The new Chamber president rises to proclaim their revolution a success and to announce the wedding of one of their own to a much younger third wife. “Our modernity must not mean that we lose our africainité,” the president insists, to enthusiastic shouts of “Vive l’africainité!

Xala lampoons the hypocritical corruption of postcolonial Senegal’s native bourgeoisie, whose affirmations of “africainité” preserve selfish political and patriarchal privileges. It vividly illustrates the pitfalls of decolonization coopted by a comprador elite whose “sole motto,” in Frantz Fanon’s words, is “Replace the foreigner” (Reference Fanon158). Indeed, it reads like a satirical dramatization of the “Pitfalls of National Consciousness” chapter of The Wretched of the Earth: in the postcolony, “the national middle class constantly demands the nationalization of the economy and of the trading sectors. … To them, nationalization quite simply means the transfer into native hands of those unfair advantages which are a legacy of the colonial period” (Reference Fanon152). In Xala, decolonization is a farce; the new postcolonial administrators put a Black mask on neocolonialism while the white-skinned former masters retain hold of the puppet strings. Instead of the revolutionary “disorder” that seeks “to change the order of the world” itself (Reference FanonFanon 36), decolonization here looks more like interior decorating; the contents of the Chamber of Commerce have changed, but the institutional form and its colonial, predatory functions remain. Indeed, in Sembène’s stinging caricature, formal decolonization, where the new state has “all the outward trappings of international sovereignty,” is camouflage for neocolonialism as Kwame Nkrumah described it in 1965: the postcolonial state is “nominally independent” but, in fact, “its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside” (Reference Nkrumahix).

Sembène’s comical depiction of neocolonialism’s arrival on the heels of decolonization offers a tableau vivant for visualizing what Aníbal Quijano called “the coloniality of power” – “the European paradigm of modernity/rationality” (Reference Quijano172) that “is still the most general form of domination in the world today, once colonialism as an explicit political order was destroyed” (Reference Quijano170). Sembène’s vignette about the lingering coloniality of power exposes a divergence within decolonization between two versions of the process. The first, formal decolonization (or “flag independence”) is construed as a relatively straightforward matter of filling colonial forms with native content – an act of simple substitution. The second entails the more challenging problem of decolonizing colonialism’s residual forms – that is, of unmaking and remaking the political, legal, economic, social, cultural, and epistemological forms that colonialism leaves in its wake and through which the coloniality of power persists. Formal decolonization is generally treated as a political event completed when a colonial power returns territory and administrative authority to a native or postcolonial regime – celebrated when the new nation raises its flag. The second vision of decolonization is epistemic and cultural, with no attendant celebration; it insists that “colonial forms might need decolonizing themselves” (Reference Gevers, von Bernstorff and DannGevers 384). In this processual version of decolonization, colonial institutions, economic systems, modes of production, educational programs and curricula, political structures, legal codes, social relations, patterns of thought, cultural modes, literary genres, and so on need to be dismantled and reconstructed in order to serve local realities and priorities. In historical practice, these two impulses of decolonization are rarely separable and not entirely differentiable from one another. Indeed, with every effort in the “unfinished project” of decolonization (Reference Wenzel, Szeman, Blacker and SullyWenzel 449), the two impulses operate simultaneously, sustained in dynamic tension, sometimes one weighted more heavily than the other.

With the recent return of decolonization to the political and intellectual agenda, most conspicuously inside educational institutions of the old imperial powers, it is worth attending to the historical differences between formal decolonization and the decolonization of forms as they continue to shape today’s debates. The problems of decolonization are not new, even if wider understanding of the pervasive perniciousness of things like institutional racism and systemic sexism (or the currency of the term “decolonial”) might give them a renewed sense of urgency for a new generation of eager decolonizers. Likewise, the tension between the dual impulses for decolonization (sometimes dismissed too quickly as reformist or celebrated too easily as revolutionary) has been part of the problematics of decolonization whenever and wherever colonialism has landed. In practice, demands and projects for decolonization have historically (perhaps inevitably) entailed tacit acceptance, if not embrace, of some institutional and epistemological forms of colonial domination. This phenomenon reflects not only decolonization’s double bind – that is, the tremendous difficulty (impossibility?) of trying to think and achieve decolonization wholly outside of terms legated by colonialism itself – but also the ontological fact that, as a historical matter of human liberation (or of liberating humanity), decolonization is never entirely done – that is, we can never be done with decolonization.

The first view of decolonization (formal decolonization) tends to treat the political, economic, and cultural forms of the colonizer (whether the nation-state, wage labor, the novel, etc.) as historically necessary or desirable, sometimes as “natural,” “universal,” or even “superior.” These are, of course, the very terms in which European colonialism justified itself as the conveyor of universal norms and benefits. For such reasons, Walter Reference MignoloMignolo, a leading advocate of “decolonial thinking” today, describes the historical “political decolonization movements that existed approximately between 1947 and 1970” as “failed”; “they changed the content but not the terms of the conversation, and maintained the very idea of the state within a global capitalist economy” (Reference Mignolo50). For Reference MignoloMignolo, mid-century decolonization movements “failed” because they did not attempt to decolonize the political and economic forms of colonial modernity. However, such a blanket dismissal oversimplifies the heterogeneous forms of mid-century decolonization, failing to recognize (or ignoring) the facts that political independence was never the only agenda for decolonization and that political decolonization was, in any case, always shadowed (sometimes overshadowed) by comprehensive calls for economic, cultural, and epistemological decolonization.

In the “Cold War” context in which salt-water decolonization unfolded, differences between the two impulses of decolonization were often signaled in anticolonial discourse by the application of emphatic adjectives to articulate goals of “true independence,” as the Senghorian voiceover in Sembène’s film declares. In other words, desires for something more than the mere political independence of formal decolonization were often expressed by adding absolute adjectives (“true,” “full,” “complete”) to intensify ideals of freedom, in which we might hear the echo of Aimé Césaire’s famous adjectival indictment in Discourse on Colonialism: “the West has never been further from being able to live a true humanism – a humanism made to the measure of the world” (73; my emphasis). Those adamant adjectives can tell us much about the incomplete project and ever-receding horizon of decolonization.

It is true that, for the most part, mid-century decolonization movements were strongly marked by a “methodological nationalism” that naturalized the nation-state as the “necessary form of colonial emancipation” and treated decolonization as primarily a matter of filling its form with native administrators (Reference WilderWilder 4). Both the Afro-Asian Conference of Bandung in 1955 and the Non-Aligned Movement meeting in Belgrade in 1961 generally reflect this approach. Instead of rejecting the founding principles of nation-statism or Eurocentric international law, the conference in fact doubled down on the standard principles and Westphalian promises of the international legal order, insisting that the basic package of international rights be extended to all peoples through the form of the nation-state. Indeed, the Final Communiqué of Bandung “declared its full support of the fundamental principles of Human Rights as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations” (3) and, like the later Non-Aligned Movement, decried the lack of a Marshall Plan for the Third World, calling on the World Bank (later cast as a chief villain of neocolonialism) to allocate “a greater part of its resources to Asian-African countries” (2).

In 1960, a high-water mark for national independence in Africa, the Bandung declaration served as the basis for UN General Assembly Resolution XVIV, “The Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples,” which expanded the compass of the “universal” principle in international law that “all peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development” (Article 2). Thus, recently independent postcolonial states managed to enshrine an implicit human right to formal decolonization within the text of international law under the rubric of self-determination in the form of the nation-state, construed as the ultimate (or at least historically necessary) vessel for fulfilling a people’s desires for modernization, ethnonational aspirations for self-expression, development, and human freedom.

However, after a couple decades of collective experience with the pitfalls of formal decolonization and the betrayal of promises for state sovereignty and self-determination, attention turned to the coloniality of international law itself. Given the de facto subordination of postcolonial states within the international order (a situation that Algerian international lawyer and politician Mohamed Bedjaoui described as “nominal decolonization” or “fictitious independence” [Reference Bedjaoui81]), many anticolonial movements and thinkers knew that the nation-state could not be an end on its own; rather, they sought to use it as a means to decolonize the international order itself. As Antony Reference AnghieAnghie has shown, many of the central doctrines of international law were forged in large part to manage and normalize “the colonial confrontation” (Imperialism Reference Anghie3). Thus, while still aspiring to occupy the form of the nation-state, they also wrestled with the colonial origins, imperial legacy, and neoimperial implications of the very international order that made such occupation necessary in the first place.

Anticolonial solidarity conferences throughout the 1960s and 70s gave increased urgency and expanded briefs to decolonization, which often found rhetorical expression in revolutionary adjectives interposed in the text of international law. The Tricontinental meeting in Havana (1966) is perhaps the most explicit example; the assembled African, Asian, and Latin American states and liberation movements proclaimed “the inalienable right of the peoples to full political independence and to resort to all forms of struggle that may be necessary, including armed struggle, to conquer that right” (106; my emphasis). The revolutionary assembly unfurled a series of amplifying militant adjectives to stress the unfinished business of decolonization: “In order to achieve total liberation it is necessary to eliminate all forms of imperialist oppression and exploitation, carry out profound changes in the social and economic structures … To political emancipation must be added economic liberation. Only in this way can social equality of all men and true independence of all states be insured” (106; my emphasis).

Against mere political independence is posed “true independence”; against mere national liberation is posed “full liberation.” Relationally, the first term in each pair signifies an insufficient approach to decolonization (i.e. filling colonial forms with native content), while the adjectival insistence of the second term indicts the first by signaling the pressing need for more radical efforts to decolonize the incomplete forms of formal independence. Rhetorically, “true independence” always comes after independence alone has disappointed, redoubling the demand for emancipation (what Achille Mbembe calls “a second abolition” [Reference Mbembe50]) under the sign of revolution; historically, this corresponds with a shift in emphasis from formal decolonization to the decolonization of forms. This pattern, I suggest, continues today, with “decoloniality” presenting itself as the current champion of “true decolonization” in opposition to what it dismisses as false forms pursued by postcolonialism and Cold War anticolonial movements, inevitably (unwittingly?) repeating a historical pattern within decolonization discourse that wavers between prioritizing one of the two poles of decolonization, forever in search of a truer decolonization.

In principle, the universal needs no adjective, and it is, of course, not possible to make imperialism, international law, or capitalism blush at their venal hypocrisy simply by adding firm adjectives to liberationist ideals that purported to be universal all along. Moreover, what at first appears as wholesale rejection of “false” forms of decolonization is often articulated in pursuit of repossessing and renovating (that is, re-forming), with a difference, colonialism’s pretended “universal” forms. Thus, although Fanon observed that, because decolonization takes many forms, “reason hesitates and refuses to say which is a true decolonization, and which a false” (Reference Fanon59), he nonetheless famously asserted that decolonization is revolutionary disorder that brings “with it a new language and a new humanity” (Reference Fanon36); “this new humanity cannot do otherwise than define a new humanism both for itself and for others” (Reference Fanon246). With echoes in both Césaire and Sylvia Wynter, this “new humanity” and “new humanism” are implicitly counterposed to the old humanity and classic humanism that were historically complicit with colonialism, slavery, and genocide – called to the lower task of justifying the mass exclusion of most human beings from the real and symbolic benefits of “civilization,” “modernity,” and human liberation. From this perspective, Fanonian decolonization is a dialectical historical process for dismantling, remaking, and occupying the space of the universal itself.

For the Tricontinental, speaking in the name of “This Great Humanity,” conquering the “inalienable right” to true self-determination meant taking the fight to cultural and epistemological dimensions in order “to expel from their cultural life the expressions of imperialist influence, thus enriching the lives of their peoples with true art and culture” (112), while demanding “access to the enormous material and intellectual wealth that the knowledge and the work of man have accumulated for centuries” (103). Claiming entitlement to the vast cultural heritage imperialism had amassed might look like acceptance of Eurocolonial constructions of the “universal.” However, the radicalness of the Tricontinental’s demand for decolonization and redistribution of humankind’s cultural and intellectual “wealth” (a term that nonetheless seems to capitulate to a colonial-capitalist logic of property) perhaps resonates better if we read it in the same reparationist vein as Fanon’s unequivocal insistence that “The wealth of the imperial countries is our wealth too. … Europe is literally the creation of the Third World. The wealth which smothers her is that which was stolen from the underdeveloped peoples” (Reference FanonFanon 102). In other words, the Tricontinental insisted that the cultural and intellectual wealth of the imperial countries was (always) already the wealth of colonized peoples too, with the inescapable implications that so-called European culture was the creation of the Third World and that colonialism created Europe. Thus, as Mbembe repeatedly insists, given the long “entanglement of histories and the concatenation of worlds” (Reference Mbembe112) – the fact that “as form and figure, act and relation, colonization was in many regards a coproduction of colonizers and colonized” (Reference Mbembe4) – decolonization could never be a simple matter of expelling imperialist influence or “decolonial delinking” (Reference MignoloMignolo 45), since what we think of as colonialism’s forms (and our thinking about them) were themselves formed dialectically (albeit on unequal terms) in colonial contact zones across the globe.

Although the most immediate practical goal of mid-century decolonization was the occupation of the nation-state form, the new postcolonial majority of the UN also trained its sights on remaking the forms of international law. Thus, within the General Assembly, they tried collectively to leverage the relatively weak power of “Third World sovereignty” (Reference AnghieAnghie, Imperialism 2) to change “the rules of the game” of an international order that emerged in large part to exploit their human and natural resources (Reference Abi-SaabAbi-Saab 30). That is, they sought to wring some of the coloniality (of power) out of the international legal order, to “reform an international system that had been created to subordinate it” (Reference AnghieAnghie, “Legal Aspects” 149). In addition to strengthening (Westphalian) territorial doctrines of political sovereignty, the newly independent states produced twin proposals for decolonizing the international order on both economic and cultural fronts. In 1974, the General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order (NIEO), which sought to clear away “the remaining vestiges of alien and colonial domination, foreign occupation, racial discrimination, apartheid and neo-colonialism in all its forms [that] continue to be among the greatest obstacles to the full emancipation and progress of the developing countries and all the peoples involved” (Article 1; my emphasis). In the late 1970s, Third World states also pressed the cultural/epistemological side of decolonization, proposing a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) that pursued the “decolonization of information” (International Commission 38) to help bring about “the abolition of the vestiges of domination as full national liberation becomes a reality” (6; my emphasis). As Sarah Brouillette has described it in more humanistic terms, postcolonial states “argued not just for the expansion of publishing industries but for the right to tell their own stories and be heard” (Reference Brouillette13). In Fanon’s terms, these legal efforts to decolonize the international order express a new humanist desire for a revolutionary new humanities (a new arts and sciences) that might foster a new humanity – a “humanity” that cannot be taken for granted nor prescribed in advance.

Far from simply accepting the international order as colonialism bequeathed it (as Reference MignoloMignolo intimates), the Third World bloc instead dared to attempt to decolonize global capitalism itself, albeit by trying to leverage the nation-state (itself historically a creature of and for modern capitalism) against what the Tricontinental called “the world system of exploitation” (103). First step or last, the nation-state may well be the dead end of decolonization, but instead of viewing mid-century decolonization simply as “failed,” it would be more accurate to say it was debilitated by neoimperial agents serving vested corporate interests of the most powerful states and elite class interests of the weaker ones. As I have argued elsewhere, the fates of the NIEO and NWICO are part of the more general history of the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s and revanchist responses to Third World challenges to Western hegemony, what Walden Bello called the “rollback” – “the structural resubordination of the [Global] South within a U.S.-dominated global economy” (Reference BelloBello 3) – that entailed other reversals of radical efforts to decolonize the forms of the international order, including the Euro-American “hijacking of human rights” (Reference 299SlaughterSlaughter, “Hijacking”).

When Fanon urged his readers to “rid ourselves of the habit … of minimizing the action of our fathers,” saying that “they fought as well as they could, with the arms that they possessed then,” he did so while emphasizing the historical contingencies that conditioned mid-century decolonization. In particular, he stressed the international dimension of anticolonial struggle and the transformed character of the Cold War international order within which it unavoidably operated: “if the echoes of their struggle have not resounded in the international arena, we must realize that the reason for this silence lies less in their lack of heroism than in the fundamentally different international situation of our time” (Reference Fanon206–7). Indeed, for Fanon, decolonization was the pursuit of resonance in the international arena. We, too, would do well to rid ourselves of the habit of minimizing mid-century decolonization movements, since like their forerunners (and ourselves today), they fought with the arms they possessed – or, in the case of the nation-state, with debilitated versions of a form they sought to occupy.

Calls for formal decolonization, by both anticolonial movements and colonizers alike, tend to imagine the nation (or “nation-ness,” as Benedict Anderson described it) as a set of modular components that coordinate the “Westphalian unities of nation-time and nation-space” (Reference 299SlaughterSlaughter, Human Rights 92). In Anderson’s influential account, the “cultural artefacts” of nation-ness created at the end of the eighteenth century in Europe and the Americas quickly became “capable of being transplanted” (Reference Anderson4). Historically, colonialism and decolonization both served to transplant, normalize, and naturalize the form of the nation-state, with its liberal ideals of popular self-determination and rights-based citizenship as “the highest worldly forms of [human] expression of an abstract universalism” (Reference 299SlaughterSlaughter, Human Rights 120). Indeed, following mid-century decolonization, Anderson says, “the very idea of ‘nation’ is now nestled firmly in virtually all print-languages; and nation-ness is virtually inseparable from political consciousness” (Reference Anderson135). Fanon himself operated and theorized from within this conceptual framework and understood well the international bind of decolonization – that, as a practical matter, both political and epistemological decolonization would inevitably have to unfold within a preestablished international system of states, and, therefore, to be undertaken historically they entailed a certain embrace of the nation-state as the near (or at least nearest appearing) horizon of decolonization. Thus, when Fanon writes that “national consciousness, which is not nationalism, is the only thing that will give us an international dimension” (Reference Fanon247), he concedes to historical constraints on forms of emancipation and reinforces a formula for decolonization (mental, cultural, and political) that affirms the nation as the key conduit of a people’s collective self-determination and self-expression – thus, his unwavering focus throughout the book on national consciousness, national liberation, national life, national culture, and so on. As Egyptian international lawyer George Reference Abi-SaabAbi-Saab observed, one of the “great handicaps” (Reference Abi-Saab34) of formal decolonization in the mid-twentieth century was the creation of many new states without nations, leaving the daunting task of “building the social and economic infrastructure necessary to support a modern State” (Reference Abi-Saab35) – in a word, “nation-building” (Reference Abi-Saab35). Culture was understood to be part of the required infrastructure for “translating independence into a social reality” (Reference Abi-SaabAbi-Saab, Reference Abi-Saab34), and literature specifically was often tapped to serve the postcolonial cause of building nation-ness, as with Fanon’s urgent appeal for “a fighting literature, a revolutionary literature, and a national literature” (Reference Fanon223).

The problems of political decolonization in the legal arena are intertwined with parallel projects of cultural decolonization in literary studies, whether in the form of canon wars, curricular reform, revolutionary pedagogies, new field formations, or postcolonial proposals for “the abolition of the English Department” (Reference wa Thiong’oNgũgĩ). As Christopher Reference Gevers, von Bernstorff and DannGevers has shown, Third World legal debates over decolonization followed the patterns of well-known debates among African authors in the 1960s about the legacy of colonial languages in developing and sustaining African national literatures and nation-ness. The literary debate is typically illustrated by the contrast between Chinua Reference AchebeAchebe’s famous assertion in “English and the African Writer” that the English language “will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English … altered to suit its new African surroundings” (Reference Achebe30) and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s later insistence that “true decolonization required nothing less than abandoning the English novel altogether” (Reference Gevers, von Bernstorff and DannGevers 384), which he theorized in Decolonising the Mind. As Reference Gevers, von Bernstorff and DannGevers reads it, the debate hinged upon a dispute over the coloniality of forms – of languages and literary genres – and whether “colonial forms” could be repurposed “without residual colonial influences” (Reference Gevers, von Bernstorff and Dann391). The genre of the novel has often been a privileged site for such literary debates over the dual approaches to decolonization, probably because of its close historical association with nation-ness, famously pinpointed by Anderson as a key modular technology of print-capitalism (along with the newspaper) involved in producing the “imagined political community” of the nation (Reference Anderson6). In the context of mid-century decolonization, occupying the form of the novel can be understood as part of the greater effort to occupy the form of the nation itself.

These Third World approaches to international decolonization give real weight to the links between law and literature that are purely metaphorical in the dominant paradigms of world literature today, such as Pascale Casanova’s influential account of “world literary space and the international laws that structure it” (Reference Casanova94). Emerging from the same philosophical/philological tradition and ethical framework of liberal humanism (with its attendant pretenses to universality), international law, human rights, and comparative and world literature studies were assembled around the central unit of the nation. Historically, they all also share fundamental assumptions about the modularity of nation-ness. As regulatory regimes, international law, human rights, and world literature have functioned like empires, organizing and managing diversity and difference (e.g. national languages, literatures, and laws) under the sign of the universal and the principle of abstract formal equality; they provide institutionalized mechanisms (however limited) for expanding the scope of their own incumbent “universality” without fundamentally threatening the system or its forms of operation. In each, nation-ness and its ready-made forms are said to be ready for transport and for immediate occupation. Thus, they incentivize reformist approaches to decolonization that encourage the historically dispossessed to occupy the empire’s preferred prefabricated forms – novels as much as nations.

Even in our putatively globalized world – that is, formally but still only nominally decolonized – the nation remains the most weighted category for entry into the catalog and canon of world literature. Indeed, deep assumptions about nation-ness and the modularity of modern literary forms underpin our most influential theories of world literature today. For example, in Casanova’s account of “the formation of international literary space” (Reference Casanova79), nations and authors (representing nations) compete for standing and privileges within a system of recognition where the so-called “independent [putatively universal] laws of literature” (Reference Casanova86) were determined by the old and new imperial powers in Europe and the United States. Moreover, the generic rules of the international game for what counts as literature (more pointedly, as national literature) were largely formulated before the arrival of “the newly independent nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America,” who are obliged, she says, to “[obey] the same political and cultural mechanisms, moved to assert linguistic and literary claims of their own” (Reference Casanova79). Thus, formal cultural decolonization in Casanova’s account amounts to claiming the modular European literary forms of nation-ness as one’s own, forgetting that so-called European literary forms were themselves formalized within the crucible of colonialism. Franco Moretti is even more explicit (and more forgetful) in this regard, claiming to have discovered what he calls a “law of literary evolution”: “in cultures that belong to the periphery of the literary system (which means: almost all cultures, inside and outside Europe), the modern novel first arises … as a compromise between a western formal influence (usually French or English) and local materials” (Reference Moretti58). Moretti never asks after the colonial conditionality of his examples, or after the coloniality of power within either the world literary system or literary form itself. Instead, Moretti’s law is absolute (universal): “when a culture starts moving towards the modern novel, it’s always as a compromise between foreign form and local material” (Reference Moretti60). Here the novelistic equivalent of formal decolonization features as the primary mechanism by which peripheral literature is worlded – and worlded in the image of literature that the colonizers insist is their own, having nothing to do with colonialism or the colonized. In other words, what we have been calling formal decolonization is, in both Moretti’s and Casanova’s models, the world literary system’s own reformist mechanism for expanding access to the regime of the universal, extending its scope by pouring new “native” content into old colonial forms.

The imperative to decolonize the curriculum is nearly as old as the imperial curriculum itself, its impulses ranging from formal decolonization to the decolonization of curricular forms. I conclude with a particularly rich example from colonial West Africa, where desires and designs for decolonization might be especially difficult to appreciate viewed through today’s decolonial lenses. More than a century ago, just a year after Conrad’s Heart of Darkness consolidated the colonial image of Africa as a place without civilization, nations, or even “recognizable humanity” (Reference AchebeAchebe, “Image” 9), Gold Coast lawyer, writer, and politician J. E. Casely Hayford published his anticolonial treatise, Gold Coast Native Institutions (Reference Hayford1903). Hayford argued passionately that “the Native State itself has been disorganised by British aggression and interference” (Reference Hayford27); the complexity of his vision of decolonization is announced in the book’s subtitle With Thoughts upon a Healthy Imperial Policy for the Gold Coast and Ashanti. Card-carrying member of the Gold Coast Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society, Hayford was especially concerned about the destruction of native forms of social and political life, but his demand for decolonization is framed as a right to imperialism: “I have ventured to suggest a key to the solution of the problem. It is none other than the imperialisation of the Gold Coast and of Ashanti on purely aboriginal lines” (Reference Hayfordix). Addressing British readers directly, Hayford insists that the “only way to remedy the past is to undo what wrong … has already been done; and the way to do so is by restoring [the] Native State System as nearly as may be” (Reference Hayford100). Political decolonization for Hayford entailed repatriation (that is, restoration of what the author regards as a precolonial polity resembling, or nearly enough, a modern nation-state) and political self-determination, “the keynote of healthy imperialism” (Reference Hayford126). For Hayford, a restored native state, within an international order of similar sovereign states under British Empire, is the only form that can secure the rights and interests of colonized peoples, giving access to a historical regime of the universal. Thus, Hayford stakes out a critical position that is at once anticolonial and proimperial, where political decolonization means imperialization: Imperium in Imperio.

Advocating formal decolonization, Gold Coast Native Institutions itself occupies the generic form of a rather conventional “customs and manners” ethnography like those British anthropologists produced in service of colonial administration. Hayford offers detailed policy recommendations for securing his “ideal of Imperial West Africa” (Reference Hayford269) that, in outline and substance, resemble the framework for Indirect Rule that Frederick Lugard later famously formulated in The Dual Mandate (1922), which became the backbone for both official British colonial policy and the League of Nations’ Mandate System that normalized colonial rule under modern international law. Indeed, Hayford clearly imagines decolonization and imperialism, or what he sometimes refers to as “true imperialism” (Reference Hayford125), as coproductions. The generic conventionality of Gold Coast Native Institutions contrasts sharply with Hayford’s more experimental and genre-bending novel, Ethiopia Unbound (Reference Hayford1911), which, among many other things, lays out a program for decolonizing the native mind by remaking colonial institutions, in particular by establishing a national university with an Africa-centered curriculum. One of the earliest examples of the anglophone African novel, Ethiopia Unbound, subtitled Studies in Race Emancipation, is a marvelously disordered (in the revolutionary Fanonian sense) text that does not fit standard European generic conventions nor abide Moretti’s “law of literary evolution” and, perhaps for that reason, has largely been ignored by both institutionalized World Literature and the dominant “global” histories of the novel. With a fictionalized version of Hayford himself acting as protagonist, the novel both imagines and performs cultural decolonization as it seeks “to learn to unlearn all that foreign sophistry has encrusted upon the intelligence of the African” (Ethiopia Reference Hayford164). Together, Hayford’s two books form a diptych that epitomizes the dual mandate of decolonization, but both press the same polemical point: “the eternal verity remains that the natural line of development for the aborigines is racial and national, and that this is the only way to successful European intercourse and enterprise” (Ethiopia Reference Hayford69). For Hayford, decolonization is a dialectical process that entails both inhabiting and remaking colonialism’s legated forms in the struggle to join empire and rewrite “universal history,” a primary topic to be taught at his decolonized National University, “with particular reference to the part Ethiopia has played in the affairs of the world” (Ethiopia Reference Hayford194).

The tension between the two decolonizing impulses has intensified in recent calls to decolonize everything from hearts to minds to life, love, and land. In 2012, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang famously rejected what they saw as the “colonization” of decolonization by “civil and human rights-based social justice projects” (Reference Tuck and Yang2), especially curricular reform efforts in the settler-colonial context of the United States, insisting that decolonization is not a metaphor. For Tuck and Yang, decolonization is “unsettling work” (Reference Tuck and Yang4) – where “unsettling” is also not a metaphor – that requires above all “the repatriation of [stolen] Indigenous land and life” (Reference Tuck and Yang21). The legalistic Latinate word they use in their essay to describe the ultimate goal of decolonization – “repatriation” – seems to push the pendulum back in the direction of formal decolonization and to reaffirm classic (even colonial) linkages between territory, identity, and freedom that postcolonial studies often sought to delink. Indeed, unless “repatriation” is itself a metaphor in Tuck and Yang, the word seems anachronistic, implying a certain acquiescence to the coloniality of property and power, since it draws its usual meaning from the political framework and vocabulary of a modern international order in which the world’s lands and peoples are already partitioned into nation-state units – a world order of territorialized ethnic identities presumably under contest by radical (“true”) decolonization.

The decolonization of forms is no more metaphorical than formal decolonization, and literature (the traditional realm of metaphor) has never been merely metaphorical in relation to acts of possession, dispossession, and repossession. Fanon’s sustained interest in matters of literary form in “On National Culture” attests to the important dialectical relations between forms of expression and the material forms that both domination and emancipation take. Indeed, the linguistic, legal, and cultural forms in which the dispossession of peoples and the possession of land and resources were claimed are inextricable from the material acts and facts of possession themselves, inflecting the real terms of colonialization and decolonization. Thus, the forms through which all claims of possession (colonial, native, or other) are made not only shape the material reality in which life and land are perceived, imagined, and lived, they also shape the historical possibilities for both formal decolonization and the decolonization of forms.

Both the modern nation-state and the classic English literary curriculum were forged with the project of European colonialism; but they are not simply or merely colonial constructions or impositions, at least not as we must reckon with them today. Both the nation as we know it now and literary studies in our current moment were also shaped by the energies and histories of mid-century decolonization and never-ending efforts by dominated groups to decolonize their forms. It does decolonization no good today to pretend otherwise, that is to pretend that we are simply dealing with colonial forms endlessly perpetuating the coloniality of power, or that we could as a practicable matter entirely wring coloniality out of power itself, when they are also forms forged in the crucible of multiple decolonizations. Given the centrality of colonialism in shaping our present – our modes of being, knowing, and feeling – decolonization can never be completely done once and for always. Indeed, the eternal return of desires for decolonization indicates (and not for the first time) the undying need for a second “true” decolonization that neither diminishes nor forgets previous efforts.

Chapter 15 Decolonizing Literary Interpretation through Disability

Christopher Krentz

In a 2002 chapter called “Looking Awry: Tropes of Disability in Postcolonial Writing,” Ato Reference QuaysonQuayson notes that figures of disability proliferate across postcolonial literature in English, identifying a fascinating aspect of the corpus and a productive area for future critical inquiry. Until then, disability in postcolonial literature had received little attention despite the rise of postcolonial studies and disability studies in the prior decades, and despite the fact that approximately 80 percent of the world’s disabled people – more than half a billion people – live in the Global South, often in precarious situations.1 In their introduction to Relocating Postcolonialism, Reference QuaysonQuayson and coeditor David Theo Goldberg further argue that postcolonial studies and disability studies share many concerns, not least about questions of power and oppressed identities. They call on postcolonial and disability critics “to pursue joint projects of agitation for justice that would embrace the disabled equally with the racially othered, gendered, and postcolonial subject” (Reference Quayson, David, Goldberg and Quaysonxvii). With their words, they helped to initiate a period where a few other scholars explored the rich multilayered depictions of disability in anglophone postcolonial literature.2 These critical contributions expanded the scope of postcolonial studies, uncovered exciting new dimensions of the literature in English from the Global South, made literary disability studies more global, and called attention to the relationship between literary representations and the millions of actual disabled people around the world, who often confront ableist prejudice and disenfranchisement. Within the larger interdisciplinary field of disability studies, literary disability studies has been an important thread, showing how disability has existed in the human imaginary in the past and how authors have used representations of disability to do cultural work that reflects and sometimes critiques their specific historical moments. In postcolonial literature, often depictions of disability go to the heart of the decolonization process. In my recent book Reference KrentzElusive Kinship, I investigate how authors deploy disability to make more vivid not just the lives of disabled people in the Global South, but also such crucial issues as the effects of colonialism, global capitalism, racism and sexism, war, and environmental disaster. As we consider how to decolonize literary studies and to agitate for justice, we must include disability alongside other vulnerable identities, and strive for more North–South dialogue and collaboration in interpreting texts. Doing so will not just liberate literary studies, but also improve understanding of decolonization and liberation around the world.

Reading Disability in Postcolonial Literature

One does not have to look far to discern why disability in postcolonial literary works has been slow to receive attention. Both of the two likeliest fields to consider it, postcolonial studies and literary disability studies, emerged in the late twentieth century but at first had little contact with each other. In early decades, postcolonial scholars, like literary scholars in general, had little to say about disability, perhaps because they deemed it uninteresting compared to other pressing issues.3 Such oversight recalls historian Paul Longmore’s observation in the 1980s about disability in media and film; he asks, “Why do television and film so frequently screen disabled characters for us to see, and why do we usually screen them out of our consciousness even as we absorb those images?” (Reference Longmore132). We might pose a similar question with regard to postcolonial literature. When postcolonial critics noted disability in the literature, they tended to see it as metaphorical, as emblems of the agonizing experience of colonialism, rather than realistic. Admittedly, many works invite such a figurative reading. For example, in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (Reference Rushdie1981), the narrator Saleem is born with birthmarks and no sense of smell; as he grows, he acquires partial deafness, amnesia, and other disabilities. Because he was born at the moment of India’s independence, he insists that he is “handcuffed to history” (Reference Rushdie3) and his life is entwined with postcolonial India’s. Such a depiction encourages readers to interpret Saleem’s body metaphorically. Along the same lines, in J. M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K (Reference Coetzee1983), the significance of the cognitively disabled title character, who also has a cleft lip, consistently eludes others and himself. A medical officer in wartime South Africa imagines himself chasing Michael after he escapes from a rehabilitation camp and futilely calling out “your stay in the camp was merely an allegory [of] how outrageously a meaning can take up residence in a system without becoming a term in it. … Am I right?” (Reference Coetzee166–67). The medical officer gives Michael larger meaning even while acknowledging the latter’s essential elusiveness, just as many readers are tempted to do. Through such examples, one can see why Frederic Jameson (perhaps too easily) concluded that “all third-world texts are necessarily … allegorical” (Reference Jameson69). Yet while suggestive, as Clare Reference BarkerBarker has pointed out, readings that attend only to the metaphorical leave real-life material disability and disabled people’s experience out of the equation, not to mention the relationship of disability to narrative structure: they create gaps in interpretation that prevent full understanding of the literature, of decolonization, and of justice.

For its part, disability studies arose out of the disability rights movement in the United States and United Kingdom in the 1970s and 80s as a small number of advocates sought to take the insights of the movement into classrooms and academic intellectual inquiry. The movement directed attention to how barriers in society, rather than in the body, stigmatized and excluded disabled people, so it turned attention from medical discourse to how societies are organized, including in areas such as architecture, social policy and attitudes, public transportation, and more. In addition, it brought together people with a variety of impairments, causing them to see themselves as part of larger group with common goals in a way they had not done before. Animated by the slogan “Nothing about Us without Us,” activists protested for access and equity in all areas of life, leading to such landmark legislation as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Building on these successes, pioneering scholars in literary disability studies examined how well-known works in the Anglo-American canon deploy disability. In the 1990s, they offered groundbreaking readings, especially revealing how depictions of disability aid in the social formation of normalcy.4 While such analyses were insightful, the focus on Anglo-American texts unfortunately left out other literature in English, other cultures, and by extension millions of disabled people in the world. Anglo-American scholars may have felt unqualified to analyze depictions of disability from the Global South, wary of trampling on Southern ways of knowing and apprehensive of being inadvertently racist, classist, or even in effect “colonizing” literary texts produced in the South. Such reluctance would be understandable, but this omission left a grievous lacuna.

With their call in 2002, Reference QuaysonQuayson, who is originally from Ghana and now has an academic position in the United States, and Goldberg, who grew up in South Africa but now also has an academic post in America, opened the way for collaboration and dialogue between not just scholars in postcolonial studies and those in disability studies, but also scholars in the North and those in the South, who together have advanced the critical conversation about disability in this great literature. In the following years, scholars including Reference QuaysonQuayson, with Reference QuaysonAesthetic Nervousness in 2007, the British literary critic Clare Reference BarkerBarker, whose Postcolonial Fiction and Disability appeared in 2011, and the American scholar Reference BérubéMichael Bérubé, with Secret Life of Stories in 2016, published books that explore disability in postcolonial texts. They investigate works by authors such as Wole Soyinka, J. M. Coetzee, Salman Rushdie, Tsitsi Dangaremba, Patricia Grace, Bapsi Sidhwa, and Ben Okri, sometimes alongside Anglo-American writers. Moreover, the Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies and Wagadu devoted special issues to disability in postcolonial literature, while diverse scholars such as Nirmala Erevelles, Michael Davidson, Shaun Grech, Karen Soldatic, Jasbir Puar, and others have advanced global disability theory in the humanities.5 Building on this exciting work, I published Reference KrentzElusive Kinship: Disability and Human Rights in Postcolonial Literature in Reference Krentz2022, taking on both established (and often-taught) authors like Chinua Achebe, Rushdie, Coetzee, and Reference DesaiAnita Desai, and also younger contemporary writers such as Edwidge Danticat, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chris Abani, Reference SinhaIndra Sinha, and Petina Gappah, seeking further to reveal the instructive presence of disabled characters in this literature.

Such scholarship has revealed that, far from being simple or straightforward, representations of disability regularly work on multiple levels simultaneously, signify on any number of matters, and reveal the deepest meanings of a text. In Reference QuaysonAesthetic Nervousness, Reference QuaysonQuayson gives examples of a variety of compelling ways that disability shows up in literature, including as a test for the morals of other characters, as a marker of otherness, as epiphany, as a hermeneutical impasse preventing understanding, as giving tragic insight, and as normality. Such a preliminary typology gives a sense of the broad range of cultural significance disability can have in literature. Arguing that interactions between nondisabled and disabled characters, and disabled characters and readers, often produces anxiety, Reference QuaysonQuayson says such nervousness can lead to a crisis of representation. He concludes by calling for more rigorous reading practices “alive to the implications of disability,” because representations of disability often help to illumine the “ethical core” of narratives that are otherwise easy to miss (Reference QuaysonAesthetic 208). For example, in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, the Empire’s sadistic Colonel Joll tortures an Indigenous girl, leaving her partially blind and with damaged ankles. Her physical impairments raise questions about the morality of the Empire’s imperialism and prompt readers to pay close attention to the Empire’s relationship to Indigenous people.

Others build on Reference QuaysonQuayson’s lead. Although she agrees with Reference QuaysonQuayson’s contention that depictions of disability are crucial, Reference BarkerBarker disputes the idea of a narrative crisis. She argues that portrayals of child disabled characters in literature from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, and Aotearoa New Zealand serve as both metaphoric critiques of “dominant (post)colonial or national ideologies” and empathetic depictions of disabled experience (Reference BarkerBarker 26). In other words, she maintains that disabled figures can be both figurative and realistic depictions at the same time, even in cases of magic realism. Meanwhile Bérubé calls attention to the way that ideas about cognitive disability can shape narratives through questions about time, self-reflexivity, and motive. All three scholars point to how, even when disabled figures are not present, disability can work at the level of language, metaphor, and shape of a narrative’s plot, sometimes simultaneously. For my part, I connect some depictions of disability in postcolonial literature to the gradual emergence of global disability human rights, most prominently in the United Nation’s landmark Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD, ratified 2008). Such work shows that literary deployments of disability are often both complex and meaningful, meriting our careful attention as we seek a fuller understanding of literature, decolonization, and global justice.

Peripheral Everywhere: The Marginalization of Disabled People

These matters do not just enrich our understanding of literature and any number of topics authors use disability to comment upon, but also relate to one of the most vulnerable groups in the world.6 Despite encouraging signs such as increased activism, attention, and progress in disabled rights, disabled people everywhere often confront ableist prejudice and oppression. In a world beset by severe problems, from climate change to enormous inequity to the COVID-19 pandemic, it may seem especially daunting to focus on disabled people, but they are of course profoundly affected by larger crises and give us a useful perspective for approaching them. Scholars have long recognized the “vicious circle” that often connects disability and indigence, where disability leads to poverty and poverty leads to disability, reinforcing each other (Reference Eide and IngstadEide and Ingstad 1). Problems are amplified by the fact that disabled people are often perceived as useless and unable to reciprocate. In the Global South, they typically have limited access to health care, education, housing, and employment and are among the first to suffer during food shortages, natural disasters, and other emergencies. Disabled women and girls are disproportionately illiterate and victims of violence, including rape and domestic abuse. As the United Nations puts it, “girls and women of all ages with any form of disability are generally among the more vulnerable and marginalized of society” (UN “Women”). Matters are compounded by the legacies of colonialism, war, and neoliberal economic policies that leave some people behind.

Although these statements convey sobering realities, we should remember that they are broad generalizations that lack contextual detail; they may miss ways disabled people are proactive.7 For example, in agrarian societies, disabled women often work, but their (unpaid) labor typically is not counted in development reports (Reference Price, Nidhi, Grech and SoldaticPrice and Goyal). The Global South contains tremendous variety among cultures, including Indigenous cultures, and practices, which serves as an important reminder to the need for specificity. For this reason, Reference BarkerBarker and Stuart Murray call on scholars to practice situated readings when they examine disability in postcolonial literature rather than simply applying grand theories about disability developed in Europe and the United States. Rigorously attending to portrayals of disability in postcolonial literature offers a way for scholars to be precise and avoid generalization.

In world media, disabled people are usually faceless, making it easier for the public to ignore their plight or to assume it is unimportant, but by taking literary deployments of disability seriously, scholars can raise awareness and make a positive difference. Nirmala Erevelles decries how, in Northern media, disabled people in the Global South “face the social, political, and economic implications of being invisible” (Reference Erevelles133), implications that are almost uniformly negative, as they are cast to the margins or considered disposable. In the face of such invisibility, the attention of scholars to literary depictions of disability in postcolonial literature can raise awareness of ongoing ableism and injustice and make a significant difference. Representations of minority groups in literature, we see repeatedly, almost always reflect reality in some way and how literary scholars read and teach them have consequential real-world effects. Such a statement is as true of depictions of disabled people as it is of other minority groups.

Disability in Chris Abani’s Song for Night

To illustrate a specific case of how attention to disability enriches our understanding of literature, decolonization, and questions of justice, I turn to Nigerian-American author Chris Abani’s memorable novella, Song for Night (Reference Abani2007). The book us takes into a horrific war that is at first so unspecific as to almost seem universal, but gradually we get clues as to where we are. The narrator, a fifteen-year-old child soldier named My Luck, says we are reading his thoughts in Igbo that somehow – he says he does not have time to figure out how – are translated into English. That he speaks Igbo connects him to the cultural group of the same name in southeast Nigeria; later, we encounter references to the Yoruba and the Hausa, other large ethnic groups in Nigeria, to a divided nation, to pogroms, and to bloody strife between Muslims and Christians. Such ethnic and religious conflict historically took place in the years after Nigerian independence from British colonization in 1960. Later in the decade, it prompted Igbo people to try to secede and form their own country of Biafra, resulting in the Biafran War (as the calamitous Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s is known). My Luck’s narration apparently occurs in the war’s final stages. Early in the novella, he remembers encountering, with his platoon of child soldiers, a group of elderly women who are eating what proves to be a baby. The grisly scene relates to the debilitating famine that Igbo people suffered as the result of a blockade that federal forces put around their ports; hundreds of thousands of people died of starvation. In terror and disgust, My Luck instinctively shoots the women with his AK-47, one of many appalling incidents he recounts. To tell this nightmarish story about war in the aftermath of independence, Abani employs disability on a variety of levels that add complexity and even lyrical beauty to the spare narrative (which only runs to 146 pages).

Physical, sensory, and cognitive difference show up in many ways that add power to the novella. First, My Luck himself is physically disabled: he can’t talk vocally. “What you hear is not my voice,” he begins (Reference Abani19). We learn that three years before, at the end of training camp, My Luck and other child soldiers in his mine-defusing platoon had their vocal cords severed, apparently so they wouldn’t frighten each other with screams if a mine exploded on them. The image of a platoon of voiceless child soldiers serves as a clear metaphor for how such children and many vulnerable others devastated by the violence of wars do not have a voice in public discourse. They ordinarily cannot represent themselves and remain largely invisible and forgotten. My Luck does not seem particularly upset by his severed vocal cords, perhaps because the whole group shares the same fate. They have invented a rudimentary sign language (which My Luck is quick to distinguish from the more sophisticated sign language his deaf cousin used at school) to communicate with each other. Abani makes that sign language stay at the forefront of readers’ awareness, for each of the short chapters is titled with the description of a sign, such as “Dawn Is Two Hands Parting before the Face,” so disability remains a constant presence throughout the tale (Reference Abani45). In addition, My Luck’s voicelessness gives his inner thoughts a certain eloquence. “There is a lot to be said for silence,” he says, “[it] makes you deep beyond your years and familiar with death” (Reference Abani21). Through disability, Abani, a poet, is able to give his largely uneducated narrator (My Luck went to war at age twelve) thoughts that resonate. A gap exists between the ghastly circumstances My Luck relates and his lyrical language. In this way, disability makes his story more compelling and arguably even helps to humanize him.

In this violent setting, My Luck tries to come to terms with the gruesome events around him and his own self and actions. The narrative opens with him waking up alone after a mine blast; much of the story concerns My Luck’s search for his lost platoon. Along the way, we get flashbacks that help us to understand the ghastly things he has experienced, from the murder of his parents to obscene depravity during the war, as when an officer forces a man to butcher his children with a knife before killing him. My Luck is honest about his own participation in the savagery. Near the beginning he appears a hardened soldier: he calls enemy combatants “scum” and admits that “deep down somewhere I enjoy [killing them], revel in it almost” (Reference Abani12). But increasingly as the narrative unfolds, he expresses weariness of all the hatred and questions his own morality. Near the end, he asks philosophically, referring to child soldiers, “If we are the great innocents in this war, then where did we learn all the evil we practice?” (Reference Abani143). He points to how the chaos around decolonization has led him to perform vile acts, and he goes on to lament his status as a child soldier: “I have never been a boy. That was stolen from me and I will never be a man – not this way. I am some kind of chimera who knows only the dreadful intimacy of killing” (Reference Abani143). In this manner, Song for Night gives expression to an orphan who has been forced into a brutal war and who has lost not only his family, but also in many ways his identity.

The novella shows how political decolonization almost always involves violence, especially in the early stages, and that violence in turn disables, orphans, and maims many people, who typically remain anonymous to the public. Drawing on his own experiences with the Franco-Algerian War, Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth asserted a few years before the start of the Biafran War that “decolonization is always a violent phenomenon,” adding that it is also a “programme of complete disorder” (Reference Fanon27). In presenting the move from colonialism to independence as invariably violent and turbulent, Fanon aptly describes turmoil that is distressingly familiar: the descriptors convey the shocking Hindu–Muslim violence of partition in 1947 after the British left India8 and the brutal all-out war that surrounds the teenage My Luck.9 In the case of Nigeria, the British colonizers artificially decided on the borders of the nation, putting many different ethnicities, who spoke different languages and had different religious and cultural traditions, together. When the colonizers left in 1960, conflict between the groups broke out. During decolonization, colonizers fade into the background, but as My Luck’s experience shows, the remnants of imperial practices continue to be deeply felt after independence.

Northern countries beyond the former colonizer, Britain, have a subtle but strong effect in Song for Night, showing neocolonial forces after independence and how difficult true liberation is to achieve. For one thing, we learn that many of the weapons in the war come from the North. My Luck tells us of the remarkable guns, ammunition, and grenades that “U.S.-armed enemy soldiers” possessed (Reference Abani28). While the United States government did hope that one unified Nigeria could be preserved, it officially was neutral during the conflict, so it is unclear if My Luck is right here. Britain and the Soviet Union were more active backers of the Nigerian federal forces. Still, possibly US weapons made it to the federal army via the active black market. My Luck adds that France had promised the rebels weapons and that “since land mines are banned in civilized warfare, the West practically gives them away at cost” (Reference Abani47). My Luck’s remarks indicate how the United States and Europe contribute to the devastation by providing weapons. In giving mines they deem too barbaric to use themselves, governments and companies in the North demonstrate their disregard for African lives like My Luck’s.

Moreover, the strangely sadistic Nigerian commanding officer uses American symbols to get the children to follow his orders, hinting at how the North can even unwittingly enable warped postcolonial identities that complicate decolonization. In boot camp, the man claims to have been trained at West Point (the manual for proper soldierly protocol, he says, tapping his temple, is in his head). Because of his cowboy boots, the children come to call him John Wayne after the American film actor. Despite these elements of legitimacy, the Nigerian John Wayne turns out to be hideously corrupt. Without anesthesia or even explanation, he has a doctor sever the children’s vocal cords. In the war, he compels the twelve-year-old My Luck to commit rape before killing the woman. When John Wayne holds a seven-year-old girl named Faith and implies he will have sex with her – “I will enjoy her,” he says (Reference Abani40) – My Luck almost automatically kills him (and the little girl too, by accident), and the other children in the platoon make him their leader. That such depravity could come in the name of a popular American film hero is ironic and conveys both the prestige and haughty destructiveness of the North in My Luck’s mind and how it can corrupt Nigerian identities.

Through disability, Abani is able even more forcefully to convey the destructive effects of Northern intrusion and the conflict itself. Along with his voicelessness, the structure of the book, and his interior eloquence, My Luck’s disability also serves as material evidence of all the grievous injury and trauma that accompany the war. As ethnic tension escalated before the conflict, My Luck saw each of his parents brutally murdered, deaths that he emotionally struggles to recount. My Luck’s pain causes him voluntarily to join the Biafran army, and he says that all the other child soldiers, after losing loved ones, similarly “wanted revenge” against the enemy (Reference Abani19). All the child soldiers and many of the adults, one infers, have been traumatized. In the pages that follow, we see awful mutilation, death, depravity, and hunger take place one after the other in this all-out war. One could say that My Luck’s own disability epitomizes all such trauma, makes it personal, hard, and real.

Scholars in disability studies have pointed out how war produces more disability, which Abani abundantly dramatizes in the novella. The narrative illustrates Jasbir Puar’s point that war and military occupations often serve as “circuitry” where “disability – or, rather, debility and debilitation – is an exported product of imperial aggression” (Reference Puar89). Puar directly links colonialism and its afterlives to violence that causes disability. For her part, Helen Meekosha cites a stunning estimate that 85 percent of major military conflicts since World War II have taken place in low-income countries, presumably mostly in the Global South (Reference Meekosha675). In 2008, Michael Davidson noted that there are more than 110 million land mines in sixty-four countries, including 1.5 mines per person in Angola (where 120 people per month become amputees) and one mine for every two people in Afghanistan (Reference Davidson170–1). In Nigeria, decades later they are still uncovering landmines from the Biafran War (Reference DurosomoDurosomo).

Yet importantly, in Song for Night Abani does not just deploy disability as a negative entity but instead consistently points at the humanity and worth of disabled people. Such an idea, he shows, is not a contradiction. At one point, My Luck describes a group of disabled children dancing, a surprising scene in the midst of the devastation of the war. A young one-legged girl laughs at the dancers and, when challenged to do better, throws her crutch-like stick aside and joins the circle. My Luck says:

Balanced on one leg, her waist began a fierce gyration and her upper body moved the opposite way. Then like a crazy heron she began to hop around, her waist and torso still shaking. She was an elemental force of nature. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I have never seen anything like it before or since – a small fire sprite shaking the world and reducing grown war-hardened onlookers to tears.

In this episode, disability serves as an undeniable material sign; the trauma and ravages of the gruesome war are inscribed on the bodies of the disabled children. Yet at the same time and seemingly contradictorily, the girl is a life-affirming figure of irrepressible joy. Rather than summarily relegating disability to the margins or showing it as always bad, the novella presents it as an integral part of people’s lives. Disabled people are indisputably human.

As the novella rushes to its surprising conclusion, My Luck slowly realizes he might no longer be alive. As he explains:

Here we believe that when a person dies in a sudden and hard way, their spirit wanders confused looking for its body. Confused, because they don’t realize they are dead. I know this. Traditionally, a shaman would ease such a spirit across to the other world. Now, well, the land is crowded with confused spirits and all the shamans are soldiers.

Without a shaman to help him, My Luck’s journey proves to be him revisiting sites of past trauma in order to come to terms with them before moving to the next realm. He presumably dies at the beginning of the novella in the mine blast and has been a spirit all along. We get clues along the way: he has a seemingly endless supply of cigarettes; he is rarely hungry; upon seeing him an elderly woman says “Tufia!,” an “old word for banishing spirits or bad things” (Reference Abani84); and when challenged to step across a line if not a ghost, he cannot do it. In the final lines, he rides in a coffin across a mystical river to find his mother, young and smiling. She hugs him, calls him by name, and tells him he is home. My Luck concludes: “I am trying to make sense of it, to think, but I can’t focus. ‘Mother,’ I say, and my voice has returned” (Reference Abani167).

It could be called an overly sentimental ending, and some readers may have reservations to his disability being removed in a way that will satisfy ableist assumptions, but after all the horror of the narrative it gives undeniable peace and closure. Moreover, while the novella presents My Luck’s satisfying end, it also implicitly presents all of the other remaining people still injured and traumatized by the conflict, including the other voiceless child soldiers in the platoon and the dancing disabled girl. The effects of decolonial violence will not quickly go away.

Abani’s short novel may also demystify master narratives produced in the North, especially since he writes from personal experience. In his Reference Abani2007 TED talk “Stories of Africa,” he explains that he was born in 1966 (in Igbo territory), near the start of the war, and for a year during the hostilities his British mother traveled with five small children from refugee camp to refugee camp to get to a place where they could fly to England. At each camp, Abani says, his 5′2″ mother faced down military men who wanted to take his older brother, who was nine, and make him a boy soldier. For Abani, the subject is deeply personal, but it appears he added the severed vocal cord part to achieve his Reference Quaysonaesthetic vision and grasp readers’ imaginations even more fully. The family did make it to England and then after the war returned to Nigeria, where they must have witnessed the destruction and trauma after the conflict first hand. The Biafran War happened during the American fight in Vietnam, and Abani wrote the novella during the United States’ Iraq War, disastrous examples of American intervention abroad.

In these ways, disability in Song for Night serves as a focal point for many aspects of decolonization. With disability, Abani finds an unusual way to make My Luck’s story unique and powerful. Readers care about his fate (despite the harrowing brutality in the story, college students respond well to the tale). My Luck’s eloquence and severed vocal cords make him serve as an apt representative of all the voiceless people in the Global South harmed by colonialism and its violent afterlives. It humanizes disabled people, reminding us of their often-faceless presence throughout the Global South. It portrays the grievous situation of child soldiers, too; despite human rights interventions, Reference BloomMia Bloom reports that the number of child soldiers has risen over the last twenty years, indicating how this dynamic is still a problem. Starting with disability, readers come to see that colonization does not simply end with independence. My Luck’s narrative makes us aware of how decolonization can lead to violence, corruption, and vile acts and that Northern intrusion continues. Considering disability in Song for Night can thus yield numerous insights for how we understand anticolonial resistance, including that true decolonization is often violent and painful.

Other postcolonial novels also point to how attending to disability can deepen our understanding of the varied complications of decolonization. Some quick examples: Reference DesaiAnita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting presents Uma, a woman with learning disabilities and epilepsy in late twentieth-century small-town India, where “modern” (usually British) and traditional notions of gender coexist. Her parents allow Uma to try school, but she cannot leave home until she marries; as she struggles to find a place for herself, Desai implicitly asks readers to think about what decolonization means in terms of gender expectations and roles. On another continent, Zimbabwean author Reference DangarembgaTsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions presents Nyasha, a bright, independent girl who is the product of two worlds (Zimbabwean and British) that near the end of the novel drive her into mental illness and an eating disorder. Considering her fate forces readers to contemplate the complexities of decolonization in a global world. Meanwhile, in Reference SinhaIndra Sinha’s novel Animal’s People, a boy in India named Animal has a bent spine and goes about on all fours due to a disaster at a nearby chemical plant owned by Americans. Based on the tragedy at Bhopal, Animal’s disability and narrative raises questions about transnational neoliberalism and the continuing effects of global capitalism after formal colonization has ended. These examples are just a few to give a sense of the vast range of depictions of disability in postcolonial literature and the equally numerous ethical questions they raise.

As we seek to decolonize literary studies, we must attend to disability. Doing so will not only make readers more aware of the humanity and diversity of disabled people in the Global South, but also open up any number of pressing topics, from gender roles to neoliberalism, from war to racial relations, related to decolonization. That will cause readers to read more closely and carefully and to consider the complications of achieving decolonization in our current chaotic world. We need to give teachers the knowledge to be confident about helping students through the intricacies of these complex portrayals. Only by concerted dialogue and attention to literary deployments of disability, and more provocative works like Song for Night, will we continue to move toward true decolonization of literary studies and liberty for all people.

Chapter 16 Decolonizing the Bible as Literature

Ronald Charles

The Bible remains the book of empire. The liberal project of “the Bible as Literature” has engaged mostly in placing the Bible on a pedestal as an important cultural artifact of the Western imagination, worthy to be read and to be studied in schools or universities. The contention of my analysis is that the Bible should be understood as an ambiguous text in terms of its position vis-à-vis empires. In other words, there is a complex, equivocal, and problematic relationship between the Christian Bible and colonialism. The biblical text has been used, and continues to be used, to subjugate and to otherize. Conversely, the Bible has also been deployed in struggles for liberation and emancipation.1 The Bible as a text is replete with both tendencies. Thus, studying the Bible cannot simply be a descriptive project. The Bible is and is not what we make of it. It is not a blueprint. Simply stating that the Bible is for or against colonialism diminishes the complexities of its various narratives. Instead, we must strive to understand how the Bible is constructed, how its discourse contains alienating elements, how it has been used as a tool of colonization, and how it also contains elements that can be used for more liberating projects.

In various regions of the world, the Bible, or interpretations of some of its texts, continues to be central in the colonial history and reality of the local populations. Several people in and outside the State of Israel, for example, continue to refer to a text such as Joshua 1:1–4, with its mandate to conquer the inhabitants of the land across the Jordan river, to justify a particular understanding of what should constitute the parameters of a modern Jewish polity. In many African nations, the Bible, both in Western languages and its translations in Indigenous African languages, has served as a major instrument of control. In the colonization of Africa, the Bible was used as a tool for obedience and for oppression (Reference Dube, Mbuvi and MbuwayesangoDube, Mbuvi, and Mbuwayesango; Reference Dube and BongmbaDube; Reference Dube, Mbuvi and MbuwayesangoMbuwayesango). The biblical story of the curse of Ham has been foundational in the production of a specific discourse of inferiority attributed to sub-Saharan Africans. Missionaries, anthropologists, army officers, and traders invoked the so-called Hamitic curse in establishing and supporting their colonial endeavors. Although the Bible does not mention skin color in Noah’s curse of Ham for seeing his nakedness (Gen. 9:22–25), the association with black skin and slavery has been woven into the interpretation of this narrative early on, and such an association has had a devastating effect on the lives of millions of Blacks throughout history (Reference GoldenbergGoldenberg).

The origins of the modern terms “White” or “White supremacy” can be found in Protestant missionary ideologies of the early seventeenth-century Protestant Caribbean milieu, which aimed to control the bodies and souls of African slaves.2 In the early colonial period, Protestant slave owners in the English, Dutch, and Danish colonies did not want their slaves to convert to Christianity because they believed that their religion was for free people only. As slaves converted and were baptized into the Christian religion, slave owners developed ways to integrate race into their colonial discourse to justify the bondage of non-Europeans brought to the colonies to work as slaves (Reference GerbnerGerbner). The emergence of Protestant supremacy was due to the lack of a legal framework as well as the absence of theological clarity concerning what to do with slaves who accepted Protestant baptism in the early modern Atlantic world. By redefining Christian to mean White, slave owners were able to exclude Black slaves from Christian rites. Protestant slave owners were not homogenous but adopted various stances regarding slavery and slaves. Some viewed conversion as a destabilizing and unpredictable force to the slave system, whereas others believed that slaves could become Christians and be taught how to read to understand the teachings of the Bible. Many slaves felt it beneficial to convert to Christianity so that they could gain access to reading lessons and books (Reference GerbnerGerbner, especially chapter 8, “Defining True Conversion,” 164–88). Many enslaved Africans in the Caribbean learned how to read the Bible, came to question some of the missionaries’ interpretations of the Bible, and developed other, more liberative alternative interpretations of the biblical text. Many slave owners burned books, since they feared that literate slaves could ignite a rebellion against the slave system. And to appease the White slave owners, the missionaries conformed to the status quo and developed racialized/proslavery discourses that allowed the slave system to flourish unabated. More and more, missionaries rejected the importance of reading for the African slaves and followed the established institutional norm of slavery. For slaves, reading, and to a lesser extent writing, were important tools in the struggle for liberation. Two streams of Christianity surfaced in the Atlantic world, one that catered more and more to an unjust system based on a highly racialized discourse and rationale, and another fueled by the Black slaves’ desire to find freedom through education and community.

African Americans read the Bible to find liberation, equality, and a shared experience (Reference SmithSmith; Reference BowensBowens). A hermeneutic of trust was built around the biblical text, whereas a clear hermeneutic of suspicion was deployed against White interpreters and their preaching and reading of the Bible. African Americans saw parallels between Hebrew history and their own, which they understood in terms of a second Exodus. From their perspective, American slavery was like Hebrew slavery in Egypt, and the White slave master was the new Pharaoh. Hence, the motif of liberation persisted and was adapted to new social and political realities.

In Haiti, my native land, colonization came with the Bible. It came with a message of salvation and with a program of mission civilisatrice from the European Christians (Reference HurbonHurbon, Comprendre; Reference HurbonHurbon, Religions; Reference Bellegarde-SmithBellegarde-Smith; Reference FarmerFarmer). It was a violent colonization program in the name of God. The first colonial gesture was to plant a cross at Môle-Saint-Nicolas on the northwest coast of Ayiti, or land of great mountains, as the island’s first inhabitants called it. The colonizers changed the island’s name to Hispaniola (little Spain), thus claiming the land for the throne of Spain. The extinction of the Indigenous Taino population of Haiti by the Spanish and the ensuing brutal oppression of the Africans brought to the island by the French remain a colonial legacy with traumatizing consequences for the future of the country.

The question of interest in this essay is, how can one approach the topic of decolonizing the Bible as literature? To answer this, I will parse the Book of Revelation to show how a particular biblical text may offer liberative ways of confronting empire and its economic aspects and at the same time also serve to recolonize. I will situate some of the decolonial impulses of the Book of Revelation in the specific social and political contexts of Haiti, a place where the Bible has been used and continues to be used mostly for colonizing effects. I will first situate the Book of Revelation in its own imperial context by showing how it served as a cautionary tale that urged marginalized Christian communities of the first century to be vigilant and to resist, warning them to expect harsher persecutions from the ambient Roman political regime in its brutality and threats against any group not willing to comply with its political posture. The text is written in coded language to offer the little communities on the margins of the power structure a subversive hope, while imagining a counterhegemony, that of Christ, displacing the Roman empire. The second methodological undertaking is to show how a text that evokes an imagined world set in opposition to a world perceived to be in crisis is used in later and different historical, social, and political milieus to subjugate and create Others. With its proposal of a savior in battle against the Roman empire (dubbed Satan), the final argument of the chapter is that the text contains seeds that will be developed to alienate and/or Satanize those deemed to be opposing particular theological interpretations of specific (powerful) groups. This type of reading, which colonizes by way of exclusion and by way of advocating transcendental truths at the cost of social reality, is what I will highlight as the usual and debilitating reading done in the specific context of Haiti.

Revelation in Its Socio-Historical Context

John the Seer is in exile on a remote island called Patmos. He is a “brother, and companion in tribulation” (1:9), and he is banished because of “the word of God, and the testimony of Jesus Christ” (1:9). John composed his text as a revelation or unveiling to offer a subversive resistance tract to comfort Christians in Asia Minor.3 The Book of Revelation is an apocalyptic4 work that evokes an imaginative world set in opposition to one perceived as chaotic. The Seer is cautioning his communities to hold fast, to be vigilant, to resist the Roman emperor’s claims to divinity, and even to expect harsher persecutions for refusing to participate in imperial cults. The goal of public religion was to ensure the pax deorum (“the peace of the gods” or their goodwill), from which communal prosperity would flow. Not offering libation on behalf of the emperor was considered a refusal to do one’s proper civic duties. Any group not willing to do their duties was seen as acting against state policy, the Pax Romana (the Roman Peace). The Seer wrote his Revelation at a time of political, social, and economic upheaval in a turbulent Judean context with different political/religious movements that seemed to be ready to take arms against Rome for liberation.5

John’s message stands in opposition to a political system that is judged as subhuman and degrading and which pacifies through killing. John’s message to these fearful and apprehensive communities on the margins of the power structure is one of hope amid despair, a message that is fundamentally structured around Jesus, the anointed one of God. John’s message is a call to live and struggle in the present in light of what God has already done and of what is yet to come. The book starts with a series of messages sent to seven different communities scattered throughout the Mediterranean. The pattern of these missives follows the same composition pattern: they state that Jesus knows the work of the community; they identify the strengths and weaknesses of a specific Christ-group; and they conclude with an exhortation or encouragement.

John’s overall purpose seems to be that God will bring the end of the present corruption and ensure the coming of a new era. Then, there will be judgment upon non-Jews and unfaithful Israelites alike. All Christ’s enemies will be put to death, and the earth will be restored to health in a renewal as wide as the creation itself. The underlying motivation of the Book of Revelation was to justify the ways of God to the suffering Christian communities: though everything is bleak in the present, God, in the end, will vindicate the faithful and punish their oppressors.6

The messages in chapters 2 and 3 reflect antagonism toward a variety of Christ-followers’ groups. John uses traditional images from Near Eastern myths such as sea dragons and holy war scenarios to interpret his situation and that of his community. He associates chaotic images with Rome as a new Babylon and the image of a sun-clad woman with the faithful people of God. He resorts to two symbols to represent different aspects of the empire: the beast and the sea monster. The beast represents the military and political power of the Roman emperors. The sea monster alludes to the economic order and hegemony of Rome dominating the Mediterranean Sea to develop its exploitative commerce.7

To empower his community, John invokes the combat myth. Thus, the Seer sets the coming kingdom of God in Christ in opposition to the kingdom of Caesar, depicting a struggle between two distinct and powerful forces, good and evil, for kingship. In this myth, evil is often represented by a pair of dragons or beasts waging war against another pair such as husband and wife, brother and sister, or mother and son. In the Book of Revelation, the combat myth is found in the story of a great dragon waging war against a woman and her son (Rev. 12). In the opening scene of the story, a pregnant woman is crying out in agonizing birth pangs. A great dragon is standing before the woman so that he might devour her child as soon as it is born. Suddenly, the reader/hearer is in the heavenly realm watching a war breaking out. Michael and his angels, representing the good, are fighting against the dragon/Satan and his angels, representing evil. The dragon and his angels fight back, but they are defeated, and there is no longer any place for them in heaven. The brutality of the Roman Empire is contrasted with a vision of Christ as the head of a great army of heavenly avengers dressed in white. This combat myth makes it possible to grasp complex realities more easily, and in the imagination of the Seer, it functions as a powerful cultural and sacred force. It is designed to displace fear in the small Christ-communities and to give them the strength to face persecution for their faith. They are offered visions of monsters and martyrs to articulate a position of domination against the threatening Other (Reference FrilingosFrilingos). In its original context, the combat myth was a powerful way of standing up against a totalitarian regime. However, as noted by Leif E. Vaage, “God and Jesus in Revelation are mirror-imitation of the Roman emperor,” and because of this, “such language, originally of resistance, soon would serve equally well as the discourse of succession” (Reference Vaage268). In other words, transposed from other times and culture, this same combat myth, this same anti-imperial text, had ingrained in it the possibilities of becoming a tool of domination, of colonization in the hands of powers who were intent on eradicating other groups who could be perceived as “the enemy.”

Colonizing through the Book of Revelation

As described above, the text of Revelation is written out of the experience of a minority in the colonized Roman Empire. It speaks of struggles, sufferings, and nightmares, that is, of the everyday experience of people in many parts of the world. Many impoverished and marginalized communities today share with the Johannine communities the longing for justice, for peace, for security, and for their well-being. Several writers from the Global South have pointed out the liberating project of this text in their own context. In this vein, Tina Pippin notes, “the ethical choice in Revelation of either Christ or Caesar has been used by Daniel Berrigan, Ernesto Cardenal, and Alan Boesak to address the oppression of nuclear proliferation, the oppression of Nicaragua under Somoza’s rule, and the apartheid system of South Africa, respectively. Revelation is a cathartic text for Christians in oppressive system” (Reference Pippin and Fiorenza115–16). The Book of Revelation is certainly close to the heart of various Christian communities located in so-called Third World countries, but because of its ambiguous nature, the same text is also used in ways that are devastating in various geographical and political contexts, such as Haiti.

The typical reading of the Book of Revelation in Haiti offers nothing that empowers people to change the present. The usual scenario for interpreting the Book of Revelation in Haiti is that we are literally living at the end of time in our devastated country (Reference CharlesCharles). As Christians, we need to live a life pleasing to God and not miss the call of the last trumpets to be caught up in the sudden rapture of the Church. The rest who did not live up to the biblical standards will be left behind. As for those who did not make it to heaven at the rapture, they are to endure the Great Tribulation and wait until the battle of Armageddon for the final victory of God. Then, those who resisted the Antichrist during the terrible years will be rescued by God and be saved through fire. Afterward, a thousand years of worldwide peace and security will be ushered in under the lordship and authority of Christ before the final release of Satan and the final victory of God. Woven into this narrative is the fantastic idea of leaving the mess behind, of going to glory to live a life of security and of plenty. Life, it is reasoned, is extremely difficult, and the best way out is to project oneself into a blissful kind of future. For most Haitian Christians, the Book of Revelation clearly evokes the final days of the world, the coming Antichrist, and the beast already at work in the world. It instills in the hearts of the faithful the fear of the evil number 666, the number of the enemy par excellence, that is Satan.8

The combat myth in the Book of Revelation is deployed in Haiti to combat the religion of Vodou, which many Haitian Christians consider the main curse that prevents Haiti from receiving God’s blessings. Violent language against Vodou and its practitioners is a constant staple of the sermons delivered by many preachers (mostly Protestants). Many Vodou priests or ougan have been lynched, stoned, or burned alive, mainly shortly after the departure of the dictator Baby Doc in 1986, and those horrible acts were perpetuated with the blessings of the Church at large in Haiti. The Catholic Church in Haiti organized, with the acquiescence of the state, the horrific antisuperstitious campaign of 1942–44, which destroyed many Vodou places of worship and sites of pilgrimage (Reference DesmanglesDesmangles; Reference Michel and Bellegarde-SmithMichel and Bellegarde-Smith).

Many Haitian Christians, especially the so-called evangelicals, take a certain pleasure in pointing to the cataclysmic destruction that will befall unbelievers. Earthquakes and natural disasters are believed to be divine judgment, and those with different theological understandings are seen as deserving to go to hell. The world is conceived in Manichaean terms,9 whereby those anointed to act as agents of God are good and the hypocrites, degenerates, Vodou practitioners, and other agents of Satan are evil. In Haiti, the combat myth is performed and articulated by othering Christian groups perceived to be different and by diabolizing other religions by means of discourses of fear, hatred, exclusion, and apocalyptic violence borrowed from the Book of Revelation.

Criticizing the Colonizing Reading in the Haitian Context

In the context of Haiti, the Book of Revelation becomes a pacifying power in a situation where one is concerned only with one’s survival against everybody else. Overwhelming and pressing issues such as environmental degradation, famine, cholera, COVID-19, proliferation of gangs controlling vast regions in the capital city and elsewhere, innumerable numbers of young Haitians fleeing the country, many of them to die during the perilous voyage or brutally arrested to be sent back to Haiti empty-handed to face the social, economic, and political nightmares, all these are understood through the lens of “end times” theology. White American fundamentalists, especially those of a Southern Baptist stripe and Pentecostal fervor who harbor no complex social and political insights, support many Haitian Christian institutions in their lethargy and discourage them from speaking up and seeking truth and justice.

A plethora of so-called prophets ceaselessly broadcast apocalyptic pronouncements, some more sinister and dire than others. In the meantime, the mercantile class (a conglomerate of six oligarchic families who immigrated to Haiti a few generations back, namely the Brandt, Acra, Madsen, Bigio, Apaid, and Mevs families) control everything from customs to drugs, from banking to security, from energy to gangs (Reference Plummer, Klich and LesserPlummer; Reference Casimir and DuboisCasimir). They are also supported by their multinational friends and operate under the approving gaze of the foreign embassies in Port-au-Prince. Those families control the sea and the air. They tolerate or even encourage violence, destruction, kidnappings, the demolition of all democratic institutions, as long as it all accrues to a political system that maintains the status quo.

The apocalyptic nature of the Book of Revelation has been used to promote a dualistic perspective whereby violence against the forces or agents of evil is deemed acceptable and the fatalities among God’s people are celebrated as martyrs for the faith. Such a dualistic perspective is particularly dangerous in the sort of social and political system that prevails in Haiti. Following a scenario whereby the marginal groups take on the rulers in an eschatological and cosmic battle, as portrayed in the combat myth, uncritical Haitian readers can engage and indeed have engaged in violence against other groups perceived as the enemy. But the biblical narratives, one must remember, are about how the writers, creators, and editors of these texts understood and imagined their worlds and the place their deity played in the process of forming their own identities vis-à-vis the identities of others. These texts are products of specific spaces, times, worldviews, prejudices, dreams, nightmares, and hopes. They cannot be uncritically adopted to suit one’s time and space, which is very different from the space–time frameworks of the biblical narratives. Most needed now are critical voices that envision a more empowering message coming out of the struggles and tradition of revolutionary resistance of the Haitian people, with a fresh understanding of how to be in the world and for the world as a Haitian Christian (Reference CasséusCasséus). One egregious colonizing effect of the previously discussed reading of the Book of Revelation in Haiti is that it fosters fear and not hope. The mystery of the book is played out as if one were captive to the fate of this present world, and as if the only way out was escapism, violence, and the belief that it is God’s will to survive life as a constant nightmare.10

Decolonizing the Book of Revelation in the Haitian Context

Reading to decolonize means taking the ideas regarding the Book of Revelation’s original context and transferring them to the Haitian context while resignifying the text for the social, economic, and political liberation of the Haitian people. John’s little communities existed in the margins of the power structure, where they were experiencing fear and apprehension.11 The overall message of the Book of Revelation is that imagination and faith inspire other ways of tackling the practical problems of these marginalized groups. By renewing his audience’s imagination, John aims to create an alternative reality to help his communities cope with the uncertainties of the present. The Book of Revelation is, in this sense, a call to resistance, to perseverance in times of persecution, and to faithfulness to God and to Jesus Christ. The Book of Revelation presents a critique of imperial power. It is a call to stand up against economic exploitation and to resist any political system of domination and of subjugation. The book offers a vision of Jerusalem descending from above to dwell with humans. Heaven is joined to earth since “here is the tent of God among human beings. He will make his home among them; they will be his people” (21:13).12

Christian churches in Haiti are caught up in endless debates about the end times, about identifying who the Antichrist might be, and looking at world events to figure out if the time of the rapture is close or not (Reference RossingRossing). The Book of Revelation, however, presents a different vision: it is God who descends instead of people going up. In the Book of Revelation, the coming of God’s kingdom is the advent of a social, public, and visible act of God expressed in markedly political terms here in history, on earth. The Seer’s critique is a call to challenge political arrangements that accept violence as “business as usual.” With the destruction of Babylon/Rome, wealth and peace come (21:22–26). Babylon is presented as a mirage; it is an empire of illusions; it is the tyranny of a fallen empire. The Seer envisions people drawn from all nations, tongues, and ethnic groups who would come to worship the Lamb (Rev. 7:9).

In rereading/resignifying the Book of Revelation in the Haitian context, Haitians need to understand that the number 666 should not lead to fear but to understanding how utterly foolish an empire of illusions is. The number 666 signifies total imperfection in a human system, truly and merely human and deficient, which will never attain seven, which expresses fulfillment and divine perfection. The empire of old, as the empire of today, is beastly and incomplete. Today’s empire is under the absolute rule of the market, with its prison industrial complex and military systems, multinational corporations and tech giants that exercise control over the lives of many. The great Beast today is the political, military, and economic systems that constitute a threat to life and to the sustainability of the whole planet.

The Seer presents a vision in which “the sea was no more” (21:1). Rome is understood as transient, hence faith in a sovereign God’s victory and in his promise to support the faithful is at the heart of the book. The call is to hope amid hopelessness and to be confident that God, and not the imperial regime, has the last word. The challenge is to resist, even when one’s act of resistance might seem foolish before the might of the powerful forces that are against the small communities and the voices standing up against injustices. The Seer takes the risk of speaking up against power by using coded language to point to the ugliness of the empire. The image of the beast is alluring, seductive, offering as it does spectacles of violence, might, and technologies. But the marginalized communities may also perceive the destructive reality of bowing to a system of exploitation and of annihilation that values market commodities and profits at the expense of life.

The goal of resignifying the text is to let it speak comfort to the people of faith in Haiti so they can imagine, as the text intended for its first recipients, a new reality in opposition to the world of the present in its crisis. It is a vision of hope for Haiti and not destruction; a future, another possible world, where no one is left behind. Resignifying the Book of Revelation in the Haitian context is to let the text serve as a prophetic denunciation of those groups who hold power in Haiti and anybody who cooperates with them, including any Christians in Haiti who seek to benefit from it. Thus, the Book of Revelation can help the Christian church in Haiti articulate a political-religious resistance to any pretention to divinization that modern neocolonial forces wish to impose on us. This rereading of the text appropriates the voice of John in denouncing the pretensions of any power or system which places terror, injustice, lies, and extermination at the forefront. It is most urgent to embrace this new reading that prods us to invest in and improve the lives of the wretched of the earth, such as peasants, slum-dwellers, and the uneducated who constitute the bulk of church members in Haiti.

Haitians can use the rich social and cultural fabric of konbit (collective work in Haitian Creole, which makes the toil of one’s farmland less onerous with the help of others) to foster human flourishing. Haitians can resignify the Book of Revelation in the same spirit that inhabited the community of the Seer by doing what Haitians love to do: laughing, singing, and dancing in the face of oppression (Reference TaylorTaylor). Haitians can also use the resources of songs that celebrate life, find resources in Haitian folktales that make fun of evil, and continue to be inspired by the use of the carnivalesque, as we have much of it in the Book of Revelation, to ridicule any oppressive system and create safe and healthy communities.

This reimagining/resignifying will, I hope, help marginalized groups, whose voices are seldom heard in the arena of the world’s political gurus, find the possibility to create liberative readings and liberative communities. This kind of decolonizing reading is intended to inspire Haitian faith communities to decide for themselves what they want to do in their struggle for justice, basic human rights, dignity, and emancipation with a piece of early Christian literature they consider sacred Scripture. This reappropriation of the text may allow us to let the text speak to us within our specific cultural, social, and political context without the deafening drumming of the powerful. The reading of Revelation proposed here offers hope for the apocalyptic situation in Haiti, not just for tomorrow, but also for today. We can take this reading and be empowered by it for social, political, and economic change in the present.

Conclusion: Then and Now

The Seer wrote his Apocalypse at a volatile time and space similar enough to the turbulent present Haiti that a comparison between the two social situations does not seem too farfetched. Because of the fragile situation of his communities, John employs the combat-myth scenario, where the marginal groups take over the rulers in an eschatological and cosmic battle, in order to empower his audience. In a new reading of Revelation in the Haitian context, some of the language used by John can be reappropriated to create a new reality, where the imagination is renewed for social change and justice to deal with present issues while planning for future development in the interests of all. The Book of Revelation is an ambiguous text; along with its problematic scenes of violence and destruction aimed at the perceived “enemy,” it proclaims a liberating message of comfort and protest against the imperial forces of death; it aims to renew the readers’ imagination to create beauty and hope in the midst of ashes. One may, then, appreciate and/or embrace its liberating potential for faith communities in Haiti while rejecting the cycle of emperors and counteremperors that the book seems to propose in its Christian mythmaking.

In the Haitian context, the Book of Revelation has been perversely interpreted to keep Haitian Christians and others under oppression. The mythical hope of the Book of Revelation, with its mythical and futuristic space where there will be “no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (21:23–24), is not even a metaphor or image in a nation where electricity is a luxury. The culture of death, as opposed to the celebration of life, is what the new imperial forces and their minions offer the “little peoples” of the world. Death engulfs Haiti, although there are a few feeble lights and signs of life here and there in the resiliency of my people, in the many ways we resist and negotiate a nightmarish existence. The Book of Revelation offers hope for a new humanity where there “was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands” (7:9). It is a vision of celebration of life and of vindication that Haitians can incorporate. But we also need to be prudent in what we adopt from the Seer and how we adapt it to our own social and political realities.

Part of the process of decolonizing the Bible as literature may be in envisioning a future without the Bible (Reference Petrella, Liew and SegoviaPetrella). That is, as long as the Bible remains central in the construction of identities, spaces, myths of origins, histories, and genealogies, the possibility for it to be used as tool of colonization and violence remains a real possibility. The plurality of beliefs and the complexities of our world may be best addressed by trying to understand this world and its variegated scriptures than by focusing on one book. Bibliolatry may well be passé. The collapse of many modern economies and worldviews may be a warning sign that no genuine solutions aimed at human flourishing and dignity will be coming from any new exodus thinking, apocalyptic understanding, a particular religious text and tradition, or arrogant humanistic programs. That means that, on the one hand, running to the Bible in the pursuit of liberation is problematic, because the biblical text is a complex compilation of narratives with various answers or with no solutions to the problems we face today. But, on the other hand, grand pronouncements and narratives, political systems right or left with agendas that exclude many in the world fighting for survival, will not lead to liberation either. Decolonizing the Bible is a program that consists in learning and unlearning, in criticizing and of taking what may be useful, in collaging scriptures and traditions, in combating ideologies that are put in place to kill mentally, intellectually, and physically. This program of deconstruction and dismantling should not limit itself to the Bible, but must be pursued in such fields as classics, archaeology, economics, sociology, political science, history, medicine, religious studies, and other disciplines.

Chapter 17 Decolonizing Literature A History of Medicine Perspective

Sloan Mahone

The truth is that there are no races: there is nothing in the world that can do all we ask “race” to do.

(Appiah, “Uncompleted Argument”)

Tasked with representing a history of medicine perspective for a discussion of the decolonizing turns that have emerged within academia in recent years, I am prompted to reflect on a wide spectrum of personal and scholarly identities we may hold close. Our editors suggest that such a preoccupation with decolonizing this and decolonizing that has arrived quite late to the party. The postcolony has long been here, whether or not its presence is felt acutely everywhere or by everyone. And as is often the case, the inspiration to act against colonial constructions and residues in the curricula was spearheaded not by the Academy’s bright stars, but by activist students in the Global South. This was followed by legions more in the Global North’s elite institutions, which paradoxically (and stubbornly) held fast in the protection of the very same imperial icon in the form of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes. The Rhodes statue in Oxford and other colonial tributes continue to be overlooked by many as simply part of Oxford University’s architectural landscape with an acknowledged, but not necessarily critiqued, colonial past. To many others, however, walking past such laudatory symbols has not merely been intellectually taxing but serves as a reminder of an unapologetic institutionalization of the lived experience of racism felt within both the city and the university.

This essay aims to engage with decolonizing turns within the history of medicine as a set of sources and as a discipline and will consider how such readings and pedagogical choices might help us reflect upon a decolonizing turn within the English literary curriculum. Literary sources intersect seamlessly with histories of medicine, science, disability, and emotion. However, it is still possible that history and literature as complementary but starkly different methodologies rarely reflect adequately on one’s disciplinary borrowings from the other. This essay is an attempt to facilitate such a conversation and knowledge exchange. For my purposes, I define “literature” for the historian in a way that incorporates a broader range of “creative” writing, including ethnography, memoir, psychological or psychoanalytic note-taking, and polemics. There is some value in the extension of the literary beyond, say, the novel, but we might also reflect upon the emotional content of fiction properly historicized so that it might serve multiple purposes.

This reflection will focus on three brief case studies where insights might be gleaned from a greater dialogue between two fields; teaching “race” within the history of science and medicine; colonialism and medicine (psychiatry); and the historical and intellectual legacy of Sarah Baartman, a seminal life history that has been reproduced on countless syllabi. These case studies reflect some of my own (imperfect) experiences in teaching postgraduate-level students.

In the introduction to her groundbreaking book, Decolonizing Methodologies, Linda Reference Tuhiwai SmithTuhiwai Smith speaks to the embeddedness of images, speech, and symbols not only as stories from a racist past, but also as deeply entrenched modes of research and knowledge production. While we recognize and object to easily identifiable racist and dehumanizing language, there are many other ways one might speak of other, often-marginalized, groups that do not give us a moment’s pause (Reference Tuhiwai SmithTuhiwai Smith 9). It is still common to find references to a “native” or a “tribe,” of course, but we inscribe our witnessing of such anachronisms with the inverted comma. When we engage with the history of medicine specifically, our sources may also attempt to represent a type of person with deeply racialized images of sickness – the “leper,” the “epileptic,” the “schizophrenic.” Not all of this language has disappeared, and to Tuhiwai Smith’s point, we perpetuate such dehumanizing erasures in our own research methodologies and in our teaching. This is not a simple dynamic explained by White privilege only. Tuhiwai Smith relates her own experiences as an Indigenous researcher working with Indigenous communities and the ways in which local or nonlocal, or Western-educated or not, may present additional categories of insider and outsider (Reference Tuhiwai SmithTuhiwai Smith 14).

Today’s Class Is about Race …

In 2020, Mark Hinton and Meleisa Ono-George coauthored an article that I had long been looking for. Their reflections on coteaching a course on “race” and racism (aimed at the legacies felt within British communities) marries a difficult challenge (teaching “race”) with an even bigger challenge, employing an informed, actively antiracist pedagogy within the classroom (Reference Hinton and Ono-GeorgeHinton and Ono-George). Perhaps most importantly, the authors, alongside their students, attempt to “move [themselves] and others from a place of trying to be ‘non-racist’ to a place of active anti-racism” (Reference Hinton and Ono-George716).

Hinton and Ono-George, who identify themselves as a White middle-class British man and a Black working-class woman, were inspired in their course design in part by the Rhodes Must Fall movement and efforts within the United Kingdom to “decolonize the curriculum.” Their approach was experimental in asking the question “is it possible for the history of race and racism to be taught in such a way that is academically rigorous and transformative for the students and teachers?” (Reference Hinton and Ono-GeorgeHinton and Ono-George 717). For my own part, I felt a first step in this process was to begin to imagine what this might look like and ask how such an environment might differ from teaching practices I have employed or encountered in the past. An additional and essential part of this would be to own up to what might be lacking in reflections about how the teaching has gone. For me, a minor innovation was to include Hinton and Ono-George’s article on a short reading list for a single class on “Race and Racisms” that sits within an eight-week module on overarching themes in the History of Science and Medicine.

Prompting students to consider their own positionality when engaging with both literary and historical texts highlights an often-overlooked tension in classrooms and on the syllabus. I have long been bothered by the problem of “we,” that is, the suggestion that “we” must incorporate more diverse and marginalized voices, which, although unintended, creates in the mind a normative syllabus where “we” signals predominantly White Western voices as the natural point of departure. What might it mean, for instance, to begin with a “White” syllabus and then add the requisite number of non-White perspectives to decolonize an already-skewed construction? In history writing, we engage with primary sources, and the role of these sources within the curricula is to represent a problem. Within the history of colonial medicine and science, for instance, this might be a problem of scientific racism and knowledge production, or ideology embedded into medical treatises. Our goal is to read the politics and the oppression through the lenses of medicine, psychology, and science and divert the gaze back to colonial or other dominant frameworks born of corruption.

The publication of The Bell Curve (1994) is a case in point. The book itself exists within scholarship today as an artifact, a piece of material culture, that serves to illustrate the intractability of racially deterministic arguments well beyond the era of eugenics. However, the book’s success in penetrating mainstream discourse as “scientific” was alarming enough when it was first published that it instigated a counterscholarship that mobilized expressly to respond to its spurious claims. Steven Fraser’s edited volume, The Bell Curve Wars (Reference Fraser1995) followed quickly on from the book, but in the post-Trump era, newer volumes have appeared to respond to more recent reverberations of the pernicious debate about race and intelligence (Reference StaubStaub; Reference Fischer, Hout, Sánchez Jankowski, Swidler and VossFischer et al.). Students find some fascination in the history of eugenic thought, but they are not always prepared to recognize the cyclical nature of popularized racist science recast in languages that attempt to mask resurgent racist ideologies.

Engaging with travel and exploration narratives is a useful exercise here. These historical and literary sources frequently present ideas about the tropics, and by extension, the “tropical races” that inhabited them. Explorers’ prose is unsurprisingly littered with the language of disease and death. Stephen Reference Donovan and YoungsDonovan asserts that despite the hardship and danger, the Congo was an important site developed for adventure travelers. “Congo tourism,” he writes, “has its origins in a dense matrix of travel, imperialism, and textual representations” (Reference Donovan and YoungsDonovan 39). He notes, however, that the greatest inspiration for amateur travelers was not the thick tomes of Henry Morton Stanley or Richard Burton, but Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The Congo as a site of darkness and disease, of moral corruption, and a fecund backwardness is reflected in Conradian references that continue to appear in myriad forms today. Anthropology has made use of the “diseased heart of Africa” metaphor in deconstructing racist depictions of the continent (Reference Comaroff, Lindenbaum and LockComaroff 305–29), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now remains a film masterpiece transplanting the tropes of “darkest Africa” to the horror of the Vietnam War, and one disastrous exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Into the Heart of Africa (Reference CannizzoCannizzo), sparked years of protest after the exhibit, curated to be “ironic,” was found by the city’s Black community to be an overwhelmingly uncritical display of racist imagery (Reference Burrett, Gabriel and IlcanBurrett). The failed exhibit has become such a well-known cautionary tale in museum practice that it has an associated scholarship documenting the show and its aftermath.

Returning to Hinton and Ono-George’s pedagogical lessons, they caution that “one of the dangers of teaching histories of race, and in particular of racial violence, without considering contemporary racism is that you can easily end up detaching these historic acts from their legacies in contemporary society and in the lived experiences of those in the classroom” (Reference Hinton and Ono-GeorgeHinton and Ono-George 717). Students are not unaware of the need for some reflection about positionality, but it is easy enough to lose sight of what this might look like in practice. Reading nineteenth-century depictions of Africa or other colonized spaces through the genre of travel writing can feel like a safe distance from modern experiences of racism. When we periodize these texts too rigidly, however, we might ask if we are in danger of overlooking some of the same racist tropes that appear in other forms of writing and in more modern periods. The skill to impart to students is to question disciplinary authority (history, anthropology, literature) by utilizing the skill set from one to critique the other. For example, one might look for well-established literary tropes – dripping with references to tropical rottenness – within modern political science.

Writing about a “slum” called Chicago in Abidjan, prominent author Robert Kaplan employs a language that recreates the imaginary of the rotting, dangerous, disease-ridden tropics:

Chicago, like more and more of Abidjan, is a slum in the bush: a checkerwork of corrugated zinc roofs and walls made of cardboard and black plastic wrap. It is located in a gully teeming with coconut palms and oil palms and is ravaged by flooding. Few residents have easy access to electricity, a sewage system, or a clean water supply. The crumbly red laterite earth crawls with foot-long lizards both inside and outside the shacks. Children defecate in a stream filled with garbage and pigs, droning with mosquitoes. In this stream women do the washing. Young unemployed men spend their time drinking beer, palm wine, and gin while gambling on pinball games constructed out of rotting wood and rusty nails. These are the same youths who rob houses and more prosperous Ivorian neighborhoods at night. One man I met, Damba Tesele, came to Chicago from Burkina Faso in 1963. A cook by profession, he has four wives and thirty-two children, not one of whom has made it to high school.

To my mind, this is a medical, or rather a pathological text. With a few alterations, we might be reading a nineteenth-century explorer’s log, a Conradian passage of misery, or a neo-Malthusian plea for resurgent eugenics. We are transported to a “slum,” and yet we are in the “bush.” The environment teems, crawls, or is ravaged. Mosquitoes drone. There is no irony here, but a warning – the “coming anarchy” of African garbage, and pigs, and mosquitoes, and children. The disciplines of History and Literature work in concert to expose twenty-first-century ways of imagining Africa.

Feminist Literatures and Masculine Anxieties

Literary scholar Marilyn Booth tells the story of nineteenth-century feminist writer and activist Zaynab Fawwaz’s efforts to collect and disseminate women’s perspectives and literary works both locally and globally. Booth shows how Fawwaz challenged Western representations of Arab women as either sexual objects or silent by sending her 500-page Arabic-language volume of historical biographies of great women for inclusion in the “much publicized” women’s library at the 1893 Chicago World Exhibition. According to Booth, the inclusion of Fawwaz’s Scattered Pearls among the Generations of Mistresses of Seclusion, whether comprehended by visitors to the space or not, upends the Western imaginings of Egyptian women as the exotic belly dancers they were presented to be in Chicago (Reference Booth and BurtonBooth 275). With tireless drive and commitment, Fawwaz paid equal attention to local gender politics through essays published in the nationalist press as well as two historical novels, one of which Booth contends is a “gendered rewriting of local history” (Reference Booth and Burton275). The “coy” renaming of the novel’s protagonists suggest that there is little to differentiate the “historical novel” from the “historical chronicle” (Reference Booth and Burton279). Arab women wrote fiction as a means of rewriting the histories that excluded or misrepresented them. Arab feminists began to write themselves into the dynamic spaces of nationalist newspapers, which saw women as sources of disruption, with pieces on women’s troubling presence in urban spaces, girls’ education, and most pointedly a preoccupation with prostitution (Reference Booth and Burton276). The novels that Zaynab Fawwaz either wrote or helped to promote can be seen as acts of exposure of Arab men’s anxieties about wayward women losing their morals and traversing into respectable spaces. Booth notes that Fawwaz “rewrites the trope of ‘women’s wiles’,” depicting instead the more truthful knowledge of women who “know how to resist and thwart the violent acts of men” (Reference Booth and Burton291).

Fawwaz’s extraordinary activism in responding to antifeminist agendas in the press allowed for a unique visibility that provided a platform for her first historical novel, Good Consequences, or The Lovely Maid of al-Zahira (1899). The novel included a preface that, Booth writes, included a “plea for the moral utility of fiction that was, she insisted, proximate to historical ‘truth’” (Reference Booth and Burton278). Zaynab Fawwaz’s intellectual life and work might appear well outside of the disciplinary interests of the history of medicine and science, and her work, despite her most expansive ambitions, also sits outside of the English-speaking world. However, once found, it is hard to ignore Fawwaz within this important period for feminist creativity and participation. If we turn our perspective slightly, Fawwaz’s intervention in the Chicago World Exhibition, if considered not by her actions but by what such exhibitions would have expected from her, is a direct assault on the fetishizing and pathologizing gaze that scientific disciplines either sought to establish or already asserted to be true. Such exhibitions and World Fairs popularized anthropological and medicoscientific representations of (gendered) ethnic and (gendered) racial types. The objects normally associated with the exhibitions were carefully curated to conform to how Western audiences understood non-Western people, whether Congolese or Navajo. The insertion of an object of literary import and scholarship from an Arab feminist runs counter to our usual interpretations of such exhibits and engages scholars with new questions about how subalterns subverted the intended purposes of such displays.

Another writer, a feminist sister and journalist from the English literary canon, was similarly staking an intellectual claim against the conventional thinking of her time. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1890) is heralded both as feminist tract and a fictionalized autobiographical account of mental ill health, brought on in part by the oppressive environment imposed on creative (all) women, by the expectations of society, by doctors, and by husbands. However, reading Gilman’s short story only as a metaphor for hysteria or as an illness narrative is far less interesting than reading it alongside the one-page explanation she published in her own magazine years later. In Why I Wrote The Yellow Wall-Paper (1913), published in The Forerunner, Gilman responds to a physician critic who claimed the text should never have been written and that it “was enough to drive anyone mad to read it” (Reference EdelsteinPerkins Gilman 19–20). Gilman continues to explain that her nervous breakdown and melancholia from years earlier had prompted the advice of the “rest cure” with a strict admonishment to “never touch a pen, brush or pencil again as long as I lived.” However, Gilman did write again, casting such advice “to the winds,” she said, to produce a fictionalized account of the mental distress and hallucinations of a woman intellectually constrained by the men around her. In the first pages of The Yellow Wallpaper, it is modern medicine, dominated by men, that is implicated in her sickness, and this includes the oversight of her physician husband. Perhaps, she muses (secretly, telling only the “dead paper” in front of her) that this is the reason she does not get well faster.

Fawwaz and Gilman together, writing as contemporaries, subverted the dominant narratives produced by the times and spaces they lived in. When we read Fawwaz, or about her, we discover a counterimage to the colonial and Western constructed Arab woman’s body and capacity. While the ethnographically distorted depictions of Congolese “pygmies,” “Eskimos,” and “Indians” have been critiqued already in a well-developed historiography, we might now look beyond the obvious racism of these displays to look also for the subversion of these depictions as an alternative way of reading the historical moment presented by this period of scientific categorizations of imperial subjects.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote in direct opposition to one of the most prominent physicians of her time, neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell. She wrote with authority about the illness experience, however dramatized, and about the degradation caused by the sexism of modern medicine. Gilman was well aware that the treatment prescribed to her was an assault on her autonomy as a woman. Fawwaz does not write about illness or medicine in the same way, but she does make an appearance that challenges the narrative at a World Exhibition that would have been rife with depictions of the stability or capacity of non-Western people. Like Gilman, Fawwaz also comes up against the constant erasure of womanhood, which is the instigation behind her writing and the need to compile a 500-page tome attesting to the greatness of women. Both women wrote pointed critiques of sensational newspaper practices, with Gilman taking on the Hearst newspapers for their attacks on her personally and for the stance that all women’s writing was presumptuous, if not monstrous (Reference EdelsteinEdelstein 73).

These two writers (could they possibly have known about each other?) complement each other in dismantling the oppressive authority of male-dominated scientific knowledge and its false narratives around womanhood. They could do this most effectively through literature in its various forms. For the English Literary Curriculum, there is something to be gained by engaging familiar literary motifs as they were enacted within other disciplines in the medical or social sciences. This moves beyond the mere documentation of racist symbols to actively seek out how to read the existence of feminist writing as a subversion of racist science.

Writing, History, and Colonialism

The history of colonial psychiatry, a robust subfield in the history of medicine, has produced an extensive range of work on institutional, political, social, and intellectual histories that seek to unpack the largely political landscape that is laid bare when an analysis of the uses of psychological language takes place. Psychological profiles of whole populations (the African, the Indian, the native) provided an additional layer of rationale for occupation, and signaled how such regimes could be characterized as logical by the languages of science and medicine. In short, all racist regimes and institutions stack the deck. Superior guns are one way to do this. But the presumed superiority of the ruler built into a medicalized rationale for occupation might be more palatable to government in the metropole.

Colonial administrators pathologized not only African dissenting behaviors, but also oral or written expressions of discontent. They also noted what, and more importantly how, Africans read. Missionary-translated Bibles and prayer books were scrutinized by colonial police in Kenya to see which parts of Scripture were underlined, annotated, or reinterpreted by local prophets (Reference MahoneMahone, “Psychology of Rebellion” 254). Africans coopting the sacrosanct written word of the colonizer and daring to rewrite it suggested a kind of madness. At the very least, such inscriptions spelled trouble. Derek Peterson’s monograph on the “creative writing” of African writers, translators, and bookkeepers details how Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o himself was a Bible translator, providing new phraseology and meaning for the political context of Gikuyu freedom fighters going to the forests during the Mau Mau war (Reference PetersonPeterson 228).

While there remains a great deal of historical scholarship that contextualizes how colonial regimes played the long game by hijacking scientific understandings of colonized peoples, there is something to be gained from the careful handling of the actual primary source as textual artifacts. I have seen a remarkable and quite visceral response from students when handling the material culture of colonialism even when they are already familiar with its content and language. As I have in my possession the influential tract The Psychology of Mau Mau (Colonial Office, 1954), I have passed around the document in its original pamphlet form. This report, largely self-plagiarized from psychiatrist J. C. Carothers’s equally troubling World Health Organization monograph The African Mind in Health and Disease (Reference Carothers1953), helped to lay the groundwork of the medical rationale for the mass internment of Kenyan men and women. The unexpected materiality of colonialism within a history of medicine discussion provoked surprise at the “realness” of this moment in history, but also a more reflective response than the scholarship alone could provoke. The document itself is unremarkable-looking. It is pamphlet-size, laid out in book format, and printed on thin off-white pages. It consists of thirty-five pages of small typeface with no illustrations or photographs. The front cover is adorned only with the title, author, and colonial crest from the Colony and Protectorate of Kenya. Reading about J. C. Carothers is a first port of call for the niche market of historians of colonial psychiatry. The doctor’s notorious comparison of African “normal” brains with the brains of lobotomized Europeans appears time and again in the literature as an exemplar of racist pseudoscience from this period.

Reading Carothers in tandem with Frantz Fanon, who explicitly took on the psychiatrist and his influence, exposes what exactly is at stake when only the most powerful institutions control scientific knowledge, or as Fanon might put it, when corrupt institutions develop scientific knowledge. The Carothers case brings forward much more than a gratuitous racist diatribe. The dynamics of a public health study, a government-commissioned report, a series of both positive and negative book reviews, all portray the ease with which extremist ideas may be produced and circulated. Fanon’s polemical writings pass a bit too quickly over the specifics of Carothers’s dehumanizing rhetoric; nonetheless, Carothers does appear within The Wretched of the Earth with Fanon’s explicit attack on the rising influence of the “East African School” (of psychiatry) and its coopting of medical education and politics, both of which asserted the lesser humanity of colonized people (Reference MahoneMahone, “Three Psychologies”). While historians of medicine have engaged with the scientific racism of colonial governments by illustrating how such language was used to rationalize imperial interests, the absurdity of colonial representations are perhaps best expressed by literary sources. Flora Veit-Wild has highlighted how African writers have exposed the “violence of colonial and postcolonial oppression and the absurdity of power” with the opposing “power of the written word” (Reference Veit-WildVeit-Wild 5). Fanon’s polemical writings allow us to engage with a decolonizing literary canon, while also observing an explicit dialogue between a revolutionary and a colonial psychiatrist.

While the history of psychiatry is now well represented by studies from myriad former colonial territories, there is less attention paid to Black intellectual life apart from resistances or protest movements. One such author, who ought to be read more widely, is Noel Chabani Manganyi, South Africa’s first Black psychologist and a prolific essayist on the experience of apartheid (among many other things). I came to know this writer only because a student opted to write an undergraduate thesis about him (Reference DalzellDalzell). Manganyi’s first groundbreaking work, Being Black in the World (1973), resonates like The Souls of Black Folk for our global modern times. A memoirist as well as a social commentator, Manganyi, like Fanon, is a clinician, whose witness and testimony were a crucial part of the antiapartheid movement’s intellectual and material resistance. His later memoir, Apartheid and the Making of a Black Psychologist (2016), is a testament and an important historical document in its own right. However, Manganyi’s forays into literary criticism, biography (of Es’kia Mphahlele and Gerard Sekoto), and social commentary, as a clinical psychologist, places him into historical conversation with, and also an ability to critique, the psychiatrists we know from both ends of the political spectrum during the period of decolonization. There are interesting parallels to be found between Fanon and other writers’ accounts of the psychic trauma of living under colonialism and Manganyi’s accounts of the psychology of living not only under apartheid, but also in exile. In a 2002 interview, Manganyi describes the synergy between writing biography (a “written narrative”) and the therapist’s intervention. “Psychotherapy is a verbal narrative reconstruction. Both are enriched by and brought to life by the interpretations of the biographer and psychotherapist” (Manganyi in Reference Ngwenya and ManganyiNgwenya and Maganyi). Perhaps within the decolonizing turns in both history writing and the English literary curriculum, it is time to privilege the textual contributions of these writers in order to highlight not only what they subverted, but also what they accomplished despite the colonizing structures that surrounded them.

(Mis)(re)interpretations of the Sarah Baartman Story

The tragic story of Sarah Baartman has been told and retold. It has been made visual and has been dramatized. I have long used Baartman’s story in my own teaching as a way to expose how the historical racisms associated with Baartman’s treatment are not frozen in time in the nineteenth century but still resonate deeply today. The continued relevance of Sarah Baartman is expressed in multiple historiographical and literary forms. More recent writing supplants the retelling of her biography with analysis of how the “theoretical industry” that has developed around her has created problems and misinterpretations anew.

For my own early engagement with Baartman, I was struck by a series of pertinent dates; 1810, 1974, 1985, 2002. In 1810, Sarah Baartman was brought to London to be exhibited as the “Hottentot Venus.” More than a century-and-a-half later in 1974, her skeleton, long displayed with a body cast and her genitalia, was finally removed from public display at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. In 1985, an influential essay by historian Sander Gilman gave a heavily psychological interpretation of the fascination with her sexualized body in the form of a lengthy article in Critical Inquiry. And in 2002, Sarah Baartman’s remains were repatriated for burial and a memorial in her homeland, the result of years of activism and a formal request by Nelson Mandela.

Andrew P. Lyons refers to “much controversy” over the right to finally tell Baartman’s story in his Reference Lyons2018 article in Anthropologica. His review is an attempt to disentangle why this contested narrative has unfolded in the way that it has. Lyons helpfully traces the multi-disciplinary “second life” of Baartman literature with (post Sander Gilman) studies from history, anthropology, sociology, creative writing, feminist studies, and filmmaking (Reference LyonsLyons 327–28). Lyons notes, as have others, that factual details about Baartman’s early life (including her original name) and the nature of her physical appearance are either unknown or contested. He notes also that her personal agency and “who has the right to describe her career” also require contextualization, particularly in light of what has been termed an “ethnopornography” – the familiar body of literature that seeks to encapsulate whole ethnicities or cultures or peoples within a series of dehumanizing tropes, representations, and discourses (Reference LyonsLyons 328). The wealth of academic literature on Baartman’s (and Khoisan) sexuality is perhaps matched only by the historiographical treatment of the creation of the “Hottentot Venus” caricature and the subsequent zeal to market her as a traveling exhibition. While Sarah Baartman, and Ota Benga, who was famously exhibited in a chimpanzee enclosure in the Bronx Zoo, exemplify the exploitation of notable individuals in sideshows and pseudoscientific colonial exhibitions, human displays remain a popular research topic in the history of science and medicine, particularly as a material culture engagement with the enormous volume of racist ephemera they produced in the form of exhibition posters, advertisements, and political cartoons.

The subject of Baartman’s agency within the circumstances of her exploitation is harder to glean. Zine Magubane, a sociologist, takes on what she sees as the overreliance on historical sources that focus on Baartman’s racialized body and sexuality. This turn, beginning with Gilman’s broader interests in representations and difference, has become the dominant scholarly trope for Baartman studies over the years. Ironically, this discourse scholarship has become its own discursive trap and has in some ways perpetuated the dominance of the racist imagery attached to her, overshadowing more nuanced interpretations of Baartman’s short life. Sander Gilman’s interpretation of the symbolic import of Baartman’s story has been, according to Magubane, the “genesis for a veritable theoretical industry” (Reference MagubaneMagubane 817). Magubane calls for a deeper reflection from scholars who, while uncovering the racism behind nineteenth-century depictions of Baartman’s “difference,” have themselves focused almost entirely on the very same bodily fascinations of pseudoscientists and sideshow gawkers (Reference MagubaneMagubane 817). Magubane’s most compelling insight is that the misplaced focus that conflates the life of Baartman with the reception of her imagery has failed to ask pertinent questions about politics, social relations, and geographic context, thus placing Baartman “outside history” and with a status as “theoretically fetishized” (Reference MagubaneMagubane 818).

Magubane asks “why this woman?” Why should Sarah Baartman become the scholarly icon for “racial and sexual alterity” when many thousands of men and women (and children) were exhibited in fashionable displays of European modernity in contrast to the primitive? The wealth of tantalizingly awful visual sources, from cartoons to plaster casts, have helped to obscure the nuances of Baartman’s daily existence, her subjugations, resistances, and performances. It is far more surprising that Baartman appeared not in exhibitions, but in the courtroom. Baartman’s biographies are rarely microhistories in themselves. Some creative attempts at depicting her agency in the form of theatrical productions have had to speculate on the finer details of her life and thought, but these depictions, while attempting to right a wrong, also have their own agendas and points of view.

When and how we might teach about Baartman’s life and legacy has become the subject of reflection and debate. The emotional impact of the frequent reproduction of Baartman’s imagery has brought to the fore new writing in history and literary criticism about positionality, perspective and privilege. Natasha Gordon-Chipembere and others have refused to display or republish the colonially produced images of Baartman that are so easily available and familiar (Reference LyonsLyons 335; Reference Gordon-ChipembereGordon-Chipembere, Representation 5). Baartman’s image (or rather her exploitative and distorted image) appears in teaching slides and research presentations, the purpose of which is to highlight the scientific racism behind the creation of such illustrations. The end result is that these images remain in circulation and subvert efforts to point out how racist images circulated in the past. Gordon-Chipembere’s analysis extends to literary attempts to retell Baartman’s story through the novel, such as Barbara Chase-Riboud’s Hottentot Venus (Reference Chase-Riboud2003). However, this fictionalized reimagining depicts Baartman herself referring to her own “huge hips and buttocks,” recreating the colonial narrative about Baartman’s body and further diminishing her voice (Reference Gordon-ChipembereGordon-Chipembere, Representation 6).

My own use of a well-known cartoon illustration of Baartman in a teaching lecture on “race” within the history of medicine was intended to challenge the notion that nineteenth-century abuses may be neatly contained within an identifiable racist past. Assigned readings include critiques of earlier historiographical accounts of Baartman, but perhaps most important is the ensuing discussion about what it might mean that viciously racist displays of genitalia and body image should remain intact as late as the 1970s or that the request for a repatriation of Sarah Baartman’s body for burial was the subject of any debate whatsoever. Zine Magubane asserts that Baartman’s curious “theoretical odyssey” exemplifies the dangers of applying theory without historical specificity. In Gilman’s case, this is an exercise in privileging an overriding human propensity to see the world in terms of iconography and stereotypes including those of sexualized Black women (Reference GilmanSander Gilman 204–42). In his Critical Inquiry piece, “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature,” Gilman reproduces six images of either a nearly nude Sarah Baartman or associated scientific drawings of “Hottentot” genitalia.

The sheer expanse of Baartman scholarship and creative output has prompted reflection and critiques from myriad perspectives and disciplines. Ayo Coly, writing in 2019, asks: “What is at stake in continuing to extend hospitality to the specter of Baartman, especially when she has been laid to rest and mourned properly?” (Reference Coly and ColyColy 183). Coly’s project engages with the many claims and debates about what is “at stake” in finally letting go when perhaps, as Natasha Gordon-Chipembere asserts, Baartman’s story with all of its (even well-meaning) misreadings, speaks for itself, not as a symbol but as a tale of a Khoisan woman whose life was deeply marred by colonial intent (Reference Gordon-ChipembereGordon-Chipembere, “Intentions”). Within the History of Medicine, Baartman’s story is still largely one of symbolism and display. The problems with some historical narratives of Baartman’s life have been answered by fictional accounts, but these too have found it hard to know Baartman without a recreation of her bodily image. Two decades have now passed since Baartman has returned home for a proper burial. We may yet hope to reveal an end to the long story of a short life.

The melding of historical and literary voices in methodological partnership allows for a greater understanding of how to read through the symbols, silences, and absences that appear within the imperfect texts we work with. The symbols and stereotypes of race science, collective psychology, and ethnological and commercial exhibitions can be interrogated well beyond the images they conjure up. The literary curriculum might have something to gain by engaging with the historical specificities of the medical and psychological frames that would have governed historical actors’ lives.


Chapter 14 Literature, Human Rights Law, and the Return of Decolonization

Chapter 15 Decolonizing Literary Interpretation through Disability

Chapter 16 Decolonizing the Bible as Literature

Chapter 17 Decolonizing Literature A History of Medicine Perspective


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