I grew up in a small town in the Karoo in the nineties. The first things we were taught in kindergarten were the colours of the traffic light, the rules of counting, and the ABC. The colours, the numbers, the letters were all in English. That was the beginning of our education.
The rest of our education as black children continued along this trajectory. The second language taught to us was Afrikaans. We were never taught how to count in isiXhosa or isiZulu. Our command of these languages was a job left to our parents. In the high school syllabus for English and literature, black writers were simply not represented. No mention was ever made of the writers who had been a part of my own upbringing at home: Chinua Achebe, Bessie Head, Miriam Tlali. Austen and Wilde, however, could always be found in abundance.
When it came time to apply for university, I was drawn to the African Literature Department at Wits. Established in 1983 under Es’kia Mpahlelele, the Department is devoted to the study of all aspects of black literary expression, and is the only one of its kind in the country. During my years as part of the Department, it became clear to me that the faculty and student body there were engaged in a decolonised approach to the study of literature. The questions we were able to ask, and our engagements with the various texts that we studied, would not have been possible had the Department not privileged certain forms of knowledge over others. The lens being used was unapologetically African. And this approach opened up questions concerning the possibility and importance of decolonising English for black writers.
To me the question is as pertinent today as when it was first articulated: Is it possible to write in English and French, as many African writers do, and still carry the message of decolonisation and the worldview of a decolonised subject? What purpose does a decolonised African literature serve? And how can it realise this purpose?
The language question continues to divide scholars, writers, and other interested parties. My opinion in this debate is that we should not keep trying to resolve the authenticity of African literature produced in European languages. We should not keep asking whether it is possible for black American authors, for example, to use the English language to document their American experience. Instead we should attempt to answer the question of how black literature can, and already does, decolonise the English language and the English literary canon and further the decolonial project.
In the narrowest sense of the term, decolonisation means the undoing of colonialism. Since European cultural dominance was a major part of colonialism, resistance to European cultural influence became an urgent priority when African countries began achieving political independence. Enter the language debates.
In 1962, Ngugi wa Thiong’o famously critiqued the African Writers’ Conference at Makerere University—organised around the question “What is African literature?”—for its exclusion of literature not written in English. Thiong’o went on to write novels in his mother tongue Gikuyu, translating them from Gikuyu into English himself.
As an isiXhosa speaker educated in English, I can relate to Ngugi’s stance and to the impact that Gikuyu had on his outlook of the world. And while my approach is slightly different to his, I am still grappling with the question of whether the English language can be decolonised to the point of adequately accommodating our experiences as black Africans.
Why is it that I not only think, dream and articulate myself in English but am also comfortable doing these things? Can English bear the full weight of my experiences, and, if it cannot, what does that mean for my identity as an African? What would a decolonised English language look like? Can it exist, or does it exist already?
The post-apartheid South African schooling system still very much resembles the old colonial system. Although the demographics of many private and former “Model C” schools have changed to include more black students, the culture and curriculum of most of these schools still act on the assumption that the pupil is white, which leaves no room for the daily experiences of black children whose world, body and being differ from those of the white child.
In this context, the language question takes on a particular significance. In my view, African-American writers such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker have arguably arrived at a decolonised version of English that carries the full weight of their experiences as black people in the US-American context.
In her renowned essay “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination”, Morrison discusses the way blackness is used in white writing as a tool or a frame for making sense of whiteness. She writes:
[W]e need to analyze the [white artist’s] manipulation of the Africanist narrative (that is, the story of a black person, the experience of being bound and/or rejected) as a means of mediation—both safe and risky—on one’s own humanity. Such analyses will reveal how the representation and appropriation of that narrative provides opportunities to contemplate limitation, suffering, rebellion, and to speculate on fate and destiny.
Speaking about the colonial imagination more generally, Ross Chambers makes a related point. He argues that white subjects tend to be individuated, their race invisibilised, while black subjects tend to be raced as black before they are seen as humans:
In contrast to minorities whose identity is defined by their classificatory status as members of a given group, whites are perceived as individual historical agents whose unclassifiable difference from one another is their most important trait. Whiteness itself is thus atomized into invisibility through the individualization of white people subjects. Whereas nonwhites are perceived first and foremost as a function of their group belongingness, that is as Black, Latino or Asian (and then as individuals), whites are perceived first as individual people (and only secondarily, if at all, as whites). Their essential identity is thus their individual self-identity, to which whiteness as such is a secondary, and so also a negotiable factor.
These statements point to the importance of the decolonial project, not only in humanising and individuating blackness within colonial languages and literary studies as a whole, but also in altering ways of seeing, knowing and imagining more broadly.
In her novels, Morrison decolonises language by writing against these forms of white writing and white seeing. I am convinced that the postcolonial writing that continues to come out of Africa, whether it is written in English or French or Portuguese, has arrived at a place where it can do, and does, something similar. This writing, I feel, adequately represents the state of the post-colony by showing what it looks like in both the public space and the familial space. In fact, in writing these two spaces interchangeably, African writers successfully redefine and claim the position of the postcolonial novel as a canvas where the political and personal meet and attempt to reconcile one another, over and over again. As part of this movement between the personal and the political, black characters are not simply defined by their static belonging to a particular demographic group. Instead, their individual actions change the nature of that group, and they in turn are changed by the group. The group and the individual need each other, and are interrelated in complex ways.
Perhaps no African writer can lay claim to this freeing of the black literary subject as Chinua Achebe can. And English, surprisingly, is the medium of his liberation project. On his decision to write in English instead of Igbo, effectively an opposing stance to Ngugi on this issue, Achebe famously stated:
The English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.
But the line between this “new English” and assimilation is a fine one, and it’s one that African writers are continually towing and exploring in their work. In Tsitsi Dangarembga’s breakthrough novel, Nervous Conditions, for example, the character Nyasha describes the state of the postcolonial identity and postcolonial writing when she says:
It would be a marvelous opportunity, she said sarcastically, to forget. To forget who you were, what you were and why you were that. The process, she said, was called assimilation, and that was what was intended for the precocious few who might prove a nuisance if left to themselves.
For many, assimilation has been not a “marvellous opportunity” but a requirement—a means of survival. Indeed, I consider postcolonial spaces as the new plantations, where only the strongest survive. The politics of the state and of the self meet in such a way that survival can only be guaranteed by playing into the norms of the postcolony. This dynamic is portrayed and performed in the bulk of what is considered postcolonial African literature today. Decolonising English and decolonising literature requires a language that enable its users to name the world around them while providing a sense of self-possession and belonging. American writers like Morrison and African writers like Achebe and Dangarembga have taken first steps in the ascent.
Achebe, Chinua (1973). “English and the African Writer”. In Ali, M.A. (Ed). The Political Sociology of the English Language: An African Perspective. The Hague Mouton.
Achebe, Chinua (1975). Morning Yet on Creation Day. London. Heinemann.
Butler-Evans, Elliott (1989). Race, Gender and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Philadelphia: Temple UP.
Chambers, Ross (1998). “The Unexamined in Whiteness: A Critical Reader”. New York: New York University Press.
Dangarembga, Tsisi (2004). Nervous Conditions. Banbury, UK: Ayebia Clarke Publishing.
Davies, Carole Boyce (1994). Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject. London and New York: Routledge.
Fanon, Frantz (1967). Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.
Ludwig, Sami (2007). “Toni Morrison‟s Social Criticism.” The Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison. Ed. Justine Tally. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 125-138.
Morrison, Toni (1992). “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.” Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Morrison, Toni (1993). Nobel Lecture. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1993/morrison-lecture.html
Nawubani, Tricia Adaobi (2009). “I Do Not Come To You By Chance”. Hyperion.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1986). “Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature.” Herman Educational.
Tyson, Lois (1998). Post-Colonial Criticism in “Critical Theory Today”. New York. Routledge. 399.