Anti-Colonial Activism and Postcolonial Disillusionment in African Writing

Neil Lazarus, Associate Professor of Modern Culture and Media, Brown University

The most significant African writers of this period saw themselves as progressive political activists, committed to the more or less comprehensive transformation of their societies in the post-colonial era. Reading these writers in the light of the work of Franz Fanon, however, I suggest that in their thinking and writing they were, as a group, predisposed to a messianic and middle-class specific conception of decolonization as a revolutionary process, such that, for them, the transfer of power at independence seemed to constitute an event like the storming of the Winter Palace. In common with other progessive intellectuals in the immediate postcolonial era, radical African writers tended drastically to overvalue the emancipatory significance of independence. One consequence was that, as their hopes were punctured in the years following decolonization (as they invariably were), a rhetoric of disillusion began to replace the earlier utopian rhetoric in their work: it emerged as fatalism or despair or anger or in the accusation that postcolonial leaders had betrayed the "African revolution." Common to these representations, however, was a failure to question the presupposition upon which they all rested, namely that decolonization had indeed marked a moment of revolutionary uplift in African societies. (Neil Lazarus, Resistance in Postcolonial African Fiction, New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.; p. ix; [added by GPL] )

It (the ceremony of independence which heralded the end of colonialism and the movement towards liberation) transformed the harsh memories of struggle-- memories of violence, degradation, and hardship-- into memories of heroism. Before independence, losses could only be experienced as losses; after independence, they could be viewed as sacrifices precisely because they had proved not to be in vain. . . Unless we grasp the huge significance that the (re)attainment of nationhood carried for African intellectuals in these years of decolonization, it is almost impossible for us to understand the subsequent trajectory of African literature. . . .

In 1957 Nkrumah looked forward to an era of unity, strength, and humanity; today's observer would be hard pressed to find much evidence of any of these qualities. What he or she will find in relative abundance, rather, is the exact opposite: fragmentation, weakness, and social violence. Independence seems to have brought neither peace nor prosperity to Africa. Instead, it has paradoxically borne witness to stagnation, elitism, and class domination, and to the intensifying structural dependence-- economic, political, cultural, and ideological-- of Africa upon the imperial Western powers (2-3).

Postcolonial OV discourseov Bibliography

Last modified 8 January 2002