Henry Louis Gates--"Race" and Postcoloniality in the USA

Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University

Henry Louis Gates, an innovative theorist of African-American literature, philosophy, and race-relations, suggests throughout the vast scope of his critical work the possibility for postcolonial conditions within the USA. American systems of racial imbalance, segregation, and disenfranchisement, in other words, are every bit as "postcolonial" (perhaps even as "colonial") as the legacies of imperial rule in developing countries. What's more, because of its racial, religious, and cultural heterogeneity, the USA becomes a particularly volatile site of colonial contestation for political visibility and/or dominance. White racism against blacks, for instance, is itself a form of colonial aggression.

In The Empire Writes Back, Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin suggest that the USA--despite its "neo-colonial" position of dominance within today's global division of labor--nonetheless produces literature that is as postcolonial as the cultural traditions originating in the Third World:

So the literatures of African countries, Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Caribbean countries, India, Malaysia, Malta, New Zealand, Pakistan, Singapore, South Pacific Island countries, and Sri Lanka are all post-colonial literatures. The literature of the USA should also be placed in this category. Perhaps because of its current position of power, and the neo-colonizing role it has played, its post-colonial nature has not been generally recognized. But its relationship with the metropolitan centre as it evolved over the last two centuries has been paradigmatic for post-colonial literatures everywhere.(2)

Gates intervention into postcolonial studies is particularly productive because it implicates racial difference into the construction of the categories of nation, class, and gender. Gates' work centrally involves the construction, reconstruction, and deconstruction of "race" as a meaningful political category. In "Writing 'Race' and the Difference It Makes," his introduction to "Race," Writing, and Difference, Gates demonstrates how "race" has been "written" into existence as a means of keeping racially marked populations in subordinate positions. Portrayals of race in literature had throughout the Nineteenth Century (and arguably, throughout the present day) sought to "naturalize" and therefore legitimate the racially marked body as innately or irreducibly inferior. "Race, in these usages," Gates writes, "pretendes to be an objective term of classification, when in fact it is a dangerous trope" (5).

Gates assumes a materialist position in arguing for the economic basis of racial oppression. "Literacy, as I hope to demonstrate, is the emblem that links racial alienation with economic alienation" (6). Gates central argument here is that slaves, denied to "right to write," met exclusion from the opportunities available to literate whites. "Black people and other people of color," Gates argues, "could not write." Gates describes how the majority of salient Enlightenment thinkers--such as Kant, Hume, and Hegel--denied Third World subjects the access to the notion of "reason" that underwrites their philosophical inquiries. What Gates seeks is not so much an equivalence of "black" and "white" writing, but rather a nuanced confrontation of the discursive modes by which "blackness" and "whiteness" have come to be understood.

We must, I believe, analyze the ways in which writing relates to race, how attitutdes toward racial differences generate and structure literary texts by us and about us. We must determine how critical methods can effectively disclose the traces of ethnic differences in literature. But we must also understand how certain forms of difference and the languages we employ to define those supposed differences not only reinforce each other but tend to create and maintain each other.

How might Gates' comments on the writing of race bear upon postcolonial literature written within the USA? Consider the ways in which writers such as Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Leslie Marmon Silko use images of writing and reading to stage postcolonial constructions of racial identity, antagonism, and violence. Gates suggests that the writing of race is primarily an economic issue. How might writing be implicated in the material conditions of both writers and the characters they portray?

Postcolonial OV discourseov Bibliography

Last Modified: 6 June, 2002