Post-colonialism: The Unconscious Changing of a Culture

Zandra Kambysellis '01, English 27, Autumn 1997

It is the turn of the century. (Which century? Why, any one between the fifteenth and the twentieth.) An imperial power (choose from Belgium, England, Portugal, etc.), hungry for gold, trade, or perhaps even more power, invades a country (again, you've got your pick -- the territories soon to be known as Nigeria, Zimbabwe , etc.). The indigenous people must struggle with this newly arrived culture and all of its beliefs, values, habits and traditions that have now become entangled within their own lives. They must evaluate which part of that change brings benefits (stimulation of the economy through trade, increased awareness and self-sufficiency through education, advanced medicine that may lead to the removal of disease) and which part reaps harm (loss of traditional culture, beliefs, and values). In many cases, the lines blur and the imposed change can be thought to have both positive and negative ramifications.

In either case, the issue of colonization touches upon more than just the struggle of native people to adjust to a new culture. A more serious obstacle needs to be faced: the suppression, and oftentimes overt annihilation, of the native people' s former lives and culture that comes with the new presence of an Other, an Other who believes -- knows, he'll even tell you, deep in his heart -- his culture is superior. This other, neither a typical enemy nor a traditional invader, does not share similar traditions or warfare. He does not seem aware that he stands on a land that is not his own, but on a land belonging to dead ancestors. Rather, this colonizer -- a foreign force -- holds that idea that the land he has come to conquer truly can be owned and furthermore, that it can be owned by him. He holds an unfaltering belief that his culture is superior to the one he has come to suppress.

Obviously, problems of crossed identity and imposed inferiority and even a raging hatred for the colonizer surface in the consciousness of the colonized people. Here is where the term "post-colonialism" comes into play. The word is a tool -- a methodology, if you will -- of examining, most often through literature, what happens when two cultures clash, based upon one of the culture' s assumptions of his superiority. Stephen Slemon (from The Post-colonial Studies Reader) cites "post-colonial" as "the name for a condition of nativist longing in post-independent national groupings" (45) and as "the need, in nations or groups which have been victims of imperialism, to achieve an identity uncontaminated by universalistic or Eurocentric concepts and images" (125). These are harsh words involved in the definitions we have before us; "victims of imperialism" calls forth sordid images of tortured natives at the hands of white oppressors. Colonialism undeniably calls up a degree of suppression. But more often than not, and in the case of all of the novels to be discussed, this oppression takes the form of a mostly unconscious cultural assimilation -- an unknowing indoctrination of the colonialists' beliefs upon their colonized persons. In some instances, the assimilation is purposefully imposed. Teaching Christian religious beliefs, as one example, obviously involves a purposeful spreading of ideas to the indigenous population. However, as I see it, post-colonialism deals more with the unconscious and lasting effects the colonizer imposes upon a people by his mere presence - those aspects of his culture that are osmotically absorbed and integrated into the colonized population.

Post-colonialism -- a way of examining an unconsciously changed culture through its literature, let us say -- creates a "discourse of oppositionality which colonialism brings into being" (Post-colonial Reader, 117). Essentially, post-colonialism introduces two sides to the issue of expansion and creates the two distinct parties of colonizer and colonized, or often, as the case may be, oppressor and oppressed. Post-colonial, as a term, refers to more than just a people adjusting to changes; it includes the relationship between the changed and the changer, the One and the Other, with these roles being continuously traded between the two sides, worn by one and then by the other. Within this very relationship, the unconscious assimilation that' s at the heart of post-colonialism comes into being.

In this sense, the term "post-colonial", cited as a "continuing process of resistance and reconstruction" (2), is extremely useful when applied to a number of readings by east and west African writers, and specifically the novels Slave Girl (Emechetta), Nehanda (Vera), Bones (Hove), Aké: The Years of Childhood (Soyinka), A Forest of Flowers (Saro-Wiwa), and Anthills of the Savanna (Achebe). Each of these books includes the presence of a colonial force at differing proximities to the characters, whether separated by time, distance, or even age (in the case of Soyinka's Aké, narrated by a young boy, who cannot comprehend the enormity of implication of behind the colonial presence in his life.). According to Ashcroft, the effect of post-colonialism begins "from the very first moment of colonial contact" (The Post-colonial Studies Reader, 177). Whether visible or invisible to the colonized, the colonizer's presence is unquestionably felt during and after his reign. (There is a direct confrontation with this "Other" in Nehanda and Bones, and only indirect or only semi-direct contact within Aké and Forest of Flowers.) Even after the colonizer has left, and the formerly colonized nation has been liberated, the presence of the colonizer still remains as something of a shadow (Anthills of the Savanna). Life is changed, but the consciousness of that change -- inextricably linked to the colonizer, the perpetrator of the change -- remains.

Post-colonialism touches upon many issues: language (oral vs. written), land (can it be owned?), men's and women's roles (and feminist liberation), nationalism (whether the sense of a cultural grouping of people is replaced by the sense of a country), and hybridism (a forced mixing of cultures, a strange process indigenous to adaptation), to mention but a few. Questions and theories concerning these issues flood to the forefront of our consciousness, and there is no end to what we might theorize. But, like the colonizer, we must suppress these uprisings of thought in order to let light shine upon the one underlying issue we judge to take precedence over all others: the question of language and orality.


See also Language: Spoken or Written?


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