African American Studies and Postcolonialism

“Colonial racism is no different from any other racism.”
- Frantz Fanon

A Need To Talk Back

While African American Studies and Postcolonial studies are different fields, both share a goal of destabilizing racial hierarchies. Discussions of power relationships between the colonizer and the colonized are sometimes similar to studies on slavery and relationships between masters and slaves. Within the United States and other postcolonies the current reality of discrimination and racism towards minority populations bridges these two studies together through a joint target of neocolonialism. Critical of current American educational policy, prominent black feminist bell hooks states, “I believe that black experience has been and continues to be one of internal colonialism” (148). A need to decolonize the mindset of contemporary America fuels current efforts in reclaiming and recovering minority history and literature. New sociological and literary approaches to history (Hazel Carby’s Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, for example) become useful methods for reclaiming the past and forging culturally sensitive paradigms for the future. Critics like Henry Louis Gates, Barbara Christian, Ella Shohat and Homi Bhabha are connected through a need to “talk back.”

Race and Multiculturalism in Academia: Writing Back

Toni Morrison, Marlene van Niekerk, and Anthony Appiah at the PEN World Voices Festival, 2010.

African American Studies and Postcolonial studies similarly flesh out such issues as representation, essentialism, and nationalism. Under the rubric of these disciplines, literature and literary theory often become vehicles for social commentary. While nation-making and redefining nation, along with the blurring between public and private spaces are among common themes, critics in both fields are quick to point to the dangers of hastily dismissing this literary work as political. Gates writes of a need to dispel the myth of alleged primacy of  “Western tradition” over the “so-called non-canonical tradition such as that of the Afro-American.” Especially conscious of the dangers of essentialism in his book The Signifying Monkey, Gates studies the need “to create a new narrative space for representing the recurring referent of Afro-American literature, the so-called Black Experience” (111). Similarly critical of essentialism, Homi Bhabha, a prominent Cultural Studies and Postcolonial critic, connects the two fields together as he remarks: “The intervention of postcolonial or black critique is aimed at transforming the conditions of enunciation at the level of the sign . . . not simply setting up new symbols of identity, new ‘positive images’ that fuel an unreflective ‘identity politics’” (247). Bhabha even conducts a detailed reading of Toni Morrison’s Beloved in the introduction to The Location of Culture.

"Race," Writing, and Difference, 1986.

“Race,” Writing, and Difference, 1986

Scholarship does indeed overlap in interesting ways between these two fields. Much in the same way Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark analyzes and enumerates the ways in which white selfhood in literary America is further constituted by objectifying “black” presence, Edward Said’s Orientalism seeks  “to show that European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self” (3).  Race, Writing and Difference (1986), edited by Henry Louis Gates includes prominent postcolonial critics like Gayatri C. Spivak  and Abdul R. JanMohamed. In fact, a more recent anthology edited by Gates, Identities, is co-edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah, a scholar of Afro-American Studies who has also written on postcolonial theory. Such examples of overlap in scholarship compels us to reconsider deeper questions of the politics of reading and writing and the applicability of scholarly methods which enhance an understanding and emphasis on culturally sensitive modes of carving out scholarly discourse.

Gender

The intersection of race, ethnicity, and gender politics has produced provocative discussions in the works of bell hooks, Barbara Christian, and Shirley Anne Williams (to name a few African American feminist critics) as well as in the work of Gayatri Spivak and Chandra T. Mohanty. Patriarchy often becomes a metaphor, a trope of power imbalance and the culprit for the ills of colonialism and neocolonialism. bell hooks states in Outlaw Culture, “For contemporary critics to condemn the imperialism of the white colonizer without critiquing patriarchy is a tactic that seeks to minimize the particular ways gender determines the specific forms oppression may take within a specific group” (203).

Alongside this obvious intersection of marginalized positions comes the risk of totalizing. Barbara Christian, in  “Race for Theory” which cautions against essentialist constructions of black womanhood, compares the dangers of an overly prescriptive black feminism to the monolithic, monotheistic Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s. Chandra Mohanty urges against the same essentializing practice in the growing discourse on Third World feminism. Discussions of class are similarly called for in both fields of study. Interestingly, Hooks comments upon what she sees as an overlooked problem in cross-cultural feminist discussion in Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. She states, “We often forget that many Third World nationals bring to this country the same kind of contempt and disrespect for blackness that is most frequently associated with white imperialism” (93).

The Future?

Ann Ducille’s essay “Postcolonialism and Afrocentricity” not only highlights some concerns about the threat of essentialism in both disciplines but it also suggests the possibility for what she considers the dangerous possibility of the interchangeability of the two. She states, “Whereas the critique posed by African American studies and the alternative (non-Eurocentric) worldview asserted by Afrocentricity cut uncomfortably close to home, postcoloniality seems to offer its opposition from a distance—as Gayatri Spivak might say, “in other worlds” (34).

However, data in recent MLA tabulations of full-time positions accepted by African Americanists and Postcolonialists suggests that the hiring trend for African Americanists has been greater than the trend for Postcolonialists during the last five years. Such data in based on accepted full-time positions drawn from percentages of each year’s total available pool of English and foreign language departmental positions only, not controlled studies monitoring the growth of these specific disciplines.*

Scholarship seems to be moving towards an even more self-conscious appraisal of individual, subjective identities.  Specificity in deconstructions of “race” becomes one method to combat the unproductive lumping together of all “marginalized” voices. Gates, Christian, and Sara Suleri (see Identities) are among others who often work against what they see as an unproductive totalizing of all “minority” discourse(s). Reconfiguring American Studies may serve as a discipline of common ground as some scholars, like Hazel Carby and Mario Garcia, work to question basic tenets of American historiography. Others, like Ella Shohat, encourage the compatibility between the distinct realms of Ethnic Studies and Postcolonialism. Meanwhile, critics encourage further questioning of the similarities and differences between multiculturalism, postcolonialism, and ethnic studies and their developments in relation to the lingering threat of cultural closemindedness.

*Basic tabulations of job information compiled by David Laurence
Director, MLA English Programs and ADE

Works Cited/Bibliography

  • Appiah, Kwame A. and Henry L. Gates, eds. Identities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  • Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • —.  “The Multicultural Wars.”  Radical History Review  54 (1992):  7-18.
  • Christian, Barbara. “The Race for Theory.” Within the Circle. Ed. Angela Mitchell. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994.
  • Ducille, Ann. “Postcolonialism and Afrocentricity: Discourse and Dat Course.” The Black Columbiad.  Eds. Werner Sollors and Maria Diedrich.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.
  • Garcia, Mario T. “Multiculturalism and American Studies.” Radical History Review 54 (1992): 49-56.
  • Gates, Henry L., ed. “Race,” Writing, and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
  • Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Hooks, Bell. Outlaw Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • —. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End Press, 1990.
  • Mohanty, Chandra T.et al, ed. Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1991.
  • Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
  • Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
  • Shohat, Ella. “American Orientalism.” Suitcase: A Journal of Transcultural Traffic 2 (1997):  56-62.

Related Links

Links to African American Studies site (course information/syllabi) at Emory
http://www.aas.emory.edu/

African American Studies at Colby
http://www.colby.edu/afr.amer/index.html

Angela Davis
http://postcolonialstudies.emory.edu/angela-davis/

Edwidge Danticat
http://postcolonialstudies.emory.edu/edwidge-danticat/

Links to American Studies at Emory
http://college.emory.edu/home/academic/program/department/american.html

Michelle Cliff
http://postcolonialstudies.emory.edu/michelle-cliff/

Paule Marshall
http://postcolonialstudies.emory.edu/paule-marshall/

Author: Reshmi J. Hebbar, Fall 1998
Last edited: October 2012

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