29 January 2016


by Ariel Lawrence

Source: Wikimedia.org

It is imperative that we first acknowledge we are in fact children of the Post-Colonial. Our proximity with colonization can not be compared to that of a century ago. The beast has reformed and reshaped itself, not to the point where it is unrecognizable, but distorted and normalized. The influence of colonial discourse shapes the very way we begin to think about oppression, whether it be of others or ourselves. Its discursive language mandates how we name ourselves, its mythological imagery paints our bodies and manipulates our self fashioning; its past, successes and failures, frames the view of our futures.

Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a view of colonialism in antiquity when "vegetation rioted the earth and the big trees were kings." Society no longer permits its members to speak of the landscape and cultures of colonized peoples with the same brutal honesty as Marlowe narrates. Since the emergence of colonialist critique, Africans are no longer just "savage," no longer described as "black shadows of disease" with "faces like grotesque masks". However, the sentiments which shaped the structures that permitted such language have not died, nor have they been subdued by the might of academia. It continues to thrive, and it thrives on its children. David Spurr concludes his text on colonial discourse in journalism and travel writing by citing that the ultimate resistance to colonialism requires the "intervention of forces outside of the West" meaning "new structures that combine and transcend what already exists."

The reason why we cannot imagine a world beyond those structures is because as a collective, the Post-Colonial has been robbed of its histories. Colonialism feeds off the idea that Empire is eternal, that it has, in our History, always been there and always will be. This broken historical imagination entraps both the colonizer and the colonized in dehumanization.

Although we are aware of a time when colonialism did not exist, that time, for both the colonizer and the colonized, is placed on the pedestal of antiquity, unable to be touched or approached. Despite the celebration of the colonizer's past or the exoticization of the colonized's "premodernization", neither period is functional for either group today. "The liquidation of colonization," Albert Memmi writes, "is but a prelude to complete liberation, to self- recovery" (Memmi, 151) and while colonial discourse moves the process forward another step, it brings the Post-Colonial society no closer to its ultimate goal. The need is to imagine beyond colonialism in order to remember past the West.


In Ithaca, we wade through a field of leftist colonizers. Color blind Ideology and the myth of the "post-racial" society has created a wave of disavowal for this country's racial history and its imperialist present. The word is synonymous with "racist" and, in looking at the reaction of someone after they have been accused, it is almost the worst thing that you can call someone.

"In Ithaca, we wade
through a field of leftist

The image of the colonizer has been strategically distanced from society's self perception, it is pulled backwards to the proud steel-breasted conquistador or the leather whip wielding plantation overseer. These Historical images acknowledge the existence of the colonizer but present it as an abstraction. It is the same blurry image of "The Man", the white patriarchal ghost in the night that takes responsibility for the genocide, rape and terror that so many people want to forget.

As Memmi states, the colonizer retains a certain power, divorced from mere politics or economy, that is inherent to the colonial situation; the colonizer maintains the power to attempt refusal. Memmi writes "the colonized is not free to choose between being colonized or not" (Memmi, 86), the only choice provided to the colonized it to accept or die. To be white in this country, and to be "the one who knows" about colonialist discourse, it is a given that they will identify with the colonizer so as to not be seen as ignorant of their privilege. Many students on campus project the persona of the leftist colonizer, they just call themselves liberal. 

It is this student, educated in a school system that celebrates Black History Month despite never having to confront the (usually brown skinned) working poor in their neighborhoods; who were raised by parents that taught them to be "hardworking" and "open-minded" individuals like their ancestors; the student whose understanding of colonization is that it was simply an occurrence of the past which can never be repeated. It is these students who, while in the comfort of the collegiate atmosphere, protest for the first time in their lives, mimicking the photographs of the 1950's and 60's despite believing that the work of those decades in fact solve most of society's flaws.

These students, take on the role of the colonizer because they can, because it is their burden and discomfort to "refuse [colonial] ideology while continuing to live its actual relationships." (Memmi, 20). The urgency to help oppressed people is an attempt to rationalize their existence, the "destiny" of the colonized matters to the colonizer because "[they] hope to go on living in the colony" (Memmi, 36). While it is acceptable to permit the freedom of the colonized, it is not acceptable for this to exist outside of the narrative of home that is so familiar to the colonizer.

One of the most extreme images of the colonizer is that of the paternalist, whose rhetoric, while seemingly toxic, has been completely normalized in the Post-Colonial. Memmi describes the actions of the paternalist as "charitable
 racism" (Memmi, 76). An offset of "white man's burden," the paternalist sees any contribution to liberation as "gifts and never duties" therefore acknowledging that in the colony "[they] have no duties and the colonized have no rights" (Memmi, 76). In his chapter on appropriation, Spurr cites a description of one colonial officer witnessing the native peoples of the Congo shopping in a European established market place, a sight which moved the officer to become "endowed with the honor of paternity" (Spurr, 33). This perpetuates the idea that colonized people, "acquiescence to the colonial system as approval of Western ideals" and that "a colonized people is morally improved and edified by virtue of its participation in the colonial system" (Spurr, 33).

How often does this idea still rear its head in current political rhetoric? In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, President Barrack Obama stated in a Newsweek article "above all, we act for a very simple reason: in times of tragedy, the United States of America steps forward and helps. That is who we are. That is what we do." He soon after contends that the U.S does not "use our power to subjugate others, we use it to lift them up." In this statement, which on the surface is a moving comment on the distribution of international aid, becomes inherent to the rhetoric of this country but only segregated from its history of oppression. Attitudes around Haiti, which stem from the language of paternalism, perpetuate the heroics of the colonized and deny the villainy. Instead of acknowledging that the fact that the "more freely he breathes, the more the colonized choke" (Memmi, 8), the paternalist colonizer sees only the lack of the colonized and fancy's themselves vital to the colonized betterment.

What is least apparent to the colonizer of the Post-Colonial is their own imprisonment within colonialism. Whether or not the colonizer chooses to refuse or accept it makes no real difference as the "distinction between deed and intent has no great significance in the colonial situation" (Memmi, 130). Spurr begins his book by exemplifying the "unevenness of exchange" in colonialism which becomes endemic to the vantage of the colonizer. While Western ideology promotes that the gaze is “an active instrument of construction" (Spurr, 15), colonialism demands that the gaze must first destroy what is already there in order to recreate it in the colonizer's mind.

The colonizer is then, always blind to the humanity of the colonizer and crippled to see his own humanity outside of the identity as colonizer. Spurr quotes George Orwell to say that "when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys" (Spurr, 191), that is the freedom to see the world outside of the colony which he is the supposed ruler of. Despite the allure of social, political and economic advantages of colonialism, "colonization can only disfigure the colonizer" (Memmi, 147). To use the example of Marlowe, he describes his loyalty to Kurtz as the "nightmare of [his] choice" (Conrad, 64). After witnessing the "brutal instincts" and "monstrous passions" of Kurtz, Marlowe does not betray his name after death and lies to Kurtz's fiancé because confronting the truth would be "too dark altogether" (Conrad, 65). The colonizer who refuses is forced to leave, and the colonizer who accepts must constantly debase the colonized to justify their actions; neither one is at peace.


I pondered for a very long time whether any "colonized" people actually existed in the Post-Colonial. It seems, especially as a middle class Black woman, almost insulting to call myself colonized when I take into account all of the privileges which I have from being a US citizen. There are many living in countries the US deems "Third World," who at first glance would incur images of sugar cane and tobacco fields, whose brown limbs toil in unbearable conditions so that I can purchase bananas at 32 cents per pound, whose lack of access to basic health care and running water would harken back to the experiences of the colonial period.

It would be arrogant to think that i maintain the power to remove myself from them. Although I represent the pacified version, I too remain the distorted image of Kurtz's African lover drenched in "barbarous ornaments", "savage and superb. wild-eyed and magnificent" (Conrad, 60). I remain stuck in that image because, like many others, I lack the ability to assimilate.

Memmi brings to reality that assimilation is not based on the colonized's desire but in fact the "colonizer's rejection" (Memmi, 124). Spurr cites the paradox which assimilation creates within colonialism: "the desire to emphasize racial and cultural difference as a means of establishing superiority [conflicts with] the desire to efface difference and gather the colonized into the fold of an all-embracing civilization" (Spurr, 32). Assimilation is detrimental to the colonizer because to change the colonial relationship in any way would undo the colonial situation.

So, without the ability to assimilate without the colonizer's acceptance, and without the economic means with which to live outside the colony, the colonized is only left to revolt; however even that action has been co-opted. Despite Marlowe's fear that the cannibals on his ship have the capacity to devour him, he is still served by their "savagery." Memmi writes "the colonized fights in the very name of the colonizer" (Memmi, 128). After attempting to refute all connections with their own culture and traditions, after embracing the tenants of the West better than the colonizer, the colonized is met with rejection and revolts, but unsuccessfully as colonialism "is the only act he understands" (Memmi, 128).

Therefore the colonized, even in the act of revolution, is always speaking back to the colony. Without any customs of their own legitimized in the eye of the colonizer, and having only been exposed to the legitimate rule of the colonizer, the colonized has no culture it can recognize itself. Without the space to exist outside of the colonizer, the colonized still exist today. Their suffering is measured on scales of politic and sentiment which are never coherent, they are constantly told that they no longer exist. Yet, the colonizer would have the colonized believe that because there are no iron shackles around their [the colonized] neck that there is no pressure there as well.

As a child of the Post-Colonial, I am simultaneously a child of Post-Civil Rights. Since the colonized "continue to think, feel and live...in relation to the colonizer and colonization" (Memmi, 139), a fully matured revolution has never taken place. However, with the weight of the civil rights era's "successes" on their head, the “American Negro” is not able to openly blame the colonizer for its oppression, and so the hatred turns inward. A generation of colonized people exists today who "give into the intoxication of fury and violence" (Memmi, 139) that results from impotence. A lifetime of bellowing, not having the language with which to articulate the pain, leads the colonized of the Post-Colonial to submit to ambiguity and hopelessness.

Ariel Lawrence

January 2016

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