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African-American and post-colonial studies
African-American studies concerns itself primarily with the examination of the customs and culture of its people, namely Black Americans of African descent, who were forcefully brought to America between the seventeenth and nineteenth century because of America's colonization of their homeland; the ‘dark' continent of Africa. Arguably the most significant investigation within post-colonialism at present, African-American studies tackles issues such as the effects of imperialism on identity and racial boundaries, ethnicity, marginality and the authenticity of literary and oral records of history.
Now recognised as one of the most influential and authoritative socio-intellectual movements of recent times, African-American studies is a campaign with which all oppressed and subjugated people regardless of race or nationality can empathise. Initially, Black consciousness and culture was studied as a single facet of the broader field of post-colonial studies. Admittedly, the two areas of interest do share many similarities in that they both stand at the intersection of debates about race, colonialism, gender, politics, and language. But while Bill Ashcroft has stated that Black Studies is related to its predecessor only in complex and ambiguous ways, I would argue that this specific field of study has enjoyed a pervasive and quite distinct development apart from general studies in post-colonialism. Indeed, many critics adamantly position themselves within the field of African-American studies rather than in that of post-colonialism. This may reflect the common desire to reclaim the lost voice and heritage of numerous enslaved generations.
The study of African-American culture is often regarded as an examination into one of the world's greatest Diasporas . The expatriation and subsequent feelings of mass displacement experienced by this group of people is a defining aspect of modern history, encompassing essentially both the First and Third Worlds. It is ironic that the Africans and Americans, who as two distinct groups of people, were once quite literally worlds apart, are today separated by merely a hyphen! The process of assimilation was however by no means easy and relations between the African culture of origination and the American adoptive societies were difficult. That the majority of Africans were forced to endure the horrors of the Middle Passage on their maiden voyage to America and subsequently suffer terrible maltreatment under the abhorrent conditions of slavery further complicates matters. The treatment of enslaved blacks also demands an examination of the institution of slavery and how it relates to the wider practises of imperialism. As Ann DuCille points out, it also reveals the violence on which the civilising rhetoric of imperialism was effectually grounded.
Other displaced minorities, who were also expelled from their homelands only to face exploitation by imperial forces, were able to relate to the sufferings and struggle for self-determination of the African-Americans and thus form a shared community of the colonized. Recent post-colonial theory does not ignore this fact and has recently busied itself with examining the comparisons between such movements. One of the more distressing results of the alienation and lack of familial unity faced by the Africans in America was that much of the original native culture was lost. Uniquely African religions and practices were shunned and labelled barbarian. For example, white officials did not understand the 'language of the drums', and therefore deemed it primitive and a defiance of their Christian religion, resulting in the virtual elimination of one of Africa's most unique forms of expression and beauty.
There are copious numbers of writers and critics who choose to address the issues associated with African-American studies and translate them into literary material. From the earliest slave narratives by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs to the contemporary fiction of Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, there is now a wealth of literature available in this area. As a Nobel Prize Winner and prolific author of African-American fiction, Toni Morrison has established herself as one of the foremost commentators on the social and political difficulties faced by her people today. Morrison also examines the psychological repercussions the history of slavery has on African-Americans, and arguably her finest novel Beloved (1997) is dedicated to the “sixty million and more” black people who lost their lives in slavery. It recounts the tragic story of Sethe, an escaped slave who is driven to commit the unthinkable act of murdering her baby daughter in order to avoid re-enslavement. Worse still is the fact that this is based on the true case of Margaret Garner who cut her toddler's throat in 1851 in an unsuccessful attempt to escape the white men who owned her family.
Morrison paints an unsettlingly realistic picture of the torments of slavery where wives are raped and beaten, children torn away from their mothers and sold, men forced to wear iron mouth-bits that “put a wildness where before there wasn't any.” The result is the replacement of a person's heart by a tobacco tin rusted shut and the futile struggle against “things [you] can't chop down because they're inside.” Sethe's forced infanticide is intended to highlight the extent to which the institution of slavery dehumanised and enraged its victims. For example, when Paul D. questions the need to commit such a heinous act, Sethe retorts “It ain't my job to know what's worse. It's my job to know what is and to keep them away from what I know is terrible.”
The horrific inhumanity of slavery is something that was belatedly acknowledged but is rarely disputed in modern society. While exponents of African-American studies consistently concern themselves with the black perspective, they do not seek to condone all black behaviour and remain determined not to ignore the continued racial discrimination that dominates American society in the twenty-first century. They also recognize the various concerns and goals their field of interest shares with sister movements such as Native American Studies and Chicano Studies. It remains essential, however, to acknowledge the distinctions between these various groups of oppressed people, as their conflation with postcolonial theory on a broader scale would be chastised as over-simplifying matters. It may be concluded therefore that while post-colonial theory may offer useful insights into the processes of African-American culture, it cannot and should not attempt to incorporate the precise and distinct objectives and history of African-American studies.
Further Reading :
Bouson, J. Brooks . Quiet as it's kept: shame, trauma and race in the novels of Toni Morrison. Albany : State University of New York Press, 2000.
Kawash, Samira. Dislocating the color line: identity, hybridity and singularity in African-American narrative. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997.
Plasa, Carl, ed. The Discourse of slavery: Aphra Behn to Toni Morrison. London : Routledge, 1994.
This page was written by Sinead Caslin. Email me with your comments.
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