The Idea of Justice as it Emerges in Post-Colonial Thought

Also published on the online literary journal O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!

“A valid and active sense of self may have been eroded by dislocation. […] Or it may have been destroyed by cultural denigration, the conscious and unconscious oppression of the indigenous personality and culture by a supposedly superior racial or cultural model.”
– The Empire Writes Back, 1989[1]

If it is the dialectic of place and displacement which surfaces predominantly in post-colonial literatures, as the authors of The Empire Writes Back seem to suggest, then one may make the assertion that the idea of justice, of writing back to seek redressal for this displacement is also imbricated within the very form of post-colonial literature. Although justice is impossible to define as a category or even achieve practically, considering that there is no way of reversing time and bringing back the pristine pre-colonial age, or quantifying the extent of damage in order to mend or repair the wounds, these literatures do attempt to gather some clarity on how justice can be realised. Writers like Thiong’o, Achebe, Marquez and Naipaul, through their writing, insist on approaching justice by challenging the white supremist view that “some animals are more equal than others”[2]. Re-viewing and re-defining justice lies at the heart of post-colonial literature. If in the coloniser’s perspective, enslavement of the natives was justified as a repayment for taking up the White Man’s Burden[3] and bringing culture and civilisation to them, then the post-colonial writer’s perspective seeks to re-define the term justice in order to incorporate the ideas of freedom and liberty for all.

The idea of justice is often approached through the debate over language. While writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o argued in favour of using one’s native language to communicate so as to maintain control over one’s roots and cultural heritage, others like Chinua Achebe firmly believed that no community had ownership or authority over a certain language and that one must feel comfortable using the language that best communicates his thoughts. Thiong’o, in his book, Decolonising the Mind (1986)[4] suggests that African writers must write in their indigenous languages since to write in European languages is to continue and reinforce the legacy of colonialism and the shackling of African minds. He notes that thoughts expressed in an indigenous language are, for lack of a better word, more authentic, than those written in a tongue that is foreign. “I believe that my writing in Gikuyu language, a Kenyan language, an African language, is part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples. In schools and universities our Kenyan languages – that is the languages of the many nationalities which make up Kenya – were associated with negative qualities of backwardness, underdevelopment, humiliation and punishment,” claims Thiong’o. In Gramscian terms, the Africans natives, by adopting new languages and giving up traditional ones, had consented to the hegemony of the European colonisers who insisted that their language, culture and society were superior to those of the Africans. This point has also been emphasised by other post-colonial writers and critics like Gauri Viswanathan who, in her essay The Beginnings of English Literary Study in British India (1989)[5], notes that the British in India created a linguistic hegemony, ideologically forcing the natives to perceive English as superior to their vernacular. The intention was to homogenize the linguistic diversity that existed in the Indian subcontinent, and this was achieved through conscious language policy enforced with the help of law, education and administration. The same had happened in Africa. The British had enforced the English language to homogenise the various ethnic groups across the African continent and also to impose their own supposedly superior culture. Moreover, the English language, which was adopted by the educated elite, became a symbol of aristocracy and superiority, creating a class divide amongst the natives. Traditional languages like Gikuyu were then looked down upon and cast away as the language of the backward and uncivilised. Here, Thiong’o’s notion of justice becomes evident to the reader. One can suppose that Thiong’o’s insistence on using his mother tongue as the principal medium of his writing is not simply a reaction against Anglicisation; it is more about resurrecting the African soul from centuries of slavery and colonialism that left it spiritually empty, economically disenfranchised and politically marginalised. This resurrection of African identity is, perhaps, Thiong’o’s attempt at justice. Clearly, he believes that it is his duty as a writer to do justice not only to his people but to his language which is the root of his heritage. Even after physical and geographical colonisation have ended in Africa, psychological and ideological colonisation unfortunately and inevitably remain deeply embedded in the natives’ psyche. Because post-colonial Africa has never properly buried slavery or colonialism, it is, according to Thiong’o, committing a psychic suicide of sorts by producing an entire class of African bourgeoisie who view their own languages as “shameful”, “inelegant”, “incapable of expressing scientific or intellectual thought”, and too crude to be exported to other lands. So they end up writing their stories in foreign languages, adding to the vast pool of literature written in English and French, rather than contributing to the growth of literature in African languages. As The Empire Writes Back posits, “Language becomes the medium through which conceptions of “‘truth”‘, “‘order”‘, and “‘reality”‘ become established.” Such power is rejected in the emergence of an effective post-colonial voice like that of Thiong’o’s.

In a contrast to Thiong’o’s outlook lies that of writers like Chinua Achebe who defend the usage of English in Africa. In The Education of a British-Protected Child (2009)[6], Achebe notes that English is the unifying language in his native Nigeria, that were the government to endorse one of the three main language groups Igbo, Hausa-Fulani or Yoruba it would inflame ethnic tensions and marginalize most of the country. Achebe has maintained that English is not the language of the English people alone; it is for anyone who wishes to use it for communication of thoughts and ideas. His most renowned work of fiction, Things Fall Apart (1958)[7], is written in English and evokes themes from the poetry of William Butler Yeats. In doing so, as critic Lloyd Brown points out, Achebe implies that the sense of history and traditions, “the burdens of cultural continuity, decay and rebirth” have been experienced by Africans and Westerners alike.[8] For writers like Achebe, justice lies in proving to the coloniser that the cultural patterns of the colonised are no different from theirs. Commenting on Things Fall Apart, Achebe says, “Africans are people in the same way that Americans, Europeans, Asians are people. […] Although the action of Things Fall Apart takes place in a setting with which most Americans are unfamiliar, the characters are normal and their events are real human events. The necessity to even say this is part of a burden imposed on us by the customary denigration of Africa in the popular imagination of the West.”[9] Achebe’s usage of English, the same language which was initially meant to silence and wipe out the natives’ culture, to exhibit African tradition in all its richness to the Western world, is perhaps a bold move in trying to achieve justice. He appropriates the use of English to his advantage rather than letting it suppress his cultural roots. Although radically different from each other, both Thiong’o and Achebe put forward equally convincing arguments in trying to achieve justice for their people and for their traditions and customs.

Columbian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez has taken a revolutionary approach to justice by creating a new genre altogether for post-colonial literature of his kind. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech titled The Solitude of Latin America (1982)[10], he emphasises how Latin America has forever been conceived as a magical land full of supernatural elements, a “boundless realm of haunted men and historic women, whose unending obstinacy blurs into legend.” In other words, it has undergone a perpetual “otherisation” by the Western world which defines itself against the rest of the world or the non-West. Latin America, like Africa and Oriental nations, has been defined as the West’s binary. In other words, the West is everything that the non-West isn’t – cultured, civilised, rational. This “otherisation” is also discussed by literary scholar Edward W. Said in his book Orientalism (1978)[11] where he describes how European scholars grapple with the difference in ideology and culture between the West and the Orient (in this case Latin America) because they have a scholar’s bias. They fail to accommodate Oriental languages and cultures into their own systems of knowledge as they are unable to come to terms with the fact that another civilisation, one which is entirely different from their own, is thriving in spite of not having its progress mapped out the European way. Marquez, too, claims that Latin American culture and ideology cannot be explained using North American or European logic and therefore is always perceived as a land of fantasy. This, he claims, is the solitude of Latin America. To counter this imposed solitude, Marquez, in his novels, creates the genre of magical realism which is characterized by the matter-of-fact inclusion of fantastic or mythical elements into seemingly realistic fiction. Magical realism employed by Marquez is not a means of making Latin American history “palatable” for the non-Latin American reader. Rather, it is a means of depicting its history through the lens of the Latin American people in an insightful way that defends the political and social hardships they have been forced to face. The incredible violence, turmoil, oppression, and exploitation that Latin America has undergone is so extreme that to the Western world, it is almost unbelievable whereas for the Latin American, it is common knowledge and history. Therefore, with magical realism, Marquez reflects the extraordinary as the ordinary. This creation of a new genre of writing is in itself an attempt to do justice to the people and to the vibrant heritage of Latin America. A similar attempt has been made by Indian novelist Salman Rushdie in his novel Midnight’s Children (1981)[12], where he combines magical realism with historical fiction to illustrate the political and social milieu of India, a country which has always been seen as a mystical land of snake charmers and black magic. Both Marquez and Rushdie introduce a new “logic” in their novels to point out that the European order of facts and empiricism is not the absolute logic.

Critic Jorge Klor de Alva has suggested that post-coloniality should signify necessarily the “subjectivity of oppositionality to imperialising/colonising discourses and practices”.[13] It is the discourse of oppositionality which colonialism brings into being. And this oppositionality in post-colonial literature, as we have observed, inevitably gives rise to an idea of justice – justice for the “subalterns”, the histories, pasts, civilisations, cultures and peoples who have been scarred by ravages of colonisation.

[1] Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G. and Tiffin, H. 1989. The Empire Writes Back.  Oxon, England: Routledge.

[2] Orwell, George. 1949. Nineteen Eighty-Four.  

[3] Kipling, Rudyard. 1929. “The White Man’s Burden: The United States & The Philippine Islands, 1899.” Rudyard Kipling’s Verse: Definitive Edition 

[4] Thiong’o, Ngugi. 1986. Decolonising the Mind. Online.

[5] Viswanathan, Gauri. 1987. The Beginnings of English Literary Study in British India. Literary Theory, Worldview Critical Edition.

[6] Achebe, Chinua. 2009. The Education of a British-Protected Child. Online

[7] Achebe, Chinua. 1958. Things Fall Apart. Penguin Random House, 2010.

[8] Brown, Lloyd. 1972. Cultural Norms an Modes of Perception in Achebe’s Fiction. Research in African Literatures, Vol. 3, No. 1. Indiana University Press.

[9] Achebe, Chinua. 1991. Teaching “Things Fall Apart”.Online.

[10] Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. 1982. The Solitude of Latin America. Background Prose Readings: Worldview Critical Edition.

[11] Said, Edward W. 1978. Orientalism. Online.

[12] Rushdie, Salman. 1981. Midnight’s Children. Penguin Books.

[13] Alva, Jorge Klor de. 1992. Colonialism and Postcolonialism as (Latin) American Mirages. Colonial Latin American Review, Vol. 1: Princeton University.

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