African American and Post-colonial Studies

Recent work in post-colonial studies by United States’ scholars has stressed the relationship between post-colonial theory and the analysis of African American culture (DuCille 1996). In practice, the exponents of African American culture have often engaged with classic post-colonial theorists such as Fanon, though not always in an uncritical way. African American studies has been one of the most influential of recent intellectual, social and political movements,not only affecting the US but also influencing many people who have suffered oppression from racial discrimination in other parts of the world. It has had a widespread and often quite separate development from postcolonial studies, to which it is related only in a complex and ambiguous way.

Most post-colonial theorists who have engaged with the issue have seen the study of black culture in the Americas as, in part, the study of one of the world’s major diasporas. In this respect, the history of African Americans has some features in common with other movements of oppressed diasporic peoples.Many groups were moved against their will from their homelands to serve the economic needs of empire in the societies that evolved from the wave of European expansion from the sixteenth century onwards. Comparative studies of these movements are a productive development in recent post-colonial theory, not least in the consideration of the different effects of these large-scale events on individual groups that such studies reveal.

Early formulations of African American Studies in the United States and elsewhere reflected the complex relationship between the African source cultures and their adopted societies, as they interacted with other influences in the new regions to which Africans were taken. The fact that the bulk of African peoples were shipped under conditions of slavery makes the relationship between that institution and the wider practices of imperialism central to an understanding of the origins of African American culture. It also sheds light on the violence that was often hidden beneath the civilizing rhetoric of imperialism (DuCille 1996). Beyond this prime fact of oppression and violence, however, the relationships between the newly independent American societies,the wider diasporic black movement,and the modern independence movements in Africa itself, remain complex.

The history of the struggle for self-determination by African Americans is historically intertwined with wider movements of diasporic African struggles for independence. For example, figures like Jamaican born Marcus Garvey assumed a central role in the American struggle for self-determination.The ‘Back to Africa’ movement that he initiated, and which has affinities with the modern West Indian movement of Rastafarianism, supported the various movements to return African Americans to Africa. The national flag of Liberia, which was founded specifically to facilitate the return of freed black slaves to their ‘native’ continent, still bears the single star of Garvey’s Black Star shipping company.In addition,many of the dominant figures in early African nationalism, such as Alexander Crummell, were exslaves or the children of slaves who had their ideas formed in the struggle for African American freedom (see de Moraes-Farias and Barber 1990; Appiah 1992).

Of course, African American studies are also concerned much more directly with the history and continuing effects of specific processes of race-based discrimination within US society. In this regard, African  American studies investigates issues that share certain features with other US groups affected by racial discrimination, such as the Chicano community. These studies have relevance to movements for the freedom of indigenous peoples, such as Native American Indians or Inuit peoples, despite their very different historical backgrounds (one group being victims of invasive settlement and the other of slavery and exile). Distinctions also need to be made between these various groups and linguistically and racially discriminated groups such as Chicanos, a great many of whom are part of a more recent wave of immigration, though some, of course, are the descendants of peoples who lived in parts of the US long before the current dominant Anglo-Saxon peoples. Other groups, such as the descendants of French Creoles, also occupy places contiguous in some respects to these latter Spanish speaking peoples, though their history and their treatment within US society may have been very different.For this, and other reasons, critics have often hesitated to conflate African American studies or the study of any of these other groups with post-colonial theory in any simple way. The latter may offer useful insights, but it does not subsume the specific and distinctive goals and history of African American studies or Native American studies or Chicano studies as distinctive academic disciplines with specific political and social struggle in their own right.


Further reading: DuCille 1996; Flint 2006; Gòkè-Paríolá 1996; Gruesser 2005; Hanchard 1997; McInturff 2000; Mostern 2000; Olson and Worsham 1999; Schueller 2003; Singh and Schmidt 2000; Wise 1995; Zeigler 1996; Zeigler and Osinubi 2002.


Categories: Postcolonialism

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