One of the main qualitative aspects of the ongoing discourse of post-colonialism (concerned with defining the actual effects of political independence on the formerly colonized countries), is that it often addresses the issue of what can be considered the indications of one’s endowment with the so-called ‘post-colonial’ identity.
The inquiry is usually being applied in defining what account for the psychological differences between those individuals who were born and raised during the colonial era, on one hand, and their post-colonial descendants, on the other. In this respect, the reading of the novels Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958) and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981) will come in particularly handy.
The reason for this is that the mentioned novels do contain a number of in-depth insights into the subject matter in question. In this paper, I will explore the validity of the above-stated at length, while elaborating on what account for the colonialism and post-colonialism’s effects on the formation of one’s sense of self-identity.
As of today, it became a commonplace practice to suggest that there was hardly anything positive for the native people of Africa, within the context of how Westerners went about subjecting them to their rule in the late 19th century. This suggestion is thoroughly logical. After all, while pursuing with the mentioned undertaking; Western colonizers never ceased being solely preoccupied with turning the representatives of Africa’s native populations into the subjects of merciless exploitation.
There was, however, even more to it – by ‘bringing the light of civilization’ to the ‘poor savages’ in Africa, Westerners undermined the structural integrity of African native communities, where the social dynamics are being effectively defined by the factor of kinship. The reason for this is apparent – Europe’s colonial expansion in Africa proceeded in close collaboration with Christian missionaries bringing the ‘good news’ to the natives. And, as we are well aware of, Christianity deems the animistic traditional beliefs of African natives ‘wicked’.
Yet, it is namely because of having been endowed with these beliefs, that their affiliates were able to lead the communally-integrated (collectivist) lifestyles, which in turn ensured the emotional well-being of the individuals in question. Therefore, there is nothing odd about the fact that, in the aftermath of having encountered Christian missionaries, Okonkwo (the main character in Achebe’s novel) could not help feeling utterly offended, and consequently angered.
As he pointed out: “If a man comes into my hut and defecates on the floor, what do I do? Do I shut my eyes? No! I take a stick and break his head” (Achebe 119). This helps us to identify one of the main indications of a person’s endowment with ‘colonial’ identity – his or her tendency to experience the sensation of strong resentment towards White people, who presume that they have the authority to tell ‘non-whites’ how they should be living their lives.
In this respect, the workings of one’s ‘post-colonial’ psyche appear somewhat different, because the ways in which it operates, imply the perceptual/cognitive ‘hybridity’ of those who have been indirectly affected by the legacy of colonialism. According to Bhabha: “(Post-colonial) hybridity is the sign of productivity… Hybridity is the revaluation of the assumption of colonial identity through the repetition of discriminatory identity effects” (159).
In plain words, it is in the very nature of the formerly oppressed people of color to strive to adopt the identity of their oppressors, which in turn results in these people becoming simultaneously affiliated with the traditional (often religious) values, on one hand, and with the highly secularized (westernized) lifestyles, on the other. As the direct consequence of this, ‘post-colonial’ individuals often exhibit a number of the seemingly incompatible behavioral traits.
The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated, in regards to the character (narrator) Saleem in Rushdie’s novel. For example, throughout the novel’s entirety, Saleem never ceases to act as an individual committed to the ideals of a collectivist living, reflected by the character’s strive to remain in close touch with his numerous relatives. Saleem acts in this manner quite despite the fact that he found out early enough in his life that he was not the biological son of Amina and Ahmed: “(Pereira): Saleem my piece-of-the-moon, you must know that your father was Winkie and your mother is also dead” (Rushdie 278).
What it means is that, while fitting into the earlier provided psychological definition of a ‘post-colonial’ individual, Saleem was naturally predisposed to appreciate being in the state of kinship with his relatives, on one hand, and to refuse the idea that a true kinship is necessarily the ‘blood-based’ one, on the other. This, of course, effectively exposes Saleem as having been equally affiliated with the seemingly incompatible notions of ‘tradition’ and ‘progress’ – a classical existential trait of the majority of Indians who were born after 1947 (when India attained independence) onwards.
Thus, there is nothing odd about Saleem’s anxiety of ‘atomization’: “I shall eventually crumble into (approximately) six hundred and thirty million particles of anonymous, and necessarily oblivious dust” (Rushdie 30). This, of course, it signifies that the sensation of a ‘post-colonial ambivalence’, described earlier, was not solely unique to the narrator. Apparently, it used to be experienced by great many young Indians, as well.
What has been said earlier, can be well interpreted as such that implies that there is much perceptual flexibility to how ‘post-colonials’ go about assessing the surrounding social reality and their place in it. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about those people who have been exposed to the most graphic extrapolations of White racism, which used to ‘fuel’ the process of colonization throughout the 19th century, while their countries still remained under the colonial yoke.
Even though these people remained thoroughly aware of the fact that they would be much better off being left alone by Westerners, they nevertheless were not in the position of adopting an active stance, while trying to defend their land and their way of life. This simply could not be otherwise, because European colonists/missionaries were much better armed and organized, as compared to what it used to be the case with the native ‘savages’.
Partially, this explains why, as the plot of Achebe’s novel unravels, the mentioned character of Okonkwo grows increasingly more vulnerable to the strikes of depression (which in the end brings about his ultimate demise): “Okonkwo was deeply grieved. And it was not just a personal grief. He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart” (134). We can speculate that the mentioned grief was induced by Okonkwo’s realization that the members of his tribe would not stand even a slight chance, if decided to oppose ‘whites’ in any explicit manner.
Thus, it will be thoroughly appropriate, on our part, to suggest that, as the earlier provided consideration implies, another integral part of one’s endowment with the ‘colonial’ sense of self-identity, is the concerned individual’s disgust of its own powerlessness. Just as it happened to be the case with Okonkwo, a colonial subject refuses to recognize the objectivity of his or her socially oppressed status. However, being unable to find the way out of this situation, he or she eventually ends up yielding to depression.
This brings us to identify yet another prominent difference between the psychological phenotypes of ‘colonials’ and ‘post-colonials’. Whereas, the former consciously refrain from associating themselves with just about anything that they perceive as the part of their oppressors’ identity, the latter tend to do something entirely opposite – they actively incorporate the unmistakably Western cultural noumenons into the very essence of their ‘post-colonial’ self-identification.
Nothing illustrates the full validity of this statement better than the scene in Rushdie’s novel, in which Saleem provides a highly allegorical account of his first year of life: “When I was fed, my eyes did not flutter; when virginal Mary set me across her shoulder, crying, ‘Oof, so heavy, sweet Jesus!’ I burped without nictating” (Rushdie 122). As it can be well seen, Saleem was not only fully aware of the Christian fable of Jesus’ birth – he considered it having been thoroughly reflective of whom he felt he was on the ‘inside’. Initially, the described state of affairs may appear as such that does not make much of a sense, whatsoever, since the novel’s main character is a Muslim.
Yet, despite the particulars of his formal religious and ethno-cultural affiliation, Saleem appears thoroughly comfortable with the archetypal images of the West, to the extent of thinking of them as his own. It is understood, of course, that this cannot be interpreted as anything else, but yet another proof that Saleem’s mentality is indeed ‘post-colonial’.
This will also explain why, even though he is shown suffering from different injustices throughout the novel, Saleem does not seem to experience any problems, while communicating with other people – regardless of whether he happened to be in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. Apparently, ‘post-colonialism’ implies that, as time goes on, those young ‘non-whites’ whose ancestors used to be subjected to the colonial exploitation, grow increasingly similar in their attitudes towards the challenges of life. In its turn, this empowers them rather considerably.
When it comes to defining the existential posture of Okonkwo from Achebe’s novel, the earlier mentioned suggestion does not quite apply. The reason for this is that, even though the character in question did in fact experience the sensation of ‘oneness’ with the members of his clan, he also tended to regard other clansmen with suspicion (sometimes even with hatred). This, of course, points out to the fact that Okonkwo possessed a clearly defined tribal mentality, the main feature of which is its affiliates’ acute sense of kinship with their closest relatives, which extrapolates itself in the tribally minded individuals’ inability to find a non-communal purpose in life.
Partially, this explains why, until comparatively recent times, European colonists were able to keep most of Africa under their control – this was nothing but the consequence of these people having been thoroughly aware of how to take advantage of the sectarian divisions among native Africans. As one of the Umuofia tribe’s elders pointed out: “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion… Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one.
He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart” (Achebe 130). Thus, it can be safely suggested that one’s tendency to stick to the conventions of a traditional living, even when it proves disadvantageous to the person in question, is another indication that he or she happened to possess the ‘colonial’ sense of self-identity.
As the case of Okonkwo suggests, White people’s true agenda in Africa was to claim as many of the continent’s natural resources, as possible. The spreading of the ‘good news’, on these people’s part, came quite in handy, in this respect, as it was naturally undermining the sense of communal solidarity in native Africans – hence, making them increasingly alienated from each other.
What has been mentioned earlier, in regards to the identity-related themes and motifs, contained in both novels, allows us to summarize the main discursive differences between the ‘colonial’ and ‘post-colonial’ senses of self-identity, as follows:
- As opposed to what it happened to be the case with people directly affected by the colonial oppression; their ‘post-colonial’ counterparts appear to be much more existentially flexible – especially when the formation of their emotional attitudes towards the surrounding social reality is at stake. In its turn, this can be explained by the fact that, as Rushdie’s novel implies, these people do not experience any discomfort, while becoming simultaneously affiliated with the euro-centric ways of life, on one hand, and with that of their ancestors, on the other.
- The main qualitative aspect of one’s endowment with the ‘colonial’ sense of self-identity appears to do with the fact that the colonially oppressed individuals suffer from the sensation of being utterly powerless. And, as the case of Okonkwo implies, this often causes them to end up being affected by depression. On the other hand, even though ‘post-colonials’ are no strangers to this sensation, as well, they nevertheless are capable of overcoming it with ease. Probably the main reason for this is that, as it can be well exemplified, in regards to the character of Saleem, many of these people are thoroughly aware that their personal problems cannot be thought of in terms of a ‘thing in itself’, which in turn prevents ‘post-colonials’ from focusing on negativity.
- Unlike those individuals that used to be subjected to the ‘direct’ colonial oppression (Okonkwo), the ones affected by the legacy of colonialism indirectly (Saleem), appear more than capable of addressing their deep-seated psychological anxieties. In its turn, this can be explained by the fact that, as a result of their ‘hybridization’, these people have ‘powers’, which often appear mystical to the white-skinned descendants of colonial oppressors – something that can be well illustrated, in regards to the character of Saleem.
I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, concerned with the discussed subject matter, and the gained set of discursively relevant insights, are fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Thus, there is indeed a good rationale in referring to the discussed novels as being potentially capable of enlightening readers on what account for the qualitative differences between the notions of colonialism and post-colonialism.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Penguin Classics, (1958) 2006. Print.
Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. New York: Random House, 1981. Print.