Escaping the Inescapable
With a history nearly as long as that of the human race, the oppression of one people by another has been a major driving force in society for centuries. From imperialism and colonialism to genocide and slavery, the various forms of oppression all go beyond the natural physical domination to capture the minds of the oppressed to different extents. In some cases, the erasure of the oppressed people is temporary; that is, the oppressed can retain their identity throughout a period of oppression or regain it afterwards, but in other cases, the task of fighting for one’s identity under oppression is more difficult and obscure. There are many factors that determine the magnitude of this erasure, ranging from the length of time under oppression to the manner in which an oppressed people’s culture is devalued, but the question of the possibility of completely overcoming the mental hold of oppression remains unanswered.
Beyond the natural consequences of cultural destruction and economic exploitation, colonialism has effects with deeper roots. In Jamaica Kincaid’s essay “On Seeing England for the First Time,” Kincaid describes the influence English colonialism had on her while growing up in Antigua, highlighting its pervasive nature and mission to instill a sense of English superiority in the colonized people. When Kincaid first mentions England, she calls it “a special jewel” to indicate the reverence with which it ought to be treated, and later uses the same term cynically to show how widely exploitative England and its colonialist practices are: “England was a special jewel all right, and only special people got to wear it. The people who got to wear England were English people. They wore it well and they wore it everywhere: in jungles, in deserts, on plains, on top of the highest mountains, on all the oceans, on all the seas” (366). This biting statement is a critique of widespread English colonialism, showing how maliciously exploitative the spread of English influence and hegemony is. Kincaid uses various anecdotes to illustrate the extent to which England has dominated her mind and being, saying that she “had long ago been conquered” and that the many views of England imposed upon her “made [her] really feel like nothing” (Kincaid 368). When Kincaid finally travels to England as a grown woman, she is disgusted at the people, the weather, and everything about it, feeling a “great feeling of rage an disappointment” both from her impression of England and her inability to express it publicly (Kincaid 370).
Kincaid laments that her vehement opinions of England can only remain personal opinions: “My head full of personal opinions that could not have public, my public approval. The people I come from are powerless to do evil on a grand scale” (Kincaid 370). Kincaid admits to her own capability of having prejudice, commenting that the prejudices of the English are instituted while the prejudices of her people are muted or ignored. This is a larger structural critique of global politics, showing that the English and other major Western powers hold the same prejudices that Kincaid’s people do, but their prejudices have the power and weight to become law solely because of their self-designed superiority. Throughout the essay, the mental hold that colonialism has taken on Kincaid and her family is made explicit: she is made to sing Anglican hymns like “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” she eats a big breakfast despite her natural instinct because “this breakfast business was ‘Made in England,’” and her father wears a felt hat despite it not being the “proper material from which a hat…[is] expected to provide shade from the hot sun” just because he “must have seen and admired a picture of an Englishman wearing such a hat in England, and this picture…must have been so compelling that it caused him to wear the wrong hat for a hot climate most of his long life” (Kincaid 367). The deep infiltration of English culture into the customs and beliefs of Antiguan families like Kincaid’s displays how colonialism acts on not just the state but on the individual and on the individual’s mind itself. Kincaid reflects on how her isolation from a real exposure to England has formed a strong impression on her: “In me, the space between the idea of [England] and its reality had become filled with hatred, and so when at last I saw it I wanted to take it into my hands and tear it into little pieces” (Kincaid 370). When Kincaid visits England and sees the white cliffs of Dover, cliffs that she had praised and sung about as a schoolgirl, her hatred is intensified: “all my views of England, starting with the map before me in my classroom and ending with the trip I had just taken, should jump and die and disappear forever” (370). Kincaid’s ambiguous account of her experience, with the use of the word “should,” suggests that her mental dominion may be a permanent and inescapable condition rather than something that she may be able to free herself from after real exposure to England. She further indicates the effect that seeing the white cliffs of Dover had on her by indicating what the sight of the cliffs made her long for: “The moment I wished every sentence, everything I knew, that began with England would end with “and then it all dies, we don’t know how, it just all died” was when I saw the white cliffs of Dover” (Kincaid 370). Kincaid’s use of the word “wished” and the modal verb “would” shows that her desire to free herself from the idea of England is unable to be realized despite her cognizance of its infection on her mind.
While Kincaid’s experience implies her inability to escape the mental hold of colonialism, through her desire that her ideas of England “would end with ‘and then it all died’” and her acceptance of powerlessness “to do evil on a grand scale,” this immobilization is not necessarily universal (Kincaid 370). An excerpt from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s book Decolonising the Mind speaks of the importance of language as a carrier of culture among other functions, as well as the colonialist practice of obliterating a colonized people’s native language in order to better subjugate them. Thiong’o is clear in his assertion about the crucial function of language: “The domination of a people’s language by the languages of the colonizing nations [is] crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonized” (339). Thiong’o also stresses the stakes of this linguistic domination, saying how children who are raised with a foreign imposed language are later exposed to their native people through the mirror of that language and its treatment of the people such that they are alienated from themselves and are inevitably subject to accepting the bias that foreign powers may hold about their native peoples. Thiong’o’s statement about “catching them young,” a phrase used to describe the forced imposition of ideas on children early on, implies that an imposition exacted early enough in one’s life can achieve permanence: “The images of his world and his place in it implanted in a child take years to eradicate, if they ever can be” (Thiong’o 340). The ensuing implication is that an early avoidance or overcoming of this imposition can reduce the difficulty of reversing cultural erasure.
Thus Thiong’o offers a solution, albeit theoretical, for what Kincaid deems insurmountable. While Kincaid uses the conditional tense and a modal verb (“I wished…[it] would end,” “all my views of England…should jump and die”) to express her unsuccessful struggle to escape colonialism’s mental hold on her, Thiong’o’s implicit argument is that either a circumvention of linguistic dominion or an early overcoming of imposed beliefs may prevent colonialism’s absolute “domination of the mental universe of the colonized,” presenting a solution to the erasure that Kincaid speaks of and proclaims inevitable (Kincaid 370). Thiong’o claims that a linguistic domination is tantamount to “dissociation of the sensibility…from [one’s] natural and social environment, what we might call colonial alienation” (Thiong’o 340). Granted, Kincaid grew up speaking English, as did her family, likely because of the long-standing English colonialism in Antigua, which reached back far enough to infiltrate and overpower the native language, so it is impossible for Kincaid to directly have used Thiong’o’s argument of evading linguistic domination to preserve her cultural identity. However, Kincaid’s realization of her people’s powerlessness to express opinions publicly comes only after seeing England for the first time, when Kincaid is a “grown-up woman, the mother of two children, the wife of someone” (Kincaid 369). Using Thiong’o’s concept of “catching them young,” which he borrows from the author Bob Dixon, it is clear that Kincaid was “caught young” and did not come to realize the true nature of her position until late in life, at which point the hold on her mind may indeed have become permanent.
Kincaid’s erasure by colonialism is similar to the erasure of other oppressed peoples. In the first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the narrator tells of one experience he underwent, fighting other African American boys like himself for the entertainment of whites in America. He also tells the story of his grandfather, who was meek and compliant his whole life but just before his death fiercely commanded his descendants to fight strategically against racism, abandoning his own practice of appeasement. The grandfather’s entire lifetime of employing this practice of appeasement proves unfruitful, as are his grandson’s similar efforts: that is, their status as oppressed people under the whites has not improved as a result of their actions. The end of the chapter shows the grandson’s realization of the true nature of his situation as he encounter his grandfather in a dream, who tells him to read the congratulatory letter that the boy has just received as a result of his speech to an audience of whites, a speech designed to appease them: “‘To Whom It May Concern,’ I intoned. ‘Keep This Nigger-Boy Running’” (Ellison 27). The boy’s realization of the futility of his appeasement is somewhat similar to Kincaid’s realization of the futility of her prejudice and opinions, and this alone constitutes a mental transcendence of the boy’s earlier delusion about appeasement being fruitful. Although the chapter ends there, the realization is a possible first step in freeing oneself wholly from the mental domination of oppression. The boy makes the same revelation that Kincaid does a few decades before he reaches her age, and this timely realization, when viewed through the lens of Thiong’o’s concept of “catching them young,” could mean that the mental hold on the oppressed boy may be surmountable because of his early realization.
While colonialism and institutionalized racism are two examples of direct oppression, indirect oppression is also a widespread practice. Doris Lessing delivers a speech entitled “On Not Winning the Nobel Prize” when she receives the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. Her speech examines the inequality of access to literature in the world and the status of the human condition as reflected by modern-day storytellers. Lessing draws on her experience growing up in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to illustrate the disparity she saw between the tradition of literature in the Western world and in Africa. A large impact of British colonialism in Zimbabwe is the institution of education from literature, and Lessing clearly recognizes this: “And we must remember that this respect for books comes, not from Mugabe’s regime, but from the one before it, the whites” (Lessing 535). Lessing further explains the long-term impact that colonialism had in shaping the culture of storytelling in Zimbabwe: “The grandparents of these people might have been storytellers working in the oral tradition. In one or two generations there was the transition from stories remembered and passed on, to print, to books. What an achievement” (537).
From her speech, it is evident that Lessing considers the introduction of literature into the culture of Zimbabwe a positive influence, claiming it to be an achievement. She goes on to explain the specific importance of this reverence of and exposure to literature, stressing that reading literature is absolutely necessary in order to write literature. Ignoring the possible merits of Zimbabwe’s pre-existing oral tradition of storytelling, Lessing says “In order to write, in order to make literature, there must be a close connection with libraries, books, with the Tradition.” (Lessing 536). Despite Lessing’s perception of this influence as positive, a closer look at the situation reveals otherwise. Thiong’o’s writing in Decolonising the Mind describes a situation eerily similar to the situation of Zimbabwe as described by Lessing, albeit from a completely different perspective. While Lessing sees the introduction of the Western tradition of literature in Zimbabwe as an achievement, Thiong’o describes a similar influence as domination. Thiong’o writes “For colonialism this [control] involved two aspects of the same process: the destruction or the deliberate undervaluing of a people’s culture, their art, dances, religions, history, geography, education, orature and literature, and the conscious elevation of the language of the colonizer” (Thiong’o 339). In Thiong’o’s view, the British colonial education in Zimbabwe, designed to expose the people to Western literature and foster an appreciation for books, is an act of control and an effort to achieve “domination of the mental universe of the colonized” (Thiong’o 339). This raises the question as to the ability of the oppressed (the people of Zimbabwe) to overcome this oppression, or even to realize it. Just as in “On Seeing England for the First Time,” where England is made to seem “a very special jewel” and the oppressed people of Antigua develop a blind reverence for it, the people of Zimbabwe develop a similar blind reverence for books, as exemplified by one Indian woman that Lessing speaks of, a woman who dreams of sending her children to be close to Lessing’s “great Tradition of literature,” “My children will live far from here, earning money. They will live near the big library and enjoy a good life” (Lessing 542). The position of the oppressed people in Zimbabwe, or at least the Indian woman of whom Lessing speaks, is somewhat similar to the position of the narrator in Ellison’s Invisible Man prior to his epiphany. Both parties are oppressed but neither are fully cognizant of the realities of the oppression and aware of how to combat it. In a way, all Kincaid, Ellison’s narrator, the Indian woman, and even Thiong’o must have all started in the same place, the place of an oppressed person unaware of their situation, but each got to a realization of the reality at different points in life, except for the Indian woman who is only discussed briefly. It is precisely the timeliness of this discovery, the discovery of one’s situation that Ellison’s narrator comes to, or Kincaid comes to upon seeing England, or Thiong’o elucidates so clearly in his writing, that determines the relative permanence of oppressions hold on the mind of the oppressed.
Through a survey of various texts, it seems that transcendence of erasure from oppression is not decidedly impossible, but that many factors may prevent it from being achievable. For example, in Thiong’o’s writing from Decolonising the Mind, it is implied that total linguistic domination from a young age may render it impossible for a victim of colonialism to reconcile his beliefs about his own people with his own people’s beliefs. In the first chapter of Ellison’s Invisible Man, one small step toward transcendence is taken, and the possibility of completing the rest of the journey is left unclear, but the fact that the narrator has achieved the realization of his situation at a relatively young age in comparison to Kincaid’s equivalent realization of powerlessness paves the way for later “eradication” of the beliefs forcibly imposed by oppression, as Thiong’o puts it (Thiong’o 340). In Lessing’s “On Not Winning the Nobel Prize,” Lessing describes how the transition from orature to literature being the common practice in British-colonized Zimbabwe took “one or two generations,” and the accounts of the people she describes, like the Indian woman, fall at the end of this one-or-two-generation span. Using the logic that “catching it young,” which now means realizing the reality of one’s oppression early on, paves the way for a complete overcoming of mental domination later on, it seems unlikely that Indian woman in Lessing’s narrative could ever achieve this overcoming, having been exposed to the same dogma for generations. Looking back at Kincaid’s “On Seeing England for the First Time,” Kincaid’s struggle to escape her ingrained ideas of England no longer seems like a simple matter of erasing a memory. Perhaps once an idea has been ingrained and reinforced in enough ways and for a long enough time, it achieves a permanence that no level of struggling can overcome. This production of “colonial aliens,” to borrow and re-interpret Thiong’o’s term, creates a person who is forever disconnected from his very self, a person who may never see his own self or his own people from a perspective not fundamentally biased by the prejudices of the oppressors. The results could truly be disastrous.