Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 741
Racial discrimination is a theme that runs throughout postcolonial discourse, as white Europeans consistently emphasized their superiority over darker-skinned people. This was most evident in South Africa, whose policy of apartheid was institutionalized in national laws. These laws included the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Act, which prohibited sexual intercourse and marriage between whites and blacks. The Groups Areas Act limited black access into areas reserved for whites. The only blacks permitted in these areas were workers, who first had to apply for state permission. The Population Registration Act categorized Africans into racial groups, which were based upon a person’s appearance, education, and manners. Perhaps the most insidious of the apartheid laws were the Bantu Authorities Act and the Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents Act. The former relegated all Africans to their native lands and laid the groundwork for the denationalization of black and colored Africans. The latter required all Africans to carry identity papers containing a photograph, fingerprints, and work history. Strict penalties were meted out if a person could not produce a passbook. The fiction of Nadine Gordimer and Coetzee, both white South Africans, shows how apartheid has devastated the country morally, emotionally, and economically. Coetzee’s characters are often privileged whites who are forced to acknowledge the material and psychological harm that apartheid has caused black Africans. Racism is a primary theme in the writing of Walcott, Kincaid, Fanon, and Danticat, as well.
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In occupied countries, colonizers often controlled their subjects through imposing their language upon them and forbidding them to speak their own. Educational systems enforced this. Postcolonial writers address the issue of language in various ways. Some, like Danticat and Walcott, mix the language(s) imposed on them with their indigenous language, creating a hybrid tongue that underscores the fractured nature of the colonized mind. Others, such as Ngugi, turned away from English to write exclusively in Gikuyu. Ngugi argues that continued use of English only helps Africans to forget their own precolonial past. Yet another approach to language is Silko’s who, in Ceremony, intersperses a conventional Anglophone narrative with Indian folk legends to create a novel that underscores how Native Americans have to create a coherent whole out of disparate ways of seeing, describing, and being in the world. Some critics worry that the postcolonial works studied in universities are chosen for their postmodern style, rather than for the ways in which they describe the real-world oppression of people from former colonies.
In their desire to reclaim a past that had been taken from them, postcolonial writers often address the question of identity, either implicitly or explicitly in their work. However, doing so often requires using the language of the colonizers, which in itself complicates the drive to become the person they thought they were or should have become. The inability to return to a past now gone forever is a consequence of the notion of hybridity. Hybridity refers to the admixture of practices and signs from the colonizing and colonized cultures; it is a central fact of the postcolonial experience and is evident in almost all postcolonial texts. Colonizers are as much a part of the colonized as the colonized are of the colonizers. This cross-fertilization of cultures can be positive as well as dangerous, and writers often show an ambivalent attitude towards the phenomenon.
Hybridity challenges the idea that a person or a country has any essential “uncontaminated” or unchanging identity and that the desire to reclaim such an identity is rooted in an impossible nostalgia. This idea raises issues such as whether or not a colonized people can avoid adopting colonists’ behavior and attitudes. Kincaid describes this phenomenon in A Small Place, showing how Antiguans have become “Anglicized” in their thinking. The idea of hybridity also challenges representations of colonized people, seen in descriptions such as “black consciousness,” or “Indian soul,” and the notion that “they” are all the same. Totalizing descriptions like these deny the difference among colonized people, as well as reinforce the constructed differences between them and their colonizers. Danticat’s Sophie, for example, struggles to understand her own identity in the welter of language and culture into which she was born and through which she moves. Her migration to New York City further complicates her understanding of who she is, as she must now also come to grips with a diasporic Haitian culture, which is itself in flux.