Introduction to Decolonization Section

"The Healers: Frantz Fanon," 2009, Rudy Shepherd. Image courtesy of START Gallery/Flickr.

At least since the Haitian Revolution of 1791, revolutionaries have discussed decolonization. Imperialism was not merely military occupation, it was the violent imposition of an order—governmental organization, logic, knowledge, and culture. The political language of decolonization as we know it comes from the 20th century liberation struggles of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, and in particular from Frantz Fanon. As Fanon articulated it, decolonization is about overthrowing European colonial occupations and undoing colonial ways of thinking and being. In other words, decolonization is the process of disordering the colonial order, and re-ordering the world into something just. 

Fanon was a psychotherapist from Martinique who, after studying in France and practicing in Algeria, joined the Algerian resistance and wrote two widely influential books on racial identities, psychology, and anti-colonial struggle. Fanon has often been pigeon-holed into his endorsement of violent revolution (not unlike Malcolm X, who is famously juxtaposed to Martin Luther King’s “nonviolence”), but as Hannah Arendt once observed, it seems as though few students read Fanon’s 1961 book, Wretched of the Earth, past the opening chapter, titled “On Violence.” Fanon’s work in Wretched, which is his most famous, as well as his seminal 1952 volume, Black Skin, White Masks, is really about what it means to recognize, expose, and disrupt colonial regimes of state and mind that have been both aggressively beaten and more subtly socialized into people over generations. 

In 1957, at roughly the same time as Fanon was solidifying this theories, Tunisian Jewish novelist and revolutionary Albert Memmi wrote The Colonizer and the Colonized, in which he comes to strikingly similar conclusions as Fanon about the insecurity complexes inherited by both French colonizers and North African colonized peoples. Memmi writes from the subjective position of a Jew in North Africa, which he identifies as being awkwardly in between the two camps, understanding both because he was in a way part of both, but at the same time not fully part of either. 

Last year, I published Decolonizing Jewishness: On Jewish Liberation in the 21st Century in Tikkun, in which I follow Memmi’s logic and argue that historical Jewish positionalities do not conform to the “black and white” archetype on which Fanonian decolonial theory has been based. This essay emerged from an internal examination of my own Jewish identity and experiences, but I believe its argument has broad implications. Fanon’s extensive discussion of Jews as a comparison category for Black people in Black Skin, White Masks is no accident—the “Jewish Question” has been a lightning rod for debates over political ideology since before Marx. At the same time, the intervention is not meant to be limited to Jews alone, but rather to nuance the language of, and expand the possibilities for, decolonial thought and practice for peoples and contexts that do not neatly fit a black/white binary. Based on responses to this article, I was asked to contribute as a co-editor to this issue.

For whom is the project of decolonization? In the preface to Wretched of the Earth, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre makes it clear he believes colonial Europe needs to reckon with decolonization as much as—though in a different way than—colonized Africa. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon himself points to the particular insecurity complexes developed by colonizer and colonized alike, complexes which must be overcome through action if a just future involving people who come from both groups is possible. Nevertheless, the language, theory, and praxis of decolonization we have today has predominantly emerged from African and African diaspora communities and individuals, and it is not at all agreed upon which people can be legitimate bearers of decolonial struggle. 

Like my essay Decolonizing Jewishness, the pieces assembled within this issue represent a humble contribution to the discussion, from a number of nontraditional perspectives, inspired by the expanding discourse of decolonial theory in our time. With this in mind, I briefly introduce the articles in this section below. I encourage readers to make use of this introduction and its bibliography as the context within which to reflect on the contributions that this issue of Tikkun offers.

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Beginning in the 1960s, the call to decolonize has become absorbed into revolutionary canon through national liberation struggles around the world, and in the US through groups like the Black Panther Party, Young Lords, and American Indian Movement. Today, the global discourse of decolonization has facilitated solidarity and collaboration between the Movement for Black Lives, the Palestinian liberation struggle, Sioux-led protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and more. It has also become a heated subject of debate through practice and theory among activists in colonial, post-colonial, and colonizer countries.

In 1986, Kenyan writer and philosopher Ngugi wa Thiong’o published Decolonizing the Mind, a collection of essays and reflections on what it takes to practice languages of knowing and communicating that jettison the imposed colonial mindset. To wa Thiong’o, the essence of decolonial practice is about decentering Western epistemologies, that is, European colonial ways of thinking and knowing, which had been forcibly imposed on most of the world while erasing other bodies of knowledge. Paul Buhle’s essay in this issue gives an introduction to the thought of Trinidadian communist and historian C.L.R. James—a thinker who, I agree with Buhle, stands to be more widely read by those interested in the struggle for liberation. And Kenneth Harrow’s piece surveys the modern history of African and African American cinema in attempting to use what was at one time a colonial form of media as a tool to subvert the colonial gaze. To this day, the struggle to decolonize curricula is being waged in universities and schools across the world; what canons and classical thinkers should we learn, what languages should we learn in, from whom, through which pedagogical models, and for what purposes? (See Chinguno et al 2017; Freire 1970; Naidoo et al 2017; and Rhodes Must Fall, Oxford 2018.)  

One of the hottest points of contention has been the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) based in (formerly) colonizer countries, which provide poverty relief and international aid to (formerly) colonized countries. Do these organizations redistribute resources from “Global North” to “Global South” or do they reimpose patterns of dependency, colonial logics, and a relationship of superiority/inferiority? Stephen Esquith’s essay introduces readers to this debate, and argues for the decolonial, or at least democratizing potential of NGO work. At the same time, Western-based NGOs have directly facilitated instability and even coups in Global South countries—for example, NGOs have played a role in recent political developments in Venezuela, which you can read more about in Laura Wells’ piece in this issue.  

Colonialism and anti-colonialism are often thought of as colliding political-cultural forces on the same track, but what happens when the anti-colonialism of one is the colonization of another? Hatem Hassan illuminates these dynamics with the example of Nubian-Egyptian claims to cultural autonomy and dignity amidst Egyptian nationalism, which has sidelined and erased Nubian identity as part of the Egyptian state narrative of anti-(European)-colonialism. In doing so, Hassan points us toward the interdimensionality of decolonization struggle in a complex and messy world, appropriately using a contemporary case that many in the US might not have been aware of. Hassan’s piece also challenges us to consider how the use of decolonial narratives does not inherently make a political project liberatory, nor does the moral legitimacy of a decolonial narrative necessarily make it politically effective. 

Decolonization is not only political but is a deeply personal process as well. In Pittsburgh, we are organizing a vibrant Jewish community where we struggle to take the fight against antisemitism, in which we have historically been the oppressed and exterminated, and the fight for Palestinian freedom and autonomy, in which we are the oppressor and colonizer, as part of the same historical fight for liberation. After the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha massacre, in which a white supremacist murdered 11 Jewish worshipers, may their memories be a blessing, we held each other in our trauma, and we stood steadfast in our commitment to resist Trump’s attempt to co-opt our loss and redirect it to push the very same politics that inspired the attack. And at the very same time, we are unwavering in our resistance to those in our community who would weaponize our grief and use it to create more grieving Palestinian children, parents, siblings, comrades. Ami Weintraub’s piece in this issue makes the internalization of these violences unavoidably vivid. Ami is a young revolutionary and rising spiritual leader in our Pittsburgh Jewish community, and I had asked them to contribute a piece to this issue based on a commentary they shared last year during Yom Kippur. Instead, they submitted a letter to me—to us, our respective names Ami (my people) and Ben (son) being double-meaningful in their Hebrew translations—about diasporic memory or forgetting of genocide and resistance. What do we collectively choose to remember? What have we been made to forget? And where do we put the pain of both? The heavy spaciousness in Weintraub’s essay pulls us toward precisely the type of reckoning that decolonization demands.

For Fanon, who was trained in Freudian psychology, the internal complexes resulting from colonial relationships begin and end with knowing and feeling, with power and sexuality. But Fanon only takes the analysis so far; despite his razor-sharp insight and revolutionary zeal, he does not interrogate the patriarchal foundations of colonial domination. Personalizing the language of decolonization can be risky, in that it has the potential to destabilize the political framework with specificity, but it is nevertheless essential to the internalization of decolonial logic. Diana Clarke’s unflinchingly honest essay on sex, domination, and queer self-realization opens space for this interrogation, from the personal to the political and back. As Clarke writes, “decolonization means being in process”—they do not let us off the hook with easy answers, rather, they offer an intimate exploration of the ways that we can grapple with the colonial history that moves through our very bodies. 

The proliferation of decolonial narratives in recent years is an important development, but at some point, the term “decolonization” is stretched too far (see Tuck and Yang 2012). Decolonization cannot be everything, because then it would mean nothing; it must always be grounded in the material-political struggles of the oppressed. But who is to say where this framework meets its limit? Brenda Peterson’s piece challenges us to think beyond the bounds of our species. As Hassan’s essay in this issue reminds us, the narrative of anti-colonialism can itself be used for colonial purposes from the perspective of others, but Hassan’s is an essay on human struggle. Something about the human/non-human boundary feels palpably real to the point that it is insulting to the struggle of oppressed humans—many of whom have been animalized as part of their oppression—to extend the decolonial narrative to non-human animals as though it is on par with the plight of human people. At the same time, as human-created climate change threatens to destroy millions of species and perhaps life on this planet altogether, is it really our place to constrain our liberatory discourses to humans? Of course, it is not humans per se, but particular humans in particular places who are driving climate crisis through neo-imperialism and corporate capitalism—but then again, many more of us participate, even to our ultimate detriment. In this light, Peterson’s piece prompts consideration. 

At its core, decolonization pushes us to reexamine how we know the things we know and why. Readers must understand that one cannot read decolonial theory without an understanding of power. Decolonization has no meaning if one does not understand that the world is colonized—that colonial ways of seeing and knowing survived the ostensible fall of empires, and continue to affect many of the assumptions and common senses we hold dear. With that in mind, let us reflect on how we liberate ourselves and support one another. The pieces in this issue are intended to help spark conversation around that process. They are in no way comprehensive, but we hope they will add to the growing discussion of decolonization, and perhaps, to the struggle for a more just world.

 

REFERENCES

Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. New York: Harcourt.

Chinguno, Crispen, Morwa Kgoroba, Sello Mashibili, Bafana Nicolas Masilena, Boikhutso Maubane, Nhlanhla Moyo, Andile Mthombeni, and Hlengiwe Ndlovu, eds. 2017 Rioting and Writing: Diaries and the Wits Fallists. Johannesburg: Society, Work and Politics Institute, University of Witwatersrand.

Fanon, Frantz. [1961] 2004. Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press. 

Fanon, Frantz. [1952] 2008. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press.

Freire, Paolo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum.

Memmi, Albert. [1957] 1967. The Colonizer and the Colonized. Trans. Howard Greenfield. Boston: Beacon Press.

Naidoo, Leigh-Ann, Asher Gamedze, and Thato Magano, eds. 2017. Publica[c]tion. Johannesburg: Publica[c]tion Collective + NewText.  

Rhodes Must Fall, Oxford. 2018.Rhodes Must Fall: The Struggle to Decolonize the Racist Heart of an Empire. Edited by Roseanne Chantiluke, Brian Kwoba, and Athinangamso Nkopo. London: Zed Books 

Tuck, Emma and K. Wayne Yang. 2012. Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor. Indigeneity, Education & Society. 1(1): 1-40.

wa Thiong’o, Ngugi. 1986. Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature.Nairobi: Heinemann.

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