The Race-Work of Postcolonial Studies: Hasty Notes

In a recent book on postcolonial studies, Neil Lazarus offers a familiar critique of the field: as practiced by bourgeois, western-based academics, postcolonial studies remains remarkably inattentive to class diversity and, more broadly, resistant to rigorous Marxist analysis. As one of those bourgeois, western-based academics, I am intrigued by his claim and by the opposition it suggests: dominant postcolonial studies, on the one side, and a Marxist-inflected anti-imperial studies, on the other. Or perhaps a Janus-faced postcolonial studies. What most intrigues me about this formulation is its persistence, indeed, one could argue, its founding within postcolonial studies.

Lazarus’s poster-child for bourgeois postcolonial studies is Homi Bhabha, the favorite whipping boy for those who dislike the abstruseness of poco studies. Bhabha and those writing in his shadow privilege

A constitutive anti-Marxism; an undifferentiating disavowal of all forms of nationalism and a corresponding exaltation of migrancy, liminality, hybridity, and multiculturality; an hostility toward ‘holistic forms of social explanation’ (toward totality and systemic analysis); an aversion to dialectics; and a refusal of an antagonistic or struggle-based model of politics.

While I agree with Lazarus that these assumptions govern too many critical readings—as he notes, “to read across postcolonial literary studies is to find, to an extraordinary degree, the same questions being asked, the same methods, techniques, and conventions being used, the same concepts mobilized, the same conclusions drawn”—I want to return to a now-obscured element of poco studies as it emerges in England, that is, not with Edward Said and Orientalism, but with black British scholars, notably, those working in cultural studies.

Describing the emergence of what came to be described as poco studies, Bhabha explains that it was an attempt to inject race into dominant Marxist paradigms. Indeed, the turn to Fanon was precisely an attempt to foreground race. Seen in this light, poco studies might have a far longer trajectory than we grant, and would include the race interventions of Claude McKay and George Padmore and C.L.R. James and other black activists, artists, and scholars who experienced Marxism as a violent erasure of race-work. As grateful as I am to those scholars who have recovered black Marxism—Bill Maxwell, Barbara Foley, James Smethurst, to name a few—it would be irresponsible to overlook those black artists and activists who experienced Marxism’s indifference to race-work, who experienced its violence as black diasporic subjects. (The question of a black Marxism working in Africa is, I want to suggest, very different; to say, as Lazarus does, that a Ngugi working in Kenya can be reasonably compared to a Bhabha working in England is to erase race-work in England. It is, in other words, to erase precisely that attention to location that Lazarus ostensibly privileges.)

I am not, here, trying to re-draw boundaries between Marxism and race-work paradigms (African American studies, African diaspora studies, Caribbean studies, Postcolonial studies, and so on). Even as I am very intrigued by the race-work accomplished by Marxist paradigms—embraced mainly by white men in graduate school, if my history and the profession I occupy are any indication, and often used as the stick with which to beat down minorities. One could not talk of race without being told that class was the most important element—one would then want to discuss the racialization of class, but had gotten tired of explaining intersectionality. I couldn’t do my homework and educate my white colleagues—it was too tiring.

Indeed, one might argue that a certain white Marxist love for Ngugi springs precisely from his attention to intra-racial class divides in Kenya. Working through Ngugi, inter-racial conflict recedes to a colonial past and the white Marxist critic can focus on black-on-black exploitation. Thus, Ngugi’s new book, Globalectics, focuses on the bourgeois black middle class instantiated in the English department. He suggests that the 1968 essay about abolishing the English department at the University of Nairobi gave rise to what we now call postcolonial studies. Since I dislike single origin stories, I will say that it’s an interesting claim and leave it at that.

My broader claim is that a turn to Ngugi, as the route toward a responsible, Marxist-inflected postcolonial studies, can be an excuse for not engaging the difficult race-work of poco studies in England and the U.S.

Paul Gilroy rightly notes that theories and practices of “impurity”—“liminality,” “hybridity,” and “multiculturalism,” to use Lazarus’s categories—can be remarkably, even, impossibly difficult to engage. One can disengage from the difficulty they pose, from the race-work they demand, by dismissing them as “trendy,” “overdone,” “repeated,” “boring.” I need not remark on the violence of this gesture.

I spent last week teaching Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” and I was struck, as I always am, by the persistence of ideology. About what Althusser describes as the “obviousnesses of obviousnesses,” about the difficulty of seeing the “reproduction of the conditions of production.” Here’s Althusser on ideology:

What thus seems to take place outside ideology (to be precise, in the street), in reality takes place in ideology. What really takes place in ideology seems therefore to take place outside it. That is why those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: ideology never says, ‘I am ideological’. It is necessary to be outside ideology, i.e. in scientific knowledge, to be able to say: I am in ideology (a quite exceptional case) or (the general case): I was in ideology. As is well known, the accusation of being in ideology only applies to others, never to oneself (unless one is really a Spinozist or a Marxist, which, in this matter, is to be exactly the same thing). Which amounts to saying that ideology has no outside (for itself), but at the same time that it is nothing but outside (for science and reality).

(Do I cite Althusser to boost my non-existent credibility with Marxists? Is that performative gesture, drawn from feminism and queer studies, the confirmation of my bourgeois status? The anxiety of the well-fed?) Althusser is, of course, interested in class, but one could also talk about the reproduction of racial categories, or what I’m terming race-work, which is coterminous (a friend from Howard argues) with the rise of capitalism. I cite Teju Cole to note the persistence of white saviors as a symptom of race-work–all the way from white Jesus to Jeffrey Sachs.

I am interested in the race-work of postcolonial studies, one that is so often ignored by those who critique it as not as attentive to race as, say, African American studies (I’ve heard this before); I am interested in the race-work of postcolonial studies as it circulates within a global north that is differentially raced than a global south (to expect Ngugi to write or sound like Bhabha is silly); I am interested in the race-work of postcolonial studies as it contends with the difficulties of impurity, with trying to intervene against the purifying discourses of nationalism by offering impure, hybrid, collective-making enterprises (I’m wary of things such as “black nationalism” or “African nationalism” to the extent that they erase multi-roots—Kenya is not a black country, you know. It really isn’t. Also, not a Christian country. We are not a Republican-imagined America in blackface.); I am interested in the race-work of postcolonial studies as it makes visible the persistence of paradigms that use class to avoid race.

To be sure, race-work is hard work: despite certain similarities, race-work happens quite differently across spaces—whiteness in Kenya is not whiteness in the U.S.; brown-ness in the U.K. is not brown-ness in Uganda; the designation black British always fucks with U.S. heads; and I don’t even want to go into Mayotte Capecia’s claim about the sixty races in Martinique. Race-work is classed.

A final note: Bhabha is often attacked for his prose. It is too abstract. It is nonsense. It is unnecessarily difficult. How can “common” people understand him? Where is his sense of responsibility to the masses? To which one wants to respond: it is a mistake to believe that race-work is one thing rather than an aggregation of strategies. It is a mistake to believe that “the masses” can only understand or appreciate the “Jack and Jill” directions provided by those who exploit them and those who want to save them. It is a mistake to believe that ideas remain stuck within their original pages or languages. And it is irritating to read how brown and black people should and should not write or speak. Irritating and also a symptom of race-work at play.

4 thoughts on “The Race-Work of Postcolonial Studies: Hasty Notes

  1. I like your analysis, Prof Macharia. In my PhD thesis, I made the argument for a more rigorous examination of class in Africa and the Caribbean.

    I argued that there is an undertheorization of class in Africa.

    I’m including excerpt from my dissertation below. This is also being published in a peer-reviewed book titled African Cultural Translations to be published by Edwin Mellen Press. Please feel free to let me know what you think.

    While there is no shortage of studies on class analysis in the western world (these include Borislav Knezevic (2003) Ehrenreich (1990) and Dimock & Gilmore (1994) as good examples), literary analysis on class formation in the postcolonial world of Africa, the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean, are few and far between. And these are states, which have not only produced talent that have shaped postcolonial studies over the years, but these are also countries that have linked history to the Atlantic world.

    In the West, the idea of working class literature has been around for a long time, along with the notion of literature of the middle classes. These attributes, however, have not been applied to the south or the so-called “Third World”, and instead, postcolonial studies and even African studies have been too short-sighted to see non-western societies as merely subjugated people.

    Where such acknowledgement of African class narratives has been made, it has occurred within non-African scopes. When class is theorized or framed in the African space, it is often within the framework of race. Lott (1994) argue that with class becoming less of a significant factor in many western nations such as the United States, where class consciousness was partly constructed through the discourse of blackness and marginality. Class identity was examined through racial experience in the Atlantic world and how that played out in the context of slavery and colonialism. Thus, black experience in the Americas became the experience of the marginalised underclass. Similar appropriation of marginality also became the central focus of African literary discourse.

    But if we are to investigate modern African identity and the construction of self, in light of globalizing and localizing tendencies, the question of social class cannot be ignored. These factors have impacted on Africa in the past two to three decades, bringing with them a varying degree of economic development and unbalanced buying power, and a deep chasm between the rich and the poor.

    Several factors may have stood against a thorough examination of class in literary texts. One of these can be linked to the preoccupation by African theorists with the need to counter western perception of Africa as a place of constant chaos. The need to answer Saul Bellow’s query when he remarks “”Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?” (see Mel Gussow and Charles McGrath, 2005 in .

    Another essential factor is postcolonial theorists’ long obsession with the narratives of the colonizer versus the marginalized. Here theorists have failed to take into consideration the fact that an understanding of class in the postcolonial world will lead to a better comprehension of the underlying issues of politics, exploitation and sexuality. This is not to say that the analysis of histories of exploitation and subjugation are unnecessary, in fact, postcolonial studies have helped in articulating the enduring impact of slavery, colonialism and racism in the postcolonial society. However, these factors are also closely related to the ideas of class and social formations, and by analysing class, we may be able to better understand the causes that postcolonial studies have been theorizing upon.

    The above limitation has stifled the examination of how class identities are constructed and articulated in African texts, within and through the discourses that support late capitalism. One can trace this to the domination of postcolonial discourses by Marxist and Fanonist theorists. Many left-leaning theorists subscribe to Frantz Fanon’s notion of a false decolonisation (see David P. Thomas, 2009: 253-269).

    While my disseration agrees that Fanon’s position is tenable, an analysis of literary texts can help us interrogate contemporary conditions in Africa. Moreover, this analysis rests on an understanding of post-colonialism as problematic, rather than as a chronological or temporal concept.

    As depicted in my PhD dissertation, we can see that from pre-colonial texts to contemporary online musings class consciousness is not limited to European historicity. Class and social groups operate across many African cultures. In addition, we can deduce that a particular text – this time in the mode of online literature – centred on a particular social group is also not a new precedent in Africa. Moreover, capital has always played a great role in the composition and delivery of African texts since time immemorial; the Igbo people of Nigeria say “it is the man that has eaten well that plays music. If he has not eaten he will be compelled pick up a hoe, not a harp.”

    In Nigeria, as in much of the continent, social classification along the lines of western stratification began prior to colonialism; it started from the time when Nigerian merchants began to trade with their European counterparts along the West African coastline. Shola Adenekan (2009: 10) suggests that “this transformation also affected the local economy; there was increased urbanization, gender roles shifted and a new middle-class elite schooled in European languages emerged, displacing the old elite of traditional chiefs. As colonial officers found the task of governing a country four times the size of Britain a far from easy task, they began to rely on the new African middle-classes for low-level administrative duties.”

  2. Shola,

    I’m somewhat out of my depth here, but three names came to mind when I read your comment: Edward Blyden, Claude McKay, C.L.R. James. Class is a strange category of analysis for a broader history of racialized labor precisely because slavery and colonialism cannot be read through the terms of class struggle provided by classical Marxism, but this is a too-obvious point.

    I wonder how to read the presence or absence of class genealogically: that is, how do the histories of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean create the terms through which to discuss and debate labor, changing, in the process, how we have inherited those terms through classic Marxist debates? While we can certainly talk about a middle class and the bourgeois and so on following Fanon, it seems to me a more deeply historicized approach would insist on the stretch slave and colonial histories demand from Marxism. Here, Blyden becomes very important as he maps the race-class-geography nexus of Liberia and, I think, James is next in importance (chronologically) because The Black Jacobins is precisely an attempt to provide a language indebted to Marxism but rooted in slave histories, that is, to create a class vocabulary appropriate to black histories.

    Depending on where one looks, the figure of the peasant is more dominant than that of a factory-based proletariat, and this matters for how we want to read class. McKay’s early poetry is very good on this. And what happens when the revolution is classed and raced–James on this? And, also, what happens when we are no longer talking about a multi-nationals and so on as the source of elite wealth? I have no answers, of course, and, strictly speaking, I don’t know enough about Marxism to speak with any authority. But I do get itchy when it appears that we do not work genealogically, when the histories of the places we study do not inflect our methods and our vocabularies.

    Finally, I’m struck by the idea that “prosperity,” the “man who eats well,” is necessarily capitalism. Capitalism is, in Althusser’s terms, a historically emergent social formation. It describes a historical emergence, not simply the transfer of goods or the accumulation of wealth.

  3. I agreed with your racialised notion of class (yes, Claude McKay’s poetry and his Home to Harlem are good on this) but what I’m trying to do is to investigate and historicise class in Africa. Class (formation and the experience) in the Caribbean of course, is very different from Africa. Race and skin tone were (and still are) important aspects of class and privilege in the West Indies.

    I think we should not based our view of class in Africa (and Asia) based solely on the Western model (and concept of class formation). There are social classifications prior to colonialism. Class played a very significant role in some African societies before and during the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. For example, there are stories of blue-blooded Africans who were given some privileges over ‘ordinary slaves’, and of course there’s the West African ‘prince’ who was taken to Britain as slave only for his master to realise that he was the son of his African merchant friend. The master then sold this slave back to his father.

    As you may have guessed I’m interested in how orature explain ‘class’ and how the western form of social class displayed the ‘traditional’ version of class. I also want us to see capitalism as not solely limited to, and originated in the West, but as a model that have variants in other parts of the world.

    The is a subject that is of deep interest to me and I hope we will continue to explore it further.

  4. As soon as I responded, I had another quick thought–which is linked to your response. I’m wondering about terms like “rank” or “status” and how they work with what I’m describing (polemically) as “traditional Marxist categories). When you mentioned the newly educated as part of an emergent middle class (and they were), I was thinking about what it meant to describe them in that way if seen along colonialism’s trajectory: colonialism educated (or wanted to educate) clerks. For the most part, we are not talking about shop owners or teachers or doctors. How, then, to think about the work of class/status re-orientation of colonialism as it is taken up after colonialism? And in the present?

    In Kenya, for instance, how to think about traditional councils of elders (who knew they still mattered?) alongside the newly created economic elite? Sometimes they overlap, but not always. Then things like patriarchy become really important ways to construct affiliation, even, I would argue, beyond ethnicity, at least in Kenya.

    All very fascinating, if way out of my expertise.

    Continue working, Shola! Look forward to reading the published versions.

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