Trauma of Colonialism: A Deconstructionist Study of African Literature

by Annu Yadav
Copyright © Annu Yadav 2014

- March 2014 -

Trauma is "a wound inflicted not upon the body but upon the mind" whereby "knowing and not knowing are entangled in the language of trauma" (Freud, qtd in Wolfreys's Trauma, Testimony, and Criticism).

Freud's celebrated statement regarding trauma effectively demonstrates breathe like presence of painful memories of African people about their colonial experience. African literature is a testimony or textual record of these memories. With the sense of craving for pre-colonial Africa, African writers such as Frantz Fanon, Nagugi Wa Thiang'O, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer, Christopher Okigbo, Gabriel Okara, David Rubadiri, Noemia De Sousa, and David Diop etc.; have depicted wrongs of colonialism. According to them, before the arrival of colonizers, African people had been living their pagan life happily. There were not big socio-political or religious differences among them. Despite illiteracy and technological backwardness they were in tune with nature (Okara). They were optimistic about their future on the basis of unity and natural resources. They were too sure of their prosperity to understand blackness of hearts of white colonizers at first instance. That's why they allowed the colonizers to trade in Africa.

This simplicity of Africans inspired the white men to dominate Africans through mysterious strategies without making them realize that they are being colonized. Very soon, they acquired knowledge of African culture and society by interacting with Africans. They found that the only way to have power on black natives was turning their mentality in favor of "Whiteman's burden" (Kipling). They became friends with natives through establishing schools, industries, hospitals, transportation etc. They prophesized that they had come to Africa, to do "the real work" (Kincaid) i.e. to civilize: "uncivilized, irrational, inhuman, or barbaric;" Africans. The new spell of education and rapid materialistic affluence of Westerners initiated ambitions in Africans. Gradually, the recently emerged Europhon started celebration of superiority of Westerners as if they were "Angels from the realm" (Kincaid). But, greed and superiority complex of Whiteman surfaced itself. Consequently, the earlier established centre (Africa) lost its power in hands of colonizers. Colonizers now claimed themselves to be creators and the towering centre of Africans who have to advocate centre for their power, knowledge and space in the human world, otherwise they will be just "savage" (Fanon). African writers have aptly discussed this theme of how bright looking white men distorted African life, history, culture, nature and social scenario. In the course, they imposed their own religion (Christianity), language (English) and literature. They represented biased picture of Africa as a "dark place" (Joseph Conrad) where there are unnecessary mysteries, beliefs, traditions or myths.

Nevertheless the problem was that only Europhones accepted superiority of the West while other natives were not ready to tolerate any kind of encroachment on their beliefs, traditions or rituals. Because they believed that "white man know Africa just from outsider's point of view. So how can the white men say what is right or wrong for Africans?" (Soyinka). Along with Westeners' cruelty, African Europhons' negation made them feel "exiled at home" (Ashis Nandy, Exiled at Home).

In this way, colonializers' policy of "Divide & Rule" helped them to eradicate possibility of collective protest on the part of colonized ones. Their cruelty and inhumanity crossed the limits. They enslaved Africans and bargained them as if they were "objects" (Fanon). Apartheid worsened the conditions.

Finding no other way out, African natives took the same tools (of colonizers) including English language and literature, to protest against colonialism. They started "writing against the grain" (Bhabha). They exposed real picture of Africa along with satirizing Western scholars for their partial & wrong portrayal of Africa. Eminent writers of this stream comprise Chinua Achebe, and Frantz Fanon. They exhorted Africans for creating national identity or history in present as well as pre-colonial context. They sang glory of African past in order to lead natives against colonizers. Western literature like that of William Shakespeare (e.g. The Tempest) also inspired Africans to take benefit of "slipperiness of language" (T. S. Eliot). Thus, during decolonization paradigm of power started its move towards colonial periphery i.e. Africans.

There have been writers like Fanon who asked Africans to live with memories of pre-colonial Africa without having a single trace of colonialism. He doesn't want that his people should be indulged merely in bitterness against colonialism and so to underestimate their present status. Rather they should revive their pre colonial history to assert their existence, because history is a strong proof of anything (Mamang Dai). But, the reality is that during the process of reclamation of pre-colonial history, colonial traumatic experience is re-lived even by the writer himself either consciously or unconsciously.

Once again, in postcolonial period African literature has been branched in different centers of viewing Africa. African writers who reiterate de-colonial feelings in their writings, they themselves prefer English language to mouth Africa at international level. Hence, absence of colonialism subtly finds its place of presence in their writings.

Moreover, for others every heart deep feeling cannot be voiced in foreign language. These writers criticize their own fellows (Achebe, Diop, Rubadiri, etc.) who write in English. Accordingly, a new type of discourse about language vs feelings has come into view. Each text of Africans or about Africa has been or is open to various interpretations both from Africans as well as outside scholars. Like this, in deconstructionists' term, colonialism is at the centre despite being out of the phenomenon. To exemplify this statement, one can adequately refer David Rubadiri's "A Negro Labourer in Liverpool", Gabriel Okara's "The Mystic Drum", Noemia De Sousa's "If You Want to Know Me", David Diop's "Africa", Frantz Fanon's "Fact of Blackness" & "On National Culture"; all of these "criticize and reject colonialism but before doing so they elaborate what colonialism actually is" (Derrida).

To conclude, Chinua Achebe's account can be recalled here: "Today, things have changed a lot, but it would be foolish to pretend that we have fully recovered from the traumatic effects of our first confrontation with Europe (Chinua Achebe qtd. by Lamas Rodrigues).

In short, "screams of colonialism are somehow echoing" (Michelle Lynn Brown).

Works cited

Brown, Michelle Lynn. Screams Somehow Echoing: Trauma and Testimony in Anglophone African Literature, Ph.D. thesis, 2008. Available at:

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Ed. Sumanyu Satpathy. Delhi: Worldview, 2006. Print.

Dai, Mamang. An Obscure Place.

De Sousa, Noemia. If You Want to Know Me. An Anthology of Commonwealth Poetry. Delhi: Macmillan, (1990) 2000. Print.

Diop, David. Africa. An Anthology of Commonwealth Poetry. Delhi: Macmillan, (1990) 2000. Print.

Eliot, T. S., qtd. T. S. Eliot and the Art of Collaboration. Ed. Richard Badenhausen. New York: Cambridge UP, 2004. Net.

Fanon, Frantz. Fact of Blackness. Black Skin White Masks. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2008. Print.

Kincaid, Jamaica. A Small Place. Delhi: Macmillan, (1998) 2000. Print.

Kipling, Joseph Rudyard. White Man's Burden. Modern History Sourcebook. New York: Paul Halsal, 1997. Net.

Nandy, Ashis. Exiled at Home. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.

Okara, Gabriel. The Mystic Drum. An Anthology of Commonwealth Poetry. Delhi: Macmillan, (1990) 2000. Print.

Rodrigues, Angela Lamas. The Trauma of a Diminished Existence: Chinua Achebe Revisited. Postcolonial Text, Vol 3, Issue 4 (2007). Web. Available at:

Rubadiri, David. A Negro Labourer in Liverpool. An Anthology of Commonwealth Poetry. Delhi: Macmillan, (1990) 2000. Print.

Soyinka, Wole. Theatre in African Traditional Cultures: Survival Patterns. The Twentieth Century Performance Reader. Ed. Teresa Brayshaw, and Noel Witts. New York: Routeledge, 2013. Print.

Wolfreys, Julian. Trauma, Testimony, Criticism. Introducing Criticism at the 21st Century. Ed. Julian Wolfreys. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2002. Print.

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