Tuesday, 22 March 2016

A response to Aimé Césaire's 'Discourse on Colonialism'

Wairimu Muriithi

[Racism] feels crazy. It is crazy. And it has just as much of a deleterious effect on white people and possibly equal as it does black people.
—Toni Morrison, interview with Charie Rose (1993)

Originally written in 1950 before undergoing edits, Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism is a fiery, uncensored engagement with the history of colonialism and the cruel psyche of whiteness. It is easy, as I did, to give it raucous applause for the way in which he does not hold back his scathing commentary and cutting sarcasm; this applause is even necessary, because of its truth. It is, however, also an incredibly sobering essay, perhaps especially so after he reiterates that which many of us know intimately: “colonisation = ‘thing-ification’” (1955: 6).

            It could be argued that Césaire demonstrates a peculiar obsession—for his knowledge is extensive— with the physical and psychic violence carried out by European countries. Discourse is heavy with detail and specificity, including verbatim quotes from writers, philosophers, Christian leaders, historians, psychologists and scientists, and vivid descriptions that impart the horrors of colonialism and the calculated logic and efficiency it took to propagate them. These details in themselves are violent, but Césaire, in this brash manner, inadvertently does some very important work. He centres the humanity of Black and Brown people, surrounding it with this jarring narrative to emphasise the violence in which Otherness was steeped before this period in which many African countries were fighting for independence. He also carries out an important temporal exercise: the “sadistic governors and greedy bankers” (1955: 11)—who will doubtlessly be carried over from one era to the next—are just as evil and untrustworthy as the “venomous journalists [and] goitrous academicians” (1955: 11) he must have encountered, and we most certainly encounter today.

            What then, is he saying about the school of thought he so vociferously engages with? Consider the very important observation that Nazism only shocked the European imagination “because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples […]” (Césaire 1955: 3). Not only is Césaire insistent on seeing the humanity of those subjugated by colonialism, he is also insisting on a critical distinction. Whereas Black and Brown people may only have access to the memory of centuries of violent oppression, theirs is a history of violence. On the other hand, Europe (and, he is careful to include, the United States of America) is the actual history of violence—this essay is very careful to separate the agency of violence from the intimate experience of violence. In the way that Sartre traces the beginnings of anti-Semitism to Europe, Césaire identifies colonialism and/or imperialism as the agent that aggressively disrupted what was otherwise a history of communal, ante- and anti-capitalist, democratic, cooperative and fraternal societies (1955: 7).

            Césaire was not the first to make this distinction, and neither has he been the last, which is relevant to the temporal exercise mentioned above. Considering the tenacity with which Empire holds onto the (its) foundational narrative that things today are not as bad as they were ‘back then’, the Discourse is an important reference point for freedom fighters and world builders, all of whom operate within the framework of the [post-colonial/post-slavery] nation today. Making significant use of Marxist theory throughout the essay, Césaire states definitively “the nation is a bourgeois phenomenon” (1955: 22). The colonial borders that the imperialists left behind have only repeated the destruction that the Roman Empire did when it “undertook to conquer and destroy [these] groups of nations” (Quinet in Césaire 1955: 22); Césaire includes this information as if in foresight, and he was not wrong. For this reason, we can draw another conclusion: Europe’s and definitely the USA’s present—their ‘nowness’, so to speak—is that of violence.

            When Charlie Rose asked Toni Morrison how she feels about racism, Morrison answers, “That is the wrong question. How do you feel?” She then takes white supremacy to task, asking, “What are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Still smart? Do you like yourself?” By doing so, she recognises that if these qualities—goodness, strength, smartness and self-love—are informed by a complex historical hatred for the Other and an intense obsession with production and prosperity, then the possessor of these qualities suffers from a “profound neurosis that nobody examines for what it is.” This diagnosis, made in 1993, is not unlike the one made by Césaire in the 1950s that “a nation which colonises, […] a civilisation which justifies colonisation—and therefore force—is already a sick civilisation, a civilisation that is morally diseased…” (1956: 4, emphasis mine). This largely unchanged indictment offers a distillation of the widely used word, ‘history’—in this case, then, to be the history of violence is to be history consisting of a violent psyche, a violent moral code and a violent praxis. To say that this history has survived thus far to become the above-mentioned ‘nowness’ of violence is to recognise the persistence of a sickness so ingrained, Césaire has no consideration even for those [gentlemen] of good faith and intentions (1955: 12). The psyche, morals and praxis of colonialism have brought us the bourgeois state, so active on Empire’s globalised stage, we have today. 

            Discourse on Colonialism shoulders some very heavy labour, but it also casts horrific ridicule upon dominant European schools of thought. It is perhaps important, therefore, to think about how this ridicule is received by two main audiences: the oppressors and the oppressed. The former typically react with a righteous outrage, and sometimes even denial or whitewashed revisions of history; this is the sick psyche. The latter recognise and laugh, cathartically, at the sarcasm that translates gross acts of violence into stories that can be processed and cannot be forgotten, for the sake of the “new society that we must create” (Césaire 1955: 11) that includes, importantly, Black and Brown people’s history, which is a history of, among other things, “the fraternity of olden days” (1955: 11).

Works cited:
Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. Editions Presence Africaine, 1955.

Rose, Charlie. Interview with Toni Morrison, 1993. [Available on Youtube].