How Writing Against Empire Helps Heal Its Enduring Wounds
Tsitsi Dangarembga on the Brutal Legacy of Colonial Conquest
The first wound for all of us who are classified as “black” is empire. This is a truth many of us—whether we are included in that category or not—prefer to avoid. Today, the wounding empire is that of the Western nations: the empire that covered more than 80 per cent of the globe at its zenith in the nineteenth century. It includes the British empire that colonized my country Zimbabwe in the 1890s. I was born into empire: my parents were products of empire, as were their parents before them, and their parents before that, my great-grandparents.
A major, early objective of empire was what it called “trade.” Trade is premised on desire. Desire without love dwindles into lust, and empires, being impersonal, cannot love. Lust—impersonal desire that demands satisfaction—is dangerous at every level: the personal, the social, the global. Imperial lust has wounded every part of the world that empire touched, and today we know it has wounded the very planet that is our home.
Thus has empire mutilated not only those it sought to subjugate, but also itself. This is the second wound that affects us all. We are yet to learn how to heal from the effects of an institution that stretches back into the time before we were born, but whose systems still work to disempower, dispirit and dismember. How this can be done is a question very few dare to ask because, quite apart from not knowing the answer, it often seems there is none.
Toni Morrison described certain horrors experienced by some of humankind as unspeakable, but today those subjugated by empire speak. This speaking exposes imperial systems and strategies whose purpose has long been to hide the effects of race in the world. While black people lead in that area of scholarship and activism, others, including white men, though they may kick and scream, are prodded to discuss the world’s racialization. Those who, like me, were wounded by the hubris of whiteness no longer say, “I hurt,” and self-medicate in self-destructive ways, or act out a ruinous, enraged and bitter pain on our communities, as that hubris demanded.
Today we say, “You hurt me,” words that point not to the abjection and death that follow relentless self-mutilation, but to the possibility of removing oneself from the one who hurts, and thereafter transforming oneself into someone the one who hurts can no longer dismember.
“Look!” we who are black or brown are frequently admonished, now that that which was unspeakable is finally being spoken; “Why do you speak of damage? Here are the roads, the hospitals. You can read and write; you have medicines. How can you speak of damage?”
Even before any black or brown person was assimilated into the academic systems of imperial education, and before spaces had evolved in empire where these questions could be asked, we had an answer. We said, “We feel it.”
In Steve McQueen’s 2013 biographical film Twelve Years a Slave, Patsey is an African-descent woman enslaved on a plantation owned by Edwin Epps. At her arrival she is in visible grief at being separated from her children. Mrs. Epps orders Patsey be given something to eat to hasten her forgetting. Patsey’s grief is an intense statement that screams, “I feel it.” To Mrs. Epps, Patsey’s grief is simply another instance of meaningless dysphoria amongst household creatures to be dealt with like onion peelings that have fallen to the floor, or dust that settles under the bed: it must be swept away. Patsey’s statement of affect is ignored.
Empire could not bear to hear our screams because it knew it caused them. On the one hand, our expressions of pain are our proof of our living, proclaiming that we are hurting but still breathing. This is why there is a saying in Zimbabwe, chikuru kufema—”the big thing is to breathe.” That which is dead does not feel. We are not dead while we protest. On the other hand, our expressions of pain are a direct threat to the systems of Western empire that rely on the illusion of giving, to obtain for itself the best that it covets in the domain of other people. Our expressions of pain say, “This is not a gift.”
Healing is weaving, a knitting together and reintegration of the parts that were mangled and crippled. Weaving of words—and through this process, reweaving time, action and reaction into a new whole—makes writing back against empire a site of potential for healing. Some writing raises a scar, puffy, often suppurating, over the damage. The best writing opens the lesion again and again and cleanses. Here the trauma subsides with each set of words, sentences, paragraphs and pages. The rawness is transformed into something that in a certain light looks like skin that was never lacerated. What is done is done. Such transformation is our best option in this era.
The ravages of empire stretch further in time and space than we usually care to imagine. Tales of enslavement of African people by European slave traders are common, hurtful knowledge today. We have heard of the atrocities practiced on black bodies that disembarked on the eastern coasts of the Americas. The history of the transatlantic slave trade is the history of empire, thus it is preserved and increasingly known. So central to empire was human-trafficking in black bodies that its officials kept meticulous records of the human beings it trafficked.
On the other hand, much less is known of the destruction this human-trafficking inflicted within the homes, communities and polities from which black bodies were coerced against their will into enslavement. Generations mangled by slavery exist on the Atlantic Ocean’s east coast as well as on the shores of the Americas. The African continent lost large numbers of its population due to the transatlantic slave trade. The figure is estimated at 13 million of the continent’s people. Imagine the whole of Sweden’s population kidnapped. Or Greece’s. Or Portugal’s. Then add Slovenia or Latvia. The people ripped from their families for the purposes of unpaid labor in the Americas were amongst the strongest and most able-bodied individuals in their communities. They were people sturdy and healthy enough to stand a good chance of surviving a perilous journey to the slave ports on the African coast.
Following that, they would need to withstand passage across the ocean in deplorable conditions, while retaining the capacity to work on arrival in the Americas. Brain drain, the emigration of significant numbers of numerate, literate people from a population to work in the globe’s north-western quarter of the world took place in the last century and a half. During four centuries of transatlantic slave trade, bodies were drained from Africa. This drainage of the human population had disastrous effects on the continent’s agrarian communities. That the less able left behind were unable to make up for the deficit amplified the effects of the catastrophe.
The systems of the slave trade worked to destroy local structures of government and social cohesion. Slave traders operated like warlords, as a law unto themselves. This disrupted existing institutions of law and order. Incentives put in place by slave traders, such as opportunities to redeem relatives sold into slavery by producing two slaves in exchange, perverted local ideas of morality and ethics.
Families on both sides of the Atlantic felt the agonies of rupture. Families and communities on the African coast and in its hinterland suffered the instability that comes with loss of group members. Nations experienced the trauma that accompanies assault on communities, families and individuals. Regions contended with the instability that results from ceaseless attack by hostile forces.
The wounds of empire to my part of the world—Southern Africa—are peculiar because they came clothed as presents. Melanated people—as we black people increasingly call ourselves—were offered the gift of modesty through clothing, the gift of knowledge through education, the gift of salvation through religion. Then there was the gift of knowledge of crime and punishment through legal systems, and the gift of speech through the colonizer’s language. Each of these gifts took away something: local ideas of modesty and propriety, local knowledge systems, metaphysical and legal systems, and language. The gifts of the north-western empire to Africa were some of the most violent ones the world has known.
Such violent ‘gifts’ are typical of empires, not only of the Western version. The history of Ireland tells us how such imperial gifts were bestowed on white people too, in the north-west quarter of the globe, by people whose epidermis contained just as little melanin, so that the colonizer’s skin color was essentially the same hue as that of the people colonized. Empire is about power, appropriation, expropriation, and often extermination, regardless of physiology. The melanin concentration in the skin of black people was and is a convenience.
It justified our ongoing subjugation even as human rights discourse germinated in the halls of world power in the United States of America, in the late 1940s, from whence it was exported to the rest of the world, just as colonial violence had been exported centuries earlier. The effect of both colonization and human rights discourse is similar. Both make black people recipients of an imperial discourse that categorizes us as wanting, and thus requiring punishment and disparagement. In its execution, the punishment is disguised as saving. We are being punished, essentially for existing and having land and resources that less melanated people would like to have, but we are not silent.
Over the centuries, Europeans gradually subjected Africa to other uses, rather than regarding the continent as merely a source of unpaid human labor. The land from which black bodies were stolen had not initially been seen as important in itself by empire. The value of the African land mass to empire lay at first in its being a source of black-embodied labor power for Western imperial agricultural industries, practiced through the slave trade. The idea that the land itself was valuable developed slowly.
In Southern Africa, the Dutch started a settlement, which would become Cape Town, as a refreshment outpost on its trade route between Holland and its colony in Indonesia as early as 1652. This was a decade after the Netherlands overtook the Portuguese as the biggest African slave-trading nation, following Portuguese instigation of the practice in 1510. Although the Dutch and other Europeans began to encroach on the land occupied by Khoi-San and Bantu people immediately, frontier wars through which the Europeans wrested the land from the first nations only began over a century later in 1779. It took the Europeans another century to subdue the people of Southern Africa’s coastal lands, so fierce was the resistance.
Another hundred years and more elapsed before Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Charter Company’s (BSACC’s) private army, of five hundred men, armed with machine guns and other weapons, raised the British flag at the place that is present-day Harare, to annex the land for the British empire. Colonial rule was practiced through a brutal private property-based and racially exclusive patriarchy. Black men were once again valued for their labor potential in the new colonial dispensation. Now, in the days after the abolition of slavery, this labor was coerced and the remuneration for the labor was always unfair, weighted by the colonizers in their favor. The colonizers saw women and children as useless appendages to men, and grouped them together as minors before the law.
These are the wounds that burst open as I write. The force that propels my narrative through the damage is the hope not to be consumed, not to have my being rotted away, by the trauma. I write to raise mountains, hills, escarpments and rocky outcrops over the gouges in my history, my societies and their attendant spirits. The tears of the process water bushes and trees so that their roots may do the work of holding together that which was pulled violently apart. Through writing, I cultivate my being to bring forth forests that replenish our depleted humanity.
Excerpted from Black and Female: Essays by Tsitsi Dangarembga. Copyright © 2023. Available from Graywolf Press.