ENGL 481 A01: Studies in Empire and the Postcolonial

O. Okome

Race and African Literature in English (1)

When African writers emerged in the 1950s, the main goal was to begin the process of decolonizing the epistemology of colonialism and racism, and the texts they produced became primary means of challenging the order of colonial enterprise. While there were philosophical postulations that asserted the African person as culturally unique, re-reading European literature became an integral aspect of the larger scheme of decolonization from the 1950 onwards. Progress on this front was by no means uniform. Francophone Africa lagged behind, but the wind of change was nonetheless continent-wide. As the sun set on European empires in Africa and elsewhere in the colonial world, the implications of four hundred years of colonial enterprise laid bare graver personal and communal challenges for Africans in Africa and the African diasporas. Managing postcolonial psychosis became the crucial concern and part of the larger project of decolonization. African postcolonial criticism and theory emerged a little later, focusing on African elite literary texts as well as colonial texts that promoted the goals of colonialism and racism. Moving beyond iterations of constructed European racial superiority, writers such as Cheikh Amidou Kane, Chinua Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah and Wole Soyinka began the process of “literarily” rethinking the ravages of colonialism on the African personality. Mounting vigorous critiques of colonialism, these writers unpacked descriptions of the black body in European literary and anthropological texts, focusing on texts that circulated from the 16th century onwards. Of particular interest were popular texts by writers such as William Shakespeare, Edgar Wallace, Mary Kingsley and Sir Henry Rider Haggard, all of them adjudged canonical in English Studies. As Chinua Achebe once put it, encounters with one or all of these texts were more than assured for many who had the privilege of attending western-style University education. Why was racism inscribed as an integral item in popular European texts? Did the writers mentioned above, and many others like them, assumed their canonical status partly because of self-conscious iterations of black bodies? Beginning with the reading of selected examples of this category of texts, this class will explore and debate these questions, paying careful attention to their close reading and the cultural contexts of their production. How did African writers respond to these inscriptions of blackness?

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, London: Heinemann, 1958.
Wole Soyinka, Death and the King’s Horseman, New York: A Norton Critical Edition, 2003.
JM Coetzee, Disgrace, New York: Random House, 1999.
Athol Fugard, Master Harold and... the Boys, New York: Penguin Books, 1982.
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Edgar Wallace, Sanders of the River. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1971.
Elleke Boehmer, Colonial and Postcolonial Literature (2nd edition), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Terence Ranger, “Empires of Imagination: Ridder Haggard, Popular Fiction and Africa,” Writing and Africa (ed.), 1997: 103-121
Lindy Stiebel, “Imagining Land in Sir Ridder Haggard African Romance,” Alternation, 5/2, 1998, pp 91-103 (http://alternation.ukzn.ac.za/Files/docs/05.2/09%20Sti.pdf)

*Please do kindly note that there is the strong possibility that the texts listed above and the content of this course might change slightly in the future.


(1) The texts mentioned here are only provisional. A substantive list of texts will be provided during the first week of class. Students are encouraged not to purchase text until the first week of class.