Rewrite the English department: Lessons in radical decolonisation
Can we reimagine the world of literatures in English in a way that puts historically marginalised voices at the centre?
Cornell University, an elite Ivy League institution in upstate New York, made history in early September when its English department became the first in the United States to change its name to reflect the global diversity of those writing in the English language.
Staff at the department voted overwhelmingly to change “English Literature” to “Literatures in English” – a symbolic shift away from an overwhelming focus on England.
Carole Boyce Davies, professor of English and Africana Studies, hailed it as a landmark moment in the decolonisation of English literature.
She said English departments were often like “colonial relics stuck in time”, retaining a formidable streak of eurocentrism, a legacy of the discipline’s central role in Britain’s so-called “civilising mission”.
Boyce Davies jointly proposed the move in response to the slaying of George Floyd, whose death at the hands of policemen in Minneapolis in May provoked a global groundswell of protest, as well as a wider reckoning about the continued reverberations of white supremacy and empire.
The racism that led to Floyd’s death was forged in the academy, she said.
“As academics we are responsible for maintaining the order of knowledge and then transferring this to students who then go out into society.
“Whether they go onto Wall Street or into advertising, become politicians, run election campaigns or enter the police force, they reproduce what we teach them. It’s a vicious cycle,” she added.
Set among the evergreens and towering waterfalls of Ithaca, Cornell has a long history of social activism. Its founding principle that “any person can find instruction in any study”, meant that it was one of the few universities in the 19th century to admit both male and female Black students. In 1969, after a student occupation, it became the first to introduce Africana studies – the study of Africa and the diaspora.
Just more than 10 years before that, Toni Morrison, the African American novelist and Nobel Laureate, graduated from its English department. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the recently deceased supreme court judge graduated from Cornell in the 1950s and was taught there by American-Russian novelist Vladimir Nobokov.
Mukoma wa Ngugi, a Cornell English professor and novelist, said it was a sign the “marginalised could no longer be ignored”. But he added there was still work to be done to create diversity in the field and across the university.
Cornell’s decision has also been welcomed by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Kenyan literary colossus. Ngugi, who is often tipped to win the Nobel Prize in literature, told Al Jazeera the renaming “opens up to more literary streams in their own right, not just under the umbrella of English literature”.
“I hope other universities follow suit,” he said.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the start of a movement
Ngugi’s intervention is notable. Not only because Mukoma, who co-sponsored the proposal, is his son. But also because he himself launched the movement to decolonise English literature at a university in Kenya more than 50 years ago.
Ngugi first encountered English literature when, as a teenager at school, colonial authorities suddenly imposed English as the sole language of instruction.
It was 1952, and the British had just declared a state of emergency to deal with the Mau Mau uprising, a native anti-colonial insurrection that was met with a sprawl of barbed wire gulags, extreme methods of torture, and the dropping of millions of bombs.
Up until then, Ngugi, who grew up in a large peasant family in rural Kenya, knew only his mother tongue, Gikuyu.
He recalled spending evenings by the fireside, as Gikuyu storytellers imparted local wisdom, recounting traditional tales of hares, lions and hyenas, creatures that inhabited his natural surroundings.
But the new school rules meant those caught speaking Gikuyu were caned or humiliatingly, made to wear a metal plate around their neck with inscriptions such as “I AM STUPID”.
Meanwhile, achievement in English went highly rewarded. Its mastery was essential to ascending colonial Kenya’s steep educational pyramid.
Kenya had become part of the British Empire shortly after the 1884 Berlin Conference, when European powers carved the continent up between them, creating linguistic and cultural spheres of influence.
Once territory had been seized and political dictatorships enforced, the minds of the colonised became the new frontier. The British set about trying to create a privileged but compliant native vanguard, servants of the empire who would ensure the free flow of tea from Kenya, gold from South Africa, and cotton from India.
The images children encountered in literature were reinforced by their study of geography and history, and science and technology, where Europe was, once again, the centre. This, in turn, fitted well with the cultural imperatives of British imperialism.
The need for this was crudely summed up by Robert Babington Macaulay, a British politician serving in colonial India. In 1835, Macaulay called for the introduction of English-language education in India to produce “a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” who could, in turn, transmit Western learning to the masses in the local Indian languages.
His vision rested as much on elevating and universalising English culture as it did on the denigration and dismissal of native ones. “A single shelf of a good European Library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia,” Macaulay boasted, despite having no knowledge of Sanskrit and Arabic, the two languages that held pride of place, respectively, among India’s predominantly Hindu and Muslim population.
Rooted mainly in oral traditions, Africans’ cultures were quickly overlooked. Instead, it was taken for granted that English culture was theirs.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s tales of merry pilgrims in the medieval English countryside were now to be imagined, it seemed, as taking place in mid-20th century rural Kenya, dotted with villages and where elephants and wildebeest grazed; while the tea-drinking English ladies of Jane Austen’s novels were presumably to be found in the gossiping women of the African village – perhaps the same ones who worked to cultivate the tea they drank.
Then there were the books that portrayed Africans themselves, that played on European stereotypes or were outright racist.
Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist, charged novelist Joseph Conrad with being a “thoroughgoing racist” for his depiction of Africans in his widely influential 1902 novel Heart of Darkness, which tells of a voyage up the Congo river, into the heart of territory the Belgians held with brute force.
In one passage, Conrad describes emaciated Black slaves working the ivory trade as “a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping”, just one example among many, Achebe said, of him denying Africans “human expression”.
Conrad, Achebe argued, depicted Africa as “the other world” and “the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization”.
Ngugi, in his 1984 classic, Decolonising the Mind, argued that the imposition of English caused alienation.
“Since culture is a product of the history of a people which it in turn reflects, the child was now being exposed exclusively to a culture that was a product of a world external to himself. He was being made to stand outside himself to look at himself.
“The images children encountered in literature were reinforced by their study of geography and history, and science and technology, where Europe was, once again, the centre. This, in turn, fitted well with the cultural imperatives of British imperialism.”
Writing back to Empire
In 1959, Ngugi left for Uganda, then also a British colony, to study English at Makerere University, the only university in East Africa. It was one of several institutions the British had established in the colonies to manufacture scholars steeped in its values who could serve imperial interests.
But nationalist fervour was gripping the continent, and what emerged instead were writers and thinkers who began to challenge English cultural hegemony.
While Europe had written Africa off, novelists like Achebe – a graduate from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria – began to write back to Europe. That is, they attempted to rescue and narrate an African past that could subvert Western representations.
Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else's? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling. But for me, there is no other choice. I have been given the language and I intend to use it.
Responding to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Achebe, in his debut 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart, detailed the intricacies of daily life in a pre-colonial Nigerian village, embedded words from his native Igbo tongue, and presented the British colonial imposition as marking the destruction – and not the start – of a cherished way of life.
But “writing back to Europe” involved writing in European languages, over the heads and beyond the comprehension of the vast majority of Africans. Did this confront or uphold Empire? Given the wealth of existing African languages, could such writing even be considered African literature?
These were some of the questions posed at A Conference of African Writers of English Expression, a landmark meeting of Africa’s budding literati at Makerere University in June 1962.
Ngugi, still a student at the university, attended so he could hand Achebe a copy of a manuscript of his novel Weep Not Child. It would later be published as part of Heinemann’s hugely successful African Writers Series.
The proceedings at Makerere were shot through with uncertainty at the lingering effects of colonialism in the emerging post-colonial world.
Achebe, summarising his position at Makerere years later, pondered: “Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else’s? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling. But for me, there is no other choice. I have been given the language and I intend to use it.”
The great Nairobi literature debate
Obi Wali, a Nigerian critic, urged attendees to write in their local languages and “not play to the gallery of international fame”.
“Until these writers and their Western midwives accept the fact that any true African literature must be written in African languages, they are merely pursuing a dead end, which can only lead to sterility, uncreativity and frustration,” he wrote in Transitions magazine, one of the most influential pan-African publications of the day.
Later, Ngugi would take up Wali’s position, noting that writers working in local languages were excluded from Makerere.
Cornell’s decision harks back to the decolonisation debates at East African universities that raged through the 1960s. Reformers at Makerere University – dubbed the “Harvard of East Africa” – pushed to diversify the teaching body. At the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, a group of scholars led by Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, wanted to tear down the rigid borders governing each academic discipline.
At the University of Nairobi, where Ngugi worked, a letter from the head of the English department to staff, in September 1968, started a storm. Proposing modest reforms, Dr James Stewart praised the department’s syllabus for its strength in studying the “historic continuity of a single culture throughout the period of the modern west”.
Ngugi and two colleagues wrote a letter in response, questioning the underlying assumption that the English tradition was the sole source of Africa’s cultural heritage and rejecting the implication that Africa was an extension of the West.
If there was a need to study a “single culture”, they asked: “Why can’t African literature be at the centre so that we can view other cultures in relationship to it?”
We don’t hate English literature, we like it, but we also like African literature - it is a matter of how we organise the relationship between the two. The colonial system wanted to make English literature our centre. We said no, Africa can be the centre also.
The Great Nairobi literature debate, as it has come to be known, was less about if African literature should be taught as about where it sat on the literary map, Ngugi told Al Jazeera.
“So what we said is we don’t hate English literature, we like it, but we also like African literature – it is a matter of how we organise the relationship between the two. The colonial system wanted to make English literature our centre. We said no, Africa can be the centre also.
“We said let’s place African literature at the centre, then after that the related Caribbean and African-American literature. Then South Asian literature and Latin American literature. Then European literature. It’s about placing it in its proper place in relation to us.”
It took until the following year for the university to agree to a newly decolonised “Literature department” with a new syllabus that started in African oral traditions and literature and ended in the Western canon.
Other universities on the continent followed suit, in a powerful show of African cultural independence. The publication of Ngugi’s seminal text, On the Abolition of the English department in 1974, helped to fan his ideas further.
Beyond the language of the oppressor
In the 50 years between the Nairobi debate and Cornell’s move, Ngugi has also taken the decolonisation debate in new directions.
As the promise of African independence gave way in the 1960s and 1970s to military dictatorship and civil war, Ngugi was among a handful of literary heavyweights to find themselves behind bars for their writing and activism. He emerged in 1978 after more than a year in prison clutching scraps of toilet paper on which was written a new novel in his native Gikuyu. And he has not written a novel in English since.
He has become a strong advocate for writing in Indigenous languages, and delivered in Gikuyu his acceptance speech on receiving the Catalonia International Prize in September.
Today he is adamant that writing in English by Africans should be called “Europhone African literature”. To call such work African literature amounts to “identity theft”, he said.
There is a real tendency, even when you’re claiming to be decolonising and diversifying to keep the centre unchanged and then shovel all the non-British literature into one big grab bag called world literature.
Mukoma, who has written his crime novels and poetry in English would fall into the “Europhone” category. But even he “mourns” the steady erosion of African languages by English, something which he says has led to possessing a “truncated imagination”.
Still, he is the co-founder of the Swahili Mabati-Cornell prize, which recognises writing in African languages as well as translation between African languages. It is based at Cornell University.
However, Ngugi’s decision to abandon English did nothing to hinder the spread of his ideas. By that point they had already crossed the Atlantic – decades before they would be taken up at Cornell.
Global calls for decolonised curriculums
In the Caribbean, in the 1970s, Ngugi’s ideas fed into debates about the place of art forms and languages suppressed during colonialism. It came as writers from the islands – like their African counterparts – found their voice, with George Lamming and future Nobel laureates VS Naipaul and Dereck Walcott attracting global acclaim.
At the University of the West Indies, the decolonisation of English began with the introduction of African and then Caribbean literatures, a process spurred on when a senior university official heard Ngugi speak in Kenya in the mid-1970s. Then came courses on the region’s oral traditions followed by research into calypso and reggae.
In the early 1990s, the university’s flagship Jamaica campus renamed its English department to one of “Literatures in English” – as Cornell would later do.
“It was part of a wider discourse about decolonising the curriculum,” said Professor Carolyn Cooper, who joined the literature department as a lecturer in 1980.
Cooper, who writes a newspaper column in the Jamaican language and is the founder of the university’s Reggae Studies unit, said Ngugi’s emphasis on overcoming “mental slavery” had been an influence on her own work.
Moreover, Cornell’s decision should also be seen in light of more recent demands for decolonisation coming from students born long after the formal end of colonialism, in countries where the decolonisation process has stalled or even soured. They have expanded the terms of the decolonisation debate, and through the use of social media, sparked global conversations.
Over the past 10 years, Makerere University, the Ugandan university where Ngugi studied, has seen several protests and strikes over fee increases which have led to arrests and the use of police violence. The university was temporarily shut down in 2016.
In 2015, the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which was originally directed at the removal of a statue of arch-colonialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, grew into a wider campaign about the persistence of white supremacy in South Africa and has since spread to the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.
Earlier this year, Cornell agreed to student demands – made in the wake of the killing of George Floyd – to open a research centre on anti-racism. Students there have further called for decolonised curriculums and the hiring of more faculty of colour. a sign the name change is reverberating through the institution.
They have also pointed to the university’s own complicity in colonialism, arguing that its main Ithaca campus is built on territory belonging to Indigenous Americans.
The price of Cornell’s founding vision of equal educational opportunity, students wrote in September, “was the legacy of forcible Indigenous dispossession and African enslavement, compounded by increasing imperialist expansion and interventionism in the Americas and beyond”.
A grab-bag of ‘world literature’
Priyamvada Gopal, professor of English literature at the University of Cambridge in the UK, said “a critical mass” of students had successfully made demands to decolonise Cambridge’s literature curriculum.
It is a sign that, remarkably, Ngugi’s ideas have come full circle, gate-crashing the stately halls of what for centuries was the intellectual nerve centre of the British Empire.
Gopal, who teaches Ngugi to her students, said the recent admission of more students of colour, particularly Black students, had been a factor, but white students had also made demands. “A lot of white students are conscious of issues in a way that the previous generations weren’t,” she said.
But while there was now a “greater scope” to teach non-European literature, the curriculum was still staunchly “Anglo-centric”.
“There is a real tendency, even when you’re claiming to be decolonising and diversifying to keep the centre unchanged and then shovel all the non-British literature into one big grab bag called world literature.”
Gopal, who graduated from Cornell’s English department in 2000, said Ngugi’s influence on her had been “quite huge”, which was partly why she incorporated local Indian languages into her thesis on postcolonial literature.
“I teach him regularly. There is something to be said for the abolition of the English department as an English department.”
Gopal said Cornell’s move was “a good direction to go in” but she would like to see things go in a “more radical direction”, where literature departments no longer needed to define themselves by any particular language.
“Ngugi was actually saying we need to learn the language of the peasantry and they’re not speaking in English,” she said.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o, added: “If you know all the languages of the world, and you don’t know your mother tongue or the language of your culture, that is enslavement. But if you know your mother tongue or the language of your culture and then you add all the other languages to it, that is empowerment.”