“Ness was too pretty to be a field nigger. That’s what Tom Allan said to her the day he’d taken her back to his plantation. He’d bought her on good faith from a friend of his in Jackson, Mississippi, who said she was one of the best field hands he’d ever seen.”
“’No such a thing as a free nigger.’ He walked slowly up to H, held the sharpened knife against his neck so that H could feel the cold, ridged edge of it, begging to break skin…[a] thin line of blood appeared, neat and straight as if to undermine the pit boss’s words, ‘He may be big but he’ll bleed like the rest of them.’”
It was on the occasion of the University of South Africa’s annual Decoloniality Summer School, a few years ago, when I listened to Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola presenting a lecture about the meaning of decoloniality and decolonisation as it relates to resisting against patriarchal systems, norms and institutions. She paused mid-lecture and began loosely paraphrasing Jacques Derrida; “He (Derrida) teaches us that reason and logic are absolute…in this discussion, I seek to interest you to the same type of thinking, but as regards freedom/liberation.” The essence of this particular aspect of Prof Gqola’s lecture was the absoluteness of freedom – that is to assert that there is no such a thing as half freedom or half liberation.
The meaning of freedom/liberation as absolute is a theme that I think a lot about as I read through Yaa Gyasi’s, Homegoing. In this offering, Gyasi tells a story about the 400/500-year episode of African people’s negotiation with settler-colonialism, slavery, migration, racism and the dehumanization of black people at the grandest scale possible.
Of course, freedom has meanings beyond absoluteness, as Joel Modiri (from his PhD thesis) explains: “I take this to mean that when freedom is achieved through or defined by the law, as when the Master declares to the Slave, “From now on you are free”, this cannot lead to genuine liberation since it signifies the abolition of neither the Master-Slave relation nor the slavish consciousness of Blacks that accompanies it. To be true to its name, freedom must have inscribed into its memory the cost of freedom, of struggle and – these are Fanon’s words – blood.”
In this brief exposition, I focus on linking Yaa Gyasi’s articulation of freedom as absolute with Pumla Gqola’s reading of Jacques Derrida.
In this historical fiction, Gyasi tells a story about two half-sisters, Effia and Essi. These two lead separate lifestyles, and are separated by life’s events. Effia, marries James Collins, the British governor who is at the helm of Cape Coast Castle, where Black people were enslaved, and shipped off to lands beyond the Atlantic. Her half-sister Esi is held captive in the dungeons below the Castle and resides with enslaved Black people, trapped underneath the castle, ready to be shipped off at any time. Subsequent chapters tell a story about Effia’s and Essi’s children, as well as the generations that come after them.
Gyasi’s storytelling is gripping, and laden with a strong critique of present-day society, particularly, its verbose racialized ordering, and the forgotten business of re-membering dismembered Black people. As you read about the sufferings of the Black enslaved in Homegoing, you cannot help but take a moment to reflect on the present sufferings of all Black people around the world – the women and children in Africa, who are subjected to varied forms of violence and incisions on their bodies, the Black men in the Caribbean, France, Belgium and elsewhere, who continue to be racially abused and othered by the societies they live in. The absoluteness of freedom, as teased out by Gyasi, is indeed in the same tune as the Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko dictums which says that regardless of where a Black man (person) goes, they remain Black. By this, Gyasi, Fanon, and Biko reveal to us that blackness is a marker that binds all Black people in the world and steeps them into the same pit of oppression.
The setting in Homegoing is instructive for a discussion about the absoluteness of freedom – the scene begins in the Gold Coast, Black people living peacefully (not without struggles though) in Ghanaian villages. The scene then shifts to the people’s first interaction with colonial contact, then to settler slavery, then to British influences (abolishment of slavery), and finally, to migration into cotton fields in the United States of America. In these scenes, that span over a period of 300 to 400 years, there are shades of differences that exist among Black people – the nuances in the spaces that they inhabit, the social status that they carry, their class position, and even their proximity to whiteness. All these differences among them seek to suggest that some are more free than others, but in the final analysis, and upon closer inspection, the truth is that all of them continue to be oppressed, regardless of these subtle shades of difference.
In the process of colonisation, slavery, and its related racist machinations, Yaa Gyasi presents three differences that created a cleavage amongst Black people, (1) At the instance of first colonial contact, she demonstrates a difference between the Asante and the Fante people of the Gold Coast. The difference was in respect to their respective collaboration/resistance to settler colonialism, (2) At the setting out to the cotton fields, she demonstrates differences between the field Negro and the house Negro, and (3) Towards the official abolishment of slavery in the United States of America, she demonstrates the differences between the “free man”, the slave, and the runaway slave.
The Fante people enjoyed rapport with white settlers because they collaborated with the colonial slave trade, whereas the Asante people were brutalized and incessantly killed by settlers because of their unrelenting resistance. As a result, the Asantes were kept in dark, inhumane and filthy dungeons in the Gold Coast Castle, whilst the Fantes worked as servants and servicemen – you’d imagine that this shade of difference makes the latter more free than the former, until you learn that even in their position of relative freedom, Fante women were still subjected to habitual rape and sexual objectifying by settlers – the men suffering similar atrocities as well.
The differences between the field Negro and the house Negro have been sufficiently theorised about. Perhaps less carefully discerned, are the purported differences between the enslaved, runaways, and the so-called “free man”. The latter are enslaved who attained “freedom” from slavery either through buying such freedom from their slave master, or migrating to those states where slavery had been abolished by legislation. With respect to the latter, Gyasi demonstrates that the “free man” is only free until he realizes that his escape from the plantation does not help him escape systemic racism.
Decoloniality helps us to understand that freedom is not freedom unless it is absolute. Specifically, decolonial theory calls for the re-membering of dismembered peoples, this means an action to re-humanize dehumanized peoples of the world, because decolonial theory appreciates that all forms of oppression thrive precisely because grand-dehumanization is their operative agent. Insisting on decolonisation is to radically seek for the return to humanity/botho/Ubuntu.
Decolonial theory provides a helpful lens for us to break and discern artificial/facile differences between Black people. Prevailing coloniality uses the same neo-colonial differences/markers among the colonised (such as the proverbial “emerging Black middle class”), thus sowing divisions and blurring the battle lines. To marry Gqola’s reading of Jacques Derrida with Yaa Gyasi’s sterling social critique allows us to appreciate decoloniality as a call to revolution and a call for the attainment of absolute freedom, in their truest sense. Such a freedom is a freedom for ALL oppressed people of the world – women, children, Black people, queers, the working class, and other forgotten and marginalised peoples.
Ntando Sindane, Assistant Nonfiction Editor at Decolonial Passage, teaches private law at the University of the Free State, South Africa. He is an activist for social justice, as well as economic and epistemic freedom. He writes for various popular South African media outlets and is Editor at Red Pen. His research interests include decolonisation, particularly in relation to the pedagogical framework of the intellectual property law curriculum in South African universities. His research critically analyses various decolonial and socialist methodologies when juxtaposed with human rights, the Constitution of South Africa as well as normative teaching methods. He holds the LLB and LLM degrees from the University of South Africa and is currently making preparations towards a PhD degree in Intellectual Property Law. His LLM dissertation is titled,“The Call to Decolonise Higher Education: Copyright Law Through an African Lens.” He can be found on twitter at https://twitter.com/uNtandoSindane