Finding joy in decolonising

Dr Flora Cornish reflects on a critical reading and dialogue group led by Dr Deanne Bell at the 2019 Festival of Community Psychology.

Taking part in a dialogue around Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism is unsettling, uncomfortable, indeed painful. The essay argues that colonialism brutalises and dehumanises the coloniser, as well as the colonised. To take part or be complicit in the physical and symbolic violence necessary to colonise entire peoples and landmasses, Césaire argues, is to be brutalised and paves the way to savagery, which ultimately came home to Europe in the form of Nazism. The essay is a work of political theory, but it is also very personal. Césaire calls on us to decolonise our minds as well as decolonising society. When we read on the first page ‘a civilisation that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a sick civilisation’ (p.31), this statement bites. As someone whose recent work looks at the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster, the slow and frustrating pace of change and the apparent willingness to forget, I can’t help hearing Césaire’s words, written in 1955, as very contemporary. Meanwhile Europe closes its eyes to deaths in the Mediterranean, and globally, governments close their eyes to climate emergency.

Confronting the mechanisms of colonisation, for those of us located in cities, institutions, professions and family histories whose contemporary positions of dominance derive from historical profit from colonised peoples, is difficult. Living or witnessing the enduring legacies of colonialism in ongoing racist discourse and racist social structures, the arrogant centring of legitimate knowledge in universities of the global North, the paternalism of development aid and ‘global health’ and ‘helping professions’, is infuriating, painful and frustrating. Confronting coloniality often seems a grim and thankless battle. But confronting coloniality is also a liberation, and liberation is a delight.

Deanne structured the reading group so that people took turns to read the text aloud. It is brilliantly, beautifully, and humorously written, and rewards a slow, attentive reading. Who could fail to chuckle, in a roomful of intellectuals attending a conference, on being advised that:
‘you will hold as enemies […] not only sadistic governors and greedy bankers, […] but likewise and for the same reason, venomous journalists, goitrous academics, wreathed in dollars and stupidity, ethnographers who go in for metaphysics, presumptuous Belgian theologians, chattering intellectuals born stinking out of the thigh of Nietzsche’ (p.54).

Decolonising is serious, and it is also fun. Liberation is joyous. Before the reading group, we were treated to a nourishing meal, in a comfortable theatre bar. The irrepressible rhythms and radical lyrics of Bob Marley and the Wailers greeted us as we found our seats, and warmed our post-reading group conversations. The text prompted wide-ranging discussions, linking decoloniality to our personal experiences and political imaginations, teaching us to think and feel differently.

I have been part of conversations where the brute force of colonial structures feels paralysing, emptying the decolonial impulse of its agency. But this is only half of the story. Learning to think differently is a win in itself. Liberation psychology is a longstanding tradition that offers ways of doing an anticolonial psychology (e.g. Martín-Baró, 1994; Watkins & Schulman, 2008). After the reading group, Deanne kindly linked me to Robert D.G. Kelley’s brilliant book Freedom Dreams (2002) which celebrates the absolutely concrete value of visions, imaginations and dreams of greater freedoms, and shows us that there is plenty to be done, and that doing it is a pleasure.

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