Decolonize History - What Lives On?
I attended school in both the United States and South Africa. This was the school year breakdown between the two countries:
United States - Preschool, Elementary Grades: 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 Bachelors, Masters,
South Africa - Primary Grades: 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, High School Grades: 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, Culinary School,
(South Africa and The United States do not have the same school calendar year and as such there were times with my moving back and forth that I did an extra half-year of few grades.)
It was very interesting looking back on what each school, teacher/professor, and country dictated and showcase historically is/was important. Important enough to be taught. Important enough to be in the curriculum. Important enough to be expected to be memorized.
The curriculums I was exposed to focus on Western history and the “achievements” and “wins” of the colonizer. It is evident that white supremacy and white nationalism’s racial and civilizational hierarchy informed a lot of thinking about how the world worked, what was worth studying in it and how it should be studied. This thinking allowed the justification of the expansion of colonial rule in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East until the mid-20th century.
Envision a detective at a crime scene, immobile, refusing to move, failing to assess the scene from different perspectives, interviewing only a few witnesses, while ignoring others. When the detective does finally talk to some of the others they ask them to corroborate the evidence already received, not caring for them to give their own account of what has happened.
Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o in his 1986 book, Decolonising the Mind, wrote about the pervasiveness of European indoctrination. The book highlights the language of the colonizer, which was forced on Africans and affected every aspect of life. “African children in colonial schools and universities,” he wrote, learned “the world as defined and reflected in the European experience of history. Their entire way of looking at the world…was Eurocentric. Europe was the center of the universe.”
I very recent example of this for me was in school learning about J. Marion Sims, the "Father of Gynecology" honored for developing a lot of the practices that we use and modern medicine. But what is left out of most history books is that Simmons perfected, his ideas on gynecology on enslaved black women. There were many women; The ones whose names we know are Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey.
He used their bodies, whilst they were alive and awake and in pain and screaming. He felt entitled to that bodies because he didn't think they were human because to him, what was the price of a black woman's body. He then used the practices on white women but gave them painkillers or anesthetic a courteous not expended to the black women had experimented on. To Simmons Black people and Black women, in particular, had a higher pain threshold that because which is an that's an idea that still lives on today. In the United States, Black patients are sixty-six percent less likely to receive nerve pain treatment compared to their white counterparts, even when they describe similar levels of pain. AND DO NOT GET ME STARTED ON MATERNITY MORTALITY RATES IN BLACK WOMEN. So those ideas are still influencing our medical practices today, because of one white man's work and the idea that pain isn't valued the same when it comes from a Black person or Brown person, that he was deemed to be undesirable from the rest.
The result of this complete dismissal and subhumanization of colonized people is what Ngugi called a “cultural bomb” because the damage done to the psyche is so utterly devastating. “The effect of the cultural bomb,” he wrote, “is to annihilate people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities, and ultimately in themselves.”
Colonizing methodologies treat all other perspectives as irrelevant, all other histories and cultures as departures from “normal.” Colonizing people view all “others” as less intelligent, less “cultured,” less civilized, less like “normal” (i.e., white) people.
What does it mean to decolonize history?
To colonize means to take over, to invade and conquer, to impose and establish the culture, the values, the social, political, and economic systems of the conquering colonizer by eradicating the civilizations of those conquered and colonized.
Decolonizing means no longer accepting the worldview of the colonizer as true and immutable. It is also how we move beyond a world based on exploitation and hierarchies; how we construct a world rooted in collective, egalitarian action and sustaining respect for ourselves, each other, and our Mother Earth.
A decolonized approach to historical ‘detective work’ would require much more than interviewing the witnesses our detective ignored, and it would be necessary to look at the scene from more perspectives. A decolonized history would also explore the histories that had shaped this detective’s prejudice and bias. Some of this may be deliberate – perhaps they chose to speak to only some people, but perhaps it simply did not occur to them to do otherwise. What are the structures that enabled them not to see, not to think of these people? Where do these structures come from and what are their histories?
James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” The reality is that it is going to be uncomfortable relooking through the history of our world in the stages of recovery, rediscovery, and mourning but addressing the harm and pain and allowing for justice and processing is the only way forward towards healing. The healing and collective shadow work open doors for the stages of dreaming, commitment, and action towards building anew.