AiW Guest: Kadiatou Keita.
It was exhilarating at first. I cheered Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o on like he was performing. The March 2021 installment of the University of Yale’s English Department organised ‘African Writers in Conversation Series‘ featured Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, author and Professor of English & Comparative Literature at the University of California Irvine, who presented his talk “Decolonizing the American University” over Zoom on March 17. Seeing another African, a successful one at that, take center stage and speak to the thousands of people who had willingly signed up to hear him made me proud. After a long summer of Black voices silenced, and news media outlets distorting cries for help and visibility as war cries, I wanted to see an institution like Yale, one of many that is an embodiment of elitism and imperialism, be scolded. Yale University, like one of many institutions that through censoring made me and many others feel trapped in their own skin. I looked forward to a public shaming.
And there was plenty, but it came only after Ngũgĩ began the event by thanking Yale for publishing a paper he wrote that was rejected by the BBC. The introduction was a wake-up call for me. How much of a structural critique could he give on Yale’s dime? However, there were many satisfying moments to come. Ngũgĩ called out the U.S for being a former imperial settler colony, in comparison to a sovereign or exploitative colony like Britain. He then criticized the American University and its English department, highlighting a point that many POC students have brought up in the lack of diversity in the study of English at Yale, and its focus on Shakespeare and Medieval British Literature. Resisting the traditional syllabus followed by English departments like Yale’s own, Ngũgĩ spoke about decolonizing oneself by learning and understanding cultures outside of one’s colonial language; by finding ways to express oneself through Mandarin, for example, one would be a step closer to freedom. More than anything, Professor Ngũgĩ emphasized the impact of naming, mentioning Cornell University’s effort to rename their “English Department” the “Literature department in English”.
Ngũgĩ spoke and encouraged many to learn about Black culture — a rich and abundant culture created despite suffering — and its global power. He described how, during the transatlantic slave trade, white slave catchers would sing hymns to the background noise of kidnapped African peoples’ groaning in pain and anguish. This distortion, Ngũgĩ explained, is one of the many ways white imperialists have used religion and their own culture/language in history as an “instrument of conquest”; the white man is able to rewrite the narrative and place God over Freedom. He sings over Black suffering, suppresses language and identity, inflicts violence and trauma, and sets the parameters of complaints from those he enslaves. In this premade parameter, white language and voices still lace Black thoughts of freedom.
Despite all this, Ngũgĩ continued, “they, the enslaved Africans created new languages out of the rhythms of speech of their forbidden languages and the English sounds around them.” The oppressed had created a new way to express their existence and identities. In Black spiritual gospel, enslaved people placed their freedom before God. Their way of fighting back, a truly revolutionary act born out of struggle, was to create entirely new spaces for themselves outside the confines that were created for them.
The Professor did not, however, mention reparations, or the fact that while Black culture is prevalent around the world, this is because America, for example, exploits it as a “soft power”, where the consumption of Black culture reaps no benefits or freedom for Black people. Soft power, being the ability to influence or mold the preferences of others through appeal and attraction, is seen in the globalization of various Black American music genres and vernacular (AAVV) dominating foreign entertainment industries. The United States benefits from the interest, but Black Americans do not.
While Ngũgĩ’s work is inspiring and has provided insight to many for guidance towards action in the future, it was in these moments of the event that I felt a generational gap. Yale has provided me with many opportunities, but it is still, along with other elitist universities, in the imperial center that is the U.S. Renaming or any change within the confines that these institutions have set will not benefit the oppressed. We deserve more.
We can never fully decolonize the American University. The only way to do so would be to remove it completely and rebuild it in a new image, one that keeps everyone in mind, not just white cis- gendered, heterosexual, wealthy people. Comedian Hasan Minhaj, who is an Indian Muslim, speaks on the “the audacity of equality” in his Comedy Special television show Patriot Act, where he recounts the differences in opinion in the racial attacks on his family after 9/11. Minhaj’s parents were able to understand and explain the racism, but because they felt that the U.S had given them opportunities they did not have back home, they did not want to bite the hand that fed them. Instead, his parents, Minhaj says, would take the racism as “tax” for being allowed to come into the United States. Minhaj, like many who call the United States of America their home, does not want to pay an “American Dream Tax” for simply existing.
Despite feeling a similar generational gap to the one that Minhaj describes during the Yale lecture, I am inspired by Ngũgĩ and many other revolutionary writers and activists to build on the legacy that they have dreamed of. The future generation should also take its steps to dream for more than just linguistic renaming. We don’t want to be confined, exploited, and disenfranchised, we don’t want our land or ideas stolen, we want action now. I am reminded that while I am an imposter in a school that was not created with me in mind, myself, and many others who are fighting for their right to exist, we deserve to be here. We deserve to protest and cry out loudly, we deserve our needs met, and we deserve to exist without argument or parameters. Too often do we include people’s lives, their lived experience, in terms of debate: whether they should exist or not in their race or queerness, when this should or should not be a point of conversation. It is damaging to those struggling to survive outside an accepted identity. Discourse is necessary, but it should not be violent. We deserve to set the boundaries for our own existence on our terms.
I want to thank Professor Ngũgĩ for his time, effort, and consideration for putting together this lecture.
Kadiatou Keita (She/Her) is a Junior in Branford majoring in English on track for the Creative Writing Concentration at Yale University. She works as an Executive Producer for the YDN’s Attune Podcast, and as core Admin for Yale’s first Black Arts Collective TheNeoCollective. She writes, creating nonfiction, horror, and literary fiction pieces centered around intersectionality. Instagram: @Kadikei.