Domination Isn’t Destiny
Texts, or discourses, according to cultural critic David Spurr (1993), tell stories that justify and allow colonization to become normalized and enacted by one culture over another. Stories are the lifeblood of cultures — without them, a culture and its people can simply cease to exist. He argues that non-fiction writing adopts conventions of fiction to further colonialist efforts: “Journalism and other forms of nonfiction, . . . depend on the use of myth, symbol, metaphor, and other rhetorical procedures” (3). The generalizing rhetoric of fiction gives nonfiction an ideological undercurrent that implies its stories are universal (10). Spurr concentrates his critique on the texts of the European colonizers, and so recreates that which he condemns — writing that empowers one group while disempowering another. Completely disregarding the stories of the colonized, his focus on Eurocentric colonization solidifies the power at the center.
While her critique is also centered on Eurocentric points of view, Susan Bassnett (2002) begins to include the writings of women in her analysis. While arguing that “variations [in the content and style of women’s travel writing] derive from differences of social class, age, and religion, from shifts in time, from journeys to different parts of the world” (228), she acknowledges the underlying similarity of Western colonialism in the authors discussed. The added layer of gender in Bassnett’s work illustrates that even within one culture, people of different genders, ages, economic classes, etc. are often subjected to the same rhetorical patterns of storytelling that authorizes one group to dominate another. Nonetheless, she admits,
Clearly those women who travelled under the umbrella of the British Empire were… colluding with the colonial enterprise (228).
The women’s stories often reinforced the power dynamics of their own culture, even while they fought against them in other ways. Western critics seem to forget that stories also give meaning to the lives of the colonized other. To critique the traveler while ignoring the “travelee” (Pratt, 1992) only keeps the center of power concentrated with the colonizer.
In his TED Talk, African historian Gus Casely-Hayford (2017) argues that a culture’s stories are powerful tools that build identity and solidarity among its people. He demonstrates how cultural stories worked when, over the course of the 19th Century, the British and Asante empires clashed as both sought to build power and expand control over various territories across southern Africa. Control changed hands multiple times until the early 20th Century, when the Asante nationalist movement finally achieved independence and built present-day Ghana (PBS, 1999). The Asante people had their (hi)stories, and the British had theirs, too.
Casely-Hayford rightly emphasizes the stories of his own people; the Asante/Akan people are a dominant ethnic group in Ghana (PBS). His telling highlights the cultural and intellectual production of the Asante Empire from the 1600s onward. He mentions the symbolic importance of the stool, which represents all the Asante ancestors. Gifted stools mark important milestones in people’s lives, including baby’s first steps, puberty, and marriage. And, the most important stool of all — the golden stool — solidifies the nation and represents the empire’s unification (Walker, 2018). Casely-Hayford tells us:
The British “knew that controlling territory and subjugating the head of state — it wasn’t enough. The Asante understood, too, and they never were to relinquish the precious golden stool, never to completely capitulate to the British.”
But there are always two sides to every story, and more. The British were already in the area trading through the Fante people for the region’s gold and other resources. The Asante wanted more control over their own commerce, so they went to war with the Fante (Britannica). Meanwhile, the British went to war with the Asante, claiming they were protecting Fante people from being captured and sold as slaves (New World Encyclopedia). Eventually, the three groups (plus the Dutch) were all vying for the same territory, resources and power. In 1902, the British took control, but by 1935, they left the region in the hands of the Asante Confederacy (Britannica).
One of the most impactful books I’ve read about the colonialist’s erasure of the other is Radical Hope, by Jonathan Lear. Ironically, this is a White guy writing about a White guy who wrote the story of Plenty Coups, the last chief of the Indigenous Crow Nation, who died in 1932. Plenty Coups says there is no one else left who can tell his story, so he can only tell it to his white friend Frank Linderman (1962). Linderman account is quoted at length, describing his conversation with Plenty Coups, who describes the end of his story, death of his people, and disappearance of his culture:
“Plenty Coups refused to speak of his life after the passing of the buffalo, so that his story seems to have been broken off, leaving many years unaccounted for. ‘I have not told you half of what happened when I was young,’ he said… ‘I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing. But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened’” (311).
“After this nothing happened,” he said.
The story of Polingaysi Qoyawayma (Elizabeth Q. White), a Hopi woman who leaves her indigenous culture (1964), echoes Plenty Coups’. Both stories — as told by White authors — accentuate the loss of identity and self-determination that occur when cultural symbols and histories are destroyed. Qoyawayma’s (White’s) travel story ends with the same sense of defeat that Plenty Coups evokes:
The rhythm of the dance and the throaty chanting of the Kachinas filled her mind. They had danced for rain. She looked up; there was not a cloud in the sky. She puzzled about that, briefly, as she went back down the stone steps (12).
Spurr concludes, “Discourse may be understood here as a series of discontinuous segments that combine in various ways in service to power” (11). But a complete discourse doesn’t necessarily and always have to serve existing power structures. When the stories of everyone in the “contact zone” are considered together, cultural exchange and mutual benefit are possible. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie agrees. She proposes a simple shift in how we tell our stories and how we hear stories of the Other, proclaiming,
Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.
As travel writers, and as humans in the world, we need to tell more stories, include more of other people’s stories, and celebrate the complexity and nuance of everyone’s lives. When we do this, we will nullify oppressive, hierarchical, destructive ideologies that thrive on a singular point of view.
Adichie, C.N. (2009). The Danger of a Single Story. TED Global. Accessed from https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript
Bassnett, S. (2002). Travel Writing and Gender. The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing. (P. Hulme and T. Youngs, Eds.). Cambridge University Press.
Britannica. Fante Confederacy. Accessed from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Fante
Casely-Hayford, G. (2017) The Powerful Stories that Shaped Africa (TEDtalk). Accessed from https://www.ted.com/talks/gus_casely_hayford_the_powerful_stories_that_shaped_africa/transcript
Gates, H.L. (Writer), & Colton, N. (Director). (1999). The Slave Kingdoms (Season 1, Episode 3) [TV series episode]. In Wonders of the African World. PBS.
New World Encyclopedia. Anglo-Asante Wars. Accessed from https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Anglo-Asante_Wars
Pratt, M.L. (1992). Introduction: Criticism in the contact zone. Imperial Eyes. Routledge.
Qoyawayma, P. (1964). No Turning Back. University of New Mexico Press.
Quintana, M. (2010). Ashanti Empire / Asante Kingdom. Black Past. Accessed from https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/ashanti-empire-asante-kingdom-18th-late-19th-century/
Spurr, D. (1993). Introduction. The Rhetoric of Empire. Duke University Press.
Walker, R. (2018). The Significance of Stools in Asante Culture. The Power of Gold: Asante Royal Regalia from Ghana [exhibition]. Dallas Museum of Art. Accessed from https://collections.dma.org/essay/bVPXNQdy