The Said and the Imagined: Interrogating the Colonial Legacy of Language and Imagination

On the page, words, under the guise of neutrality, function to categorize subjects through humanization or “thingification,” a term coined by scholar Aime Cesaire.[1] This subtle, yet powerful system is always at work, its reach is vast, and its methods are left undetected or coded into conventional grammar, and therefore overlooked. Words then reinforce “racial imaginaries,” and limit the freedom of subjects whose humanity has been thrown into question by the processes of racialization and colonialism.[2] To break free of this, words must be used in a radical and creative practice that subverts the colonial a priori concepts attached. Only by laying bare the history and meaning of language can there then exist a “whole” non-European “I” that privileges imagination over racial imaginaries.To illuminate this history and make the point it is critical to look at the work of two scholars: Professor Anthony Bogues’ investigation into critical anti-colonialist thought as a site for radical visions of freedom and questions of being, and David GonzalezNieto’s paper looking at the importance of language in the construction of identity within a colonial framework.

Stepping back a moment, it is essential to explain the deployment of racial imaginaries in this paper. Looking at Bouges and Nieto’s work in the context of racial imaginaries makes real the abstract, yet tangibly urgent nature of both scholars’ interventions. The term racial imaginaries comes from the anthology, The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, edited by Beth Loffreda and Claudia Rankine. In the introduction to the collection, Loffreda and Rankine, mixing casual conversation and literary critique, think about creative practices around race. This leads them to think about the ways in which racialization has nested itself covertly in the imagination, a private site in human consciousness and identity construction. They write on the ways white writers have used the safety of the imagination to avoid confrontation or dialogue with the non-white “I.” Loffreda and Rankine write that writers of all identities fall into the dangerous and limiting territory of “imaginative” neutrality. They write that these artists, “see the imagination as ahistorical, as a generative place where race doesn’t and shouldn’t enter, a space for bodies to transcend the legislative, the economic…”[3] The imagination is constructed through observing and communicating with the surrounding world. This is done through language. It is language that shapes the imagination. Therefore, it is language that builds and sustains racial imaginaries.

Language is the main site for human understandings of self and other. It is how the individual is able to separate the surrounding world from the individual’s existence. Communication is essential to this identity building. Through it, humans are given the infrastructure for spotting the self, and those similar, versus the “other,” which is not like self and therefore non-human. Scholar Frantz Fanon in his 1967 book, Black Skin, White Masks, emphasizes the urgency of communication, writing that, “to speak is to exist absolutely for the other.”[4] Ubiquitous, language becomes a mundanity inseparable from perception, and thus is often misinterpreted as neutral. However, it is anything but objective. David Gonzalez Nieto’s essay, “The Emperor’s New Words: Language and Colonization,” marks language as a “weapon for colonization” and traces its deployment as such starting from 1492, with the creation of the Gramática de la Lengua Castellana.[5] Written by Antonio de Nebrija 1492, the Gramática de la Lengua Castellana was the first grammar book on a modern European language. Nebrija, the writer, suggested to the then reigning monarch, Isabel, the Catholic Queen of Spain, that teaching the recently colonized people the Spanish language was a way to ensure the Empire’s rule.[6] The idea stuck, and language became the most powerful tool in the colonialists’ toolbox. To control the language of a people is to control how they see the world around them as well as themselves. By implementing a dominant language, the colonized people are forced into narratives where they are inferior. As the suppressed language is forgotten from the mouths of those who speak it and their children no longer recognize its sounds, the narratives of subordination and racialization become harder to break free from.

In Professor Bogues’ paper “And What About The Human? Radical Anti-Colonial Thought and Critical Thinking,” the question becomes: how to use language imbued with racialized meaning discursively to include the racialized subject. Colonialization and racial slavery relocated the abject subjects to a state of non-human existence. To describe this, Bogues conjures Fanon, calling this state a “zone of non-being.”[7] The state of “non-being” insists on the disillusionment of oppressed people, the total abandonment of imagination. Unable to identify themselves and their surroundings in familiar words, the “non-being” subjects can only “imagine” and exist through the dominant language’s racial imaginary, the colonialist’s rendering of the world. He interrogates existing Western radical thought, which ponders the human as a subject. However, the traditions of Western radical thought share the foundational truth that, “the human is a figure whose essence is already pre-ordained…”[8] It is here that Bogues makes his intervention. Taking concepts from Western thinkers such as Karl Marx, Bogues identifies their failure to extend the conversations of humanism to those whose humanity is not inherent, but rather has been removed, wiped way by violent and ongoing campaigns. Bogues points to Marx and Michel Foucault as intellectuals who wrote radical texts about the “subject or exploited worker” finding liberation.[9] Bogues’ suggests anti-colonialist thought as a discourse for the excluded to find liberation. This liberation in anti-colonialist thought is grounded in the act of transforming the imagination.[10]

Dominant language and Western thought regard the indigenous and racialized as non-subjects. Through language, the colonized and racialized learn racial and social hierarchies that negate their human existences. To escape this, creativity must be used. The “non-human” must envision self that has not previously existed, a self that defies “thingification.” While language does have an entangled history of colonialism, it must be pushed and shaped, stripped away and rebuilt, to make space for the non-European “I.”

[1] Bogues, “And What About The Human? Radical Anti-Colonial Thought and Critical Thinking,” 51

[2] Loffreda and Rankine, The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind

[3] Ibid.,16

[4] Nieto “The Emperor’s New Words: Language and Colonization,” 231

[5] Ibid., 233

[6] Ibid.,233

[7] Bogues, And What About The Human? Radical Anti-Colonial Thought and Critical Thinking,”. 55

[8] Ibid., 59

[9] Ibid., 57

[10] Ibid.


Bogues, A. “And What About the Human?: Freedom, Human Emancipation, and the Radical Imagination.” Boundary 2 39, no. 3 (January 2012): 29–46.

Nieto, David Gonzalez (2007) “The Emperor’s New Words: Language and Colonization,” Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge: Vol. 5 : Iss. 3 , Article 21.

Rankine, Claudia, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap. The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind. Albany, NY: Fence Books, 2016.

Quiet of the Archive

         Chapter one, “Publicness, Silence, and the Sovereignty of the Interior” from Professor Kevin Quashie’s book The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture clearly presents the main flaws in the “idioms of black culture” [1]and offers a subtle metaphor that poses a necessary ideological shift. This shift, constructed in metaphor, privileges Black interiority. His simple metaphor for this interiority is “quiet,”[2]existing with and against the much studied and represented public loudness of Black culture.[3]Quashie does not claim that Black interiority has not previously existed; instead, his work invites the reader and scholar to think about the Black subjects in the present and in the archive, seeing them as dimensional subjects who exists autonomously, rather than subjects qualified by their opposition to and appearance in public spheres. Quiet, as Quashie postulates, is a mode of reading. Quashie successfully deploys it through the close readings of archival images, as illustrated in his masterful analysis of a scene from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Using these methods to strengthen his point, Quashie is revisiting silent sites in the archive, and replacing them with quiet. While Quashie offers a mode of analysis that does this important work around Black subjectivity, it begs the question: how can this be expanded beyond a method of reading? 

         Many Black women artists and scholars have answered this question through their work. Commonly written off as illiterate in their own existence, Black women in the U.S have had to contend with discourses that talk around and through them. Using the aesthetics of poetics and personal reflection, many Black women scholars and artists are asserting their interiority. These works do not play to a “concept of blackness that privileges public expressiveness,” [4] nor do they offer easy interpretation. Rather, they are intimate and quiet. One powerful piece that comes to mind is Lorna Simpson’s “The Waterbearer.”As an art piece, it dives into the archive and gives the subject a privacy and interiority that is unacknowledged by the accompanying text below. This subject embodies what Saidiya Hartman calls a “Black Venus.” [5] Seeing their bodies uncomfortably deconstructed in historical and legal documents, Simpson and Hartman produce work that rips through the violence of silence in the archive, and return subjects’ stripped humanity through restoring privacy and interiority. Quiet instead of silent as a reminder of “a black subject in the undisputed dignity of its humanity.” [6]

         Within the historical archive, Black women’s existence has been shaped in paradox, and their subjectivity erased. Hortense Spillers breaks down the supposed contradiction of Black women’s existence in a U.S context, calling the phenomenon “America’s Grammar.” [7] It is America’s grammar to position Black women in its cultural and public spheres as hyper-visible while invisible, to be simultaneously stripped of gender and over-gendered. In her essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Spillers traces a process that begins with the Middle Passage that leaves Black women marked in the United States. In looking at this process, she is in search of a vocabulary to talk about Black women without excluding them from the conversation. This is deeply personal work for Spillers, and through it she is trying to carve out space for her interiority. Early in the paper, she frames how essential this vocabulary is by saying that “in order for me to speak a truer word concerning myself, I must strip down through layers of attenuated meanings, made an excess in time, over time, assigned by a particular historical order, and there await whatever marvels of my own inventiveness.”[8]The creation of a vocabulary seems at odds with the Quashie’s metaphorical quiet. However, their work overlaps. Both are attempting to reconstruct ways of analyzing Black subjects by privileging experience and expressiveness. Yet their work is different. Spillers is not focused on quiet. Rather, by juxtaposing Spillers’ essay with Quashie’s chapter, a deeper interpretation of Lorna Simpson’s image and Saidiya Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts” is revealed. 

          Stepping back a little, it is import to first define what quiet means in this context. Doing this will allow for a clearer understanding of how Simpson and Hartman evoke quiet to fight the hush and silence of the archive. Quashie, carefully distinguishing between quiet and silence, defines the former as an “expressiveness of the interior,” [9] while the latter “denotes something that is suppressed or repressed…” [10] The silence of the archive leaves behind a trail of the nameless and soundless. It is formed by the weathered artifacts of history, recounting what was deemed important and who was seen as a who and not a what. These records tell the stories of people through the eyes of the powerful, most frequently white men. All those outside this demographic are left minimized, their whole existence reduced to a number on a census report or a tick in a ship’s log. In “Venus in Two Acts,” Hartman reminds the reader that “There is not one extant autobiographical narrative of a female captive who survived the Middle Passage.” [11] It is not that these enslaved women had no thoughts or feelings. Rather, their subjectivities were suppressed, inner identities silenced. Kept outside of the archive, the archive consumes the bodies of these enslaved women through charts and figures, careless retellings of violation. 

         In “Venus in Two Acts,” Saidiya Hartman revisits historical archives in search of Venus, a “dead girl” [12] lost to silence. Her fate was the same as many other enslaved women: “no one remembered her name or recorded the things she said, or observed that she refused to say anything at all. Hers is an untimely story told by a failed witness.” [13] Lorna Simpson’s “The Waterbearer” tells a similar story. The art piece is a black and white photograph with one line of text below. “She saw him disappear by the river, they asked her to tell what happened, only to discount her memory.” [14] This text is the only information the work offers the viewer. Any other information that may be gleaned must come from close examination of the photograph. In it, a woman wearing a simple white frock. She is standing with her back to the camera holding two water vessels. The water pours out as the figure stands with her outstretched arms, a posture evoking a balance scale or Jesus on the cross. The visual narrative Simpson is playing with is uncomfortably familiar. The text below is recognizable in its tone and intent, serving as a stand in for the archive. The text strips the subject’s voice, “they asked her to tell what happened, only to discount her memory.” [15] It is important to note the choice of the word “memory.” Simpson did not say that the unidentified “they” discounted her input or retelling. No, they discounted her “memory,” a private and interior faculty. Her quiet. 

[1] Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, 20.

[2] Ibid., 21

[3] Ibid., 13

[4] Ibid, 11

[5] Ibid., 2

[6] Ibid.,.26

[7] Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book”

[8] Ibid., 65

[9] Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, 21

[10] Ibid., 22

[11] Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” 3

[12] Ibid., 1

[13]Ibid.,  2. 

[14]Lorna Simpson, “The Waterbearer”


Works Cited

Quashie, Kevin Everod. The Sovereignty of Quiet: beyond Resistance in Black Culture. Rutgers University Press, 2012.

Spillers, Hortense J. “Mamas Baby, Papas Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics, vol. 17, no. 2, 1987, p. 64., doi:10.2307/464747.

Simpson, Lorna. The Waterbearer.

Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, vol. 26, 2008, pp. 1–14., doi:10.2979/sax.2008.-.26.1.

Exploring Black Temporality Through the African Philosophical Heritage

            Professor Paget Henry makes the argument that there is a Black diasporic philosophy that grows out of the intersection between religion, spirituality, and philosophy. It is a philosophy that is uniquely grounded in a sensibility that arises from a cosmology and belief system rooted in African traditions. Black temporality is at the core of this philosophical lineage. For Professor Henry, Black temporality is deeply connected to a spiritual tradition. He asserts that, “Whether personal or impersonal, the spatial and temporal dimensions of these spiritual ontologies are cosmogonic. …The temporality of divine projects does not follow a linear path.” (Citation 1) There is no one definition for Black temporality, just as there is no one definition for Black. It is rather a framework for exploring the ways in which Black identifying artists, scholars, and writers might think about their relation to time. Literary scholar, Michelle M. Wright has a clarifying definition for how time is entwined with studies of Blackness. In her study of “Middle Passage Epistemology, she finds that “Bringing together Blackness as constructed and Blackness as phenomenological is not as difficult as it might at first appear.” She goes on, “both modes comprise notions of space and time, or ‘spacetime.’ Our constructs of Blackness are largely historical and more specifically based on a notion of spacetime that is commonly fitted into a linear progress narrative.” (Citation 3) She concludes that though constructions of Blackness may fit into a linear temporality, Blackness as a lived experience does not. Her solution for this is what she terms “Epiphenomenal time” which is the present lived moment comprising the past, present, and future. Professor Henry’s work speaks to Wright’s “Epiphenomenal time” through his investigation of African traditions’ (the past) presence in Afro-Caribbean philosophy (the present and future). His work also shows how Black diasporic philosophy takes non-linear temporality from traditional African philosophical and religious traditions. 

Exploring African philosophical heritage, the imaginative 1973 Blaxploitation film Ganja and Hess, written and directed by Bill Gunn, is a creative embodiment of Henry’s argument. In some ways Gunn’s Ganja and Hess fits cleanly under the era’s genre of Blaxploitation. Separate from “race films” of the 1960s, the Blaxploitation genre offered a change. It created films for Black audiences starring Black heroes, though these heroes often drew heavily from stereotypes. Birthed in this era of change in representation, Ganja and Hess dared to envision a Black temporality and ontology with a clear African lineage. It is able to do this through its use of the fantastic. The film’s central characters are both vampires, Black, living in the U.S, and are temporally and socially “othered.” The characters Ganja and Hess have internal modes of being that are in conflict with a dominating temporality that Gunn vaguely alludes to through reference shots of classical Greek nude sculptures. (Citation 2) The European aesthetics evoked by the film’s establishing shots create a dialogue asking the viewer to be aware of a Eurocentric historical and temporal consciousness. However, Gunn does not want to focus on exploring Euro-centricity, but rather Black temporality and African philosophical lineage. He only alludes to the Greek figures, so that the audience understands what the dominate narrative is, not to be confused with the origin narrative. 

Professor Henry mentions scholar Sylvia Wynter who speaks on origin narratives postulating that “Origin narratives are particularly important for the mythopoetics of human self-formation.” (Citation 1) This takes from Sylvia Wynter’s work around epistemes, in which she builds off of scholar Michel Foucault’s usage of the word. An episteme is an atemporal sequence of knowledge established by a priori concepts, “truths” that are expected as fact in a particular epoch, because they are grounded in information that is presented as true and “neutral.”  (Citation 4) Wynter is a Caribbean scholar, part of the Afro-Caribbean philosophical tradition Professor Henry is discussing in his work. He brings up her work because her study of epistemes is important to self-formation and has an evident linkage to the Igbo and Yoruba origin narratives. But, how does this connect to Black temporality? Returning to Wright’s work for a moment she sits with the question of identity, origin narrative, through deconstructing Blackness. She writes, “Blackness operates as a construct (implicitly or explicitly defined as a shared set of physical and behavioral characteristics) and as phenomenological (imagined through individual perceptions in various ways depending on the context).” (Citation 3) Blackness defined as a mode of being, being both “phenomenological” and “a construct” is therefore operating in and against a temporal framework. Sylvia Wynter, takes the formation of “human” origin narrative and examines what it defines, and consequently who is defined as human. In “No Humans Involved,” a paper in response to the LAPD’s classification of unemployed Black men as non-human, she digs deep into where this classification comes from. It is made evident in her argument that one of these factors is the use of a Euro-centric linear progress temporality, an a priori concept, that is deployed as neutral and works to classify Black and brown bodies. “In this context, history falls into the trap of taking its narration of what happened in the past, a narration clearly oriented by our present culture specific conception of the human, as if indeed it were what actually happened, when seen from a transcultural perspective.” (Citation 4)

            Returning to Ganja and Hess, use of the fantastic shows an alternative Black temporality directly linked to the African philosophical heritage Professor Henry discusses. Using the mythology of vampires, Gunn portrays the African heritage and an alternative non-linear Black temporality. Dr. Hess Green, one of the central characters, is transformed into a vampire when he is stabbed by an ancient knife from a fictional African civilization. Once the blood of the past is flowing through his veins, Hess finds a new power and connection that prevents him from comfortably returning to his upper middle class life as an anthropologist working in a white dominated museum. (Citation 2) He is no longer on a linear progress narrative, and his life is directly influenced by the traditions of an ancient African culture. This is a fantastical portrayal of Professor Henry’s argument. “Son, you are in the house of generations. Every African who lives in America has a part of his soul in this ark.” (Citation 5) 

Works Cited

  1. Henry, Paget. Calibans Reason: Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 2000.
  2. Ganja and Hess. Third World Newsreel, 1973.
  3. Wright, Michelle M. Physics of Blackness: beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
  4. Wynter, Sylvia.  “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues.” Forum H.H.I. Knowledge for the 21st Century 1.1 (Fall 1994): 42-73.
  5. Dumas, Henry, and Eugene B. Redmond. Ark of Bones: and Other Stories. New York: Random House, 1974.