Sunday, March 27, 2011

Discovering the Silence

In Awa Thain’s 1978 book, La Parole aux négresses, she calls the women of francophone Africa to action. “Is it not high time they discovered their own voice, that… they now take the floor, if only to say that they exist, that they are human beings… and that, as such, they have a right to liberty, respect, and dignity?”
Through their shaking off of the French colonizer’s wing in the mid twentieth century, francophone Africa asserted itself as independent entities with independent voices. Through the powers of the pen and bilingualism, male authors of francophone Africa appointed and asserted themselves as translators of the African struggle to the Western World. However, one group’s struggle is still predominantly hazy, and only in the past three decades become audible, and only then to those with ears to listen.
The situation I propose to analyze is the situation of the francophone African woman writer. A minority among the minorities, she has been historically bypassed for the writings of her male counterparts, as well as her female contemporaries of other Francophone regions- namely Quebec, the Caribbean, Belgium, and Switzerland. Why is it that only recently the women of francophone Africa have chosen to speak out, and fight to be heard?
Ironically, it seems that the two-edged nature of the colonial French tongue and education presents a third twist in the situation. The colonizer overcame the colonized, while giving them a hidden backdoor to the Western World through their language, which would serve to be the woman’s emancipation if the French and the colonized African society would allow her to have open access to it.  However, the complexities of the woman’s silence did not start with the colonizer. What is especially perplexing is how the woman, historically a medium for oral tradition, a griotte, a voice to be heard, has become silenced in the written word, and thus, become silenced to the rest of the world.
The inherent unfairness and disparities of the, until very recently, unheard women of francophone Africa provoke my quest for answers. For what defines a human more than her ability to speak, and if she doesn’t speak or isn’t heard… What is she?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Radical Emancipation of the Subaltern

A cloistered woman has no voice, but a cloistered people provide the key to the jailed woman’s cell. And what better veil than colonialism?
                Colonialism, and especially French colonialism, is a system undoubtedly made for oppression. From mass murder, to the degradation of the colonized people’s race to a status akin to children or animals (known as dehumanization), to the usurpation of resources, rights, and privileges of the colonized by the colonizer, colonization is one of the most psychologically convoluted and atrocious outcomes of an empire. However, through its silencing of a nation’s heritage, it allows for the voices of the silenced to be heard across the world. And more than just the immediately silenced are heard… the subaltern silenced, the women of the colonized people, are given a venue for crying out, for rejoicing, for sharing their stories which previously would not, could not, be shared.
                Though conquered, the colonized have the chance to take on a radical bilingualism. When their native tongue is deemed crude and barbaric by the colonizer, they may choose to take on the tongue of their conquerors. Awkward, foreign, and above all ironic, this tongue presents its speakers with a difficult dilemma, and a rare opportunity… hide among their thoughts, or fight their oppressors with a colonizer’s mouth and a colonized’s mind. The radicals chose the latter. The pen may not always be mightier than the sword, but it is far more lasting.
                A social group that is dominated by another is known to be a subaltern group, and a colonized woman is doubly subaltern. Dominated first by the colonizer, she is further subdued by her own people. A prisoner among the imprisoned, she is afforded no way out by the system… except through one small, off-handed gift from the colonizer- his words. Sent by fathers to learn the language of the oppressor at schools made by the oppressor, the woman gains the tools for her escape. She is given a bilingualism that will serve as her radical emancipation.