The South Atlantic Quarterly 100.1 (2001) 287-305
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The Postcolonial Chickens Come Home to Roost:
How Yardie Has Created a New Postcolonial Subaltern
Like many revolutionary movements, postcolonialism was founded on a series of great promises. Anticolonialists, from Kwame Nkrumah to Robert Mugabe, from Eric Williams to Jawaharlal Nehru, from Daniel Arap Moi to Nelson Mandela, committed themselves to enacting fundamental political transformation, to changing their societies on every possible level. Unfortunately, like many of those revolutionary movements, the postcolonial leadership has failed to deliver. Or, to be more precise, it has delivered for only a few, that constituency Frantz Fanon dubbed so unflatteringly the “national bourgeoisie.” As the Martinican makes clear in his work Wretched of the Earth, the postcolonial elite who assumed power after independence quickly rendered themselves indistinguishable from the colonialists (or the racist minority regimes) they displaced. As postcolonial rulers, the Nkrumahs, Nehrus, and Mandelas have ensured, through means both fair and foul, that bureaucratic, cultural, and economic power remains in the hands of a privileged few, while always presenting themselves (sometimes more carefully than others), of course, in that most effective of ideological [End Page 287] outerwear: the symbolic trappings and the language of the independent Third World state, the first refuge of postcolonial leaders turned nationalist nabobs. Witness Robert Mugabe, the anti-Rhodesian freedom fighter who all too quickly became the Zimbabwean tyrant without missing a rhetorical beat.
Amid the postliberation clamor and the rhetorical finery, most of which is designed to obscure the failings of the nation-state, the voice of the postcolonial underclass has often struggled (and continues to do so) to make itself audible. While the subalterns have been silenced in significant measure through the political mechanisms of the postcolonial repressive state apparatus (party control of the media, clampdowns on trade unions, restricting opposition parties), cultural disenfranchisements have also played no small part in muting oppositional voices. In music (in the Caribbean, for instance, one immediately thinks of reggae, ragga, dancehall, or “chutney,” the latest incarnation of music that inspires people to “fight for their rights”), in painting, in other visual arts and even in the “technological” arts, the Third World has generally managed to represent itself as a dynamic and creative force; all these cultural mediums are attended to and frequently celebrated as resistance texts in the field of postcolonial studies. There is, however, one area of popular cultural expression that is all-too-often ignored: the literature of popular experience, that genre which might be broadly described as postcolonial pulp fiction. Where is the creative writing that chronicles underclass life, those narratives which speak of that complex intersection between popular and postcolonial culture? And where is postcolonialism’s criticism of its own pulp fiction?
For all its commitment to the struggles of the subaltern, postcolonial critics established early—and have, more problematically, maintained—a literary hierarchy commensurate with the “national bourgeoisie’s” deep psychic investment in retaining cultural links with the metropolis. This is not to imply that the literati from the periphery have been and are simply interested in becoming like V. S. Naipaul’s “mimic men,” though many would be guilty of that charge. The intention here is, rather, to recognize how the postcolonial elite derived (sometimes with more self-reflexivity than others) their sense of literary “standards,” “values,” and critical apparatus from the metropolis—a product of the training they received in London, the United States, or Paris. In the contemporary moment the increased output [End Page 288] from Third World writers (both at “home” and “abroad”), greater metropolitan recognition, and the consolidation and expansion of the diaspora have globalized the arbiters of postcolonial literature. Reflecting upon this literary development in the “West,” Aijaz Ahmad has remarked with a rare density: “The issue of assembling and professionalizing a new area of literature, namely ‘Third World Literature,’ has arisen primarily in the metropolitan university, in England and North America for the most part, which is responding to quite specific kinds of pressures by appropriating particular kinds of...