Colonial encounters significantly resulted in a battleground for cultural identity, which is a key element of human existence. Various writers and researchers have delved into the correspondence between the two aspects above, spurring substantial discourse in literature. Hence, this essay explores the works of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Richard Wright, and W.E.B. Du Bois by delving into how each of the above authors articulates the issue of cultural identity, taking into consideration the use of language, the effect of identity struggles, colonialism on culture, and topographical context.
In “Something Torn and New,” Ngugi wa Thiong’o examines the African consciousness under colonialism. Through the narratives of Waiyaki wa Hinga and the resistance to British occupation, Thiong’o paints vividly the efforts of colonial powers to eradicate and replace the indigenous identities. The ways this was done can be seen in the renaming of many geographical locations and in the attempt to impose European memory on African landscapes such as Westlands and Karen, which was formerly known as Kirungii (Thiong’o, 8). This represents a powerful symbolic and tangible manifestation of the erasing of native memories of place.
Equally, Thiong’o argues that naming is not only a linguistic issue but also a weapon of colonial power, a tool used to dominate the land itself and the people living there. The strategic renaming of territories becomes performative conquest, symbolic colonization resembling the colonization practice as performative acts of power. According to Thiong’o, the conqueror transforms the very landscape itself into a canvas upon which their authority is inscribed, destroying the indigenous markers and imposing a foreign narrative (7). The author likens this act to the mutilation of Africans’ bodies, where they were buried with their bodies upside down, as an act of dismemberment. Equally, by linking to the forced renaming of people under the Japanese occupation of Korea, he shows how common this occurrence was in colonial conquest (Thiong’o 9). In turn, the application of names and cultures forms a means of reshaping the land and reshaping the identity of the colonized.
Thiongó, in essence, reveals the complex facets of cultural identity during colonial oppression. Colonization practices had far-reaching consequences, which can be exemplified by his detailed analysis of renaming spaces and the massive, inhumane bodily harm. However, this exploration is a call for the understanding of the subtlety of these acts and their persistent legacy on people’s collective memory and identity, which will provoke individuals into reflecting on the delicate interplay among language, land, and cultural shaping in the crucible of colonialism.
Besides, the works of Richard Wright, such as Native Son and Black Boy, present a dynamic representation of the African Americans living in the United States. Wright digs into the psychological and sociological results of racism and oppression and offers a bleak picture of an individual’s sense of self in a society that deliberately denies cultural identity. In his novel “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” Wright explores cultural identity as a multilayered process of the interrelation of society’s standards and true self. This is evident in various contexts. For instance, when Richard, a negro, fails to refer to Pease, a white man, as Mr. Pease, he ends up being punished and insulted as a son of a bitch (Wright 272). Equally, the cultural roots of these protagonists are systematically undermined by means of racial prejudices that predetermine for them the set of preordained roles. Thus, imposed stories and prejudices do not allow for honest self-expression but instead fit individuals into molds that are contrary to them.
Wright’s exploration reveals language as a strong weapon of oppression. Within the larger context of systemic racism, racial slurs and derogatory language serve to construct the narrative that black people are not individuals. For instance, in a scene where Richard is working in a hotel room, he encounters a man who calls him a Nigger (Wright 276). As such, this narrative contributes to the erasure of the cultural richness of African-American identities. Equally, Wright points out that language, instead of being a neutral medium for communication, turns into an instrument of control that strengthens existing social structures that lead to the exclusion of particular groups of people from defining their ethnicity and culture.
In the light of Wright’s vision, the effort to define cultural identity turns out to be an ongoing fight against one’s society and internalized oppressive stories. Despite the efforts of systemic racism, the search for authenticity and self-assertion by the characters highlights the significance of cultural identity. This is evident when Richard stated that he did not like it when the white watchman slapped a black maid’s buttocks (Wright 277). Thus, Wright’s exploration is a powerful story that challenges readers to reflect upon the complexities of identity and its tenacity in the face of adversity.
W.E.B. Du Bois’s analysis of cultural identity, especially in his book “Black Voices Poetry,” introduces the concept of double consciousness. Du Bois, in his poems, asserts that African Americans live in a state of double consciousness, pulled between his African heritage and Systemic racism, which results in a psychological separation that is symbolically represented by a veil. For instance, in the poem titled A Litany at Atlanta, the author states, “O Silent God, Thou whose voice afar in mist and mystery hath left our ears an-hungered in these fearful days- Hear us, good Lord!” (Du BOIS 349). This indicates that at the heart of Du Bois’ analysis is the argument that African Americans endure a continuous negotiation between two opposing identities. Besides, the theme of the struggle for cultural affirmation becomes more painful as they are forced to balance their roots in a society dominated by racial discrimination, forced labor, and murder (Du BOIS 351). This psychological barrier is symbolized by the veil, which represents the conflict that African Americans face as they try to reconcile these disparate aspects of their identity.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Richard Wright, and W.E.B. Du Bois have diverse perspectives on the theme of cultural identity, but a comparative analysis of their views shows striking similarities. The three literary giants facing different but related challenges, including colonialism, structural racism, and African-American double consciousness, narrate stories of resilience and transformation against external forces that endeavor to redefine cultural identities. The authors share their views on how colonialism and systemic racism affect cultural identities. Thiong’o reveals the British naming system and memory-erasing policies under colonial rule in Africa, demonstrating how such methods change the collective identity of the colonized. This is evident in the naming of places such as Karen from its indigenous name, Kirungii (Thiong’o, 8). Likewise, Wright narrates a parallel story of the systematic denial of cultural identity for African Americans in the American South by stereotypes and oppressive language that reveals its destruction. This is evident in the character of Richard, who is abused by a white watchman by being referred to as a Nigger because of his African heritage (Wright 277). Equally, Du Bois, through his poetry, builds on this inquiry by coining the term double consciousness, exposing how institutionalized racism prompts African Americans to exist in a state of dual identity. Hence, cumulatively, these authors shed light on the intricate concept of resilience in the face of impositions from external forces.
Moreover, language becomes the central issue in analyzing and comparing Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Richard Wright, as well as W.E.B. Du Bois. Notably, it is a very effective instrument for the transformation of cultural identities. First, Thiong’o uncovers the colonial act of naming as a manifestation of dominance and control aimed at eradicating nativist identities replaced with imposed narrations. Thiong’o suggests that the forceful naming of African landscapes to European names can be likened to the Japanese colonialists who forced the Koreans to bear their names (Thiong’o 9). Besides, Wright brings out how language is oppressive towards African Americans, where it stereotypes them and makes them lose their individuality. The reference to all blacks as Niggers elaborates on this. Likewise, Du Bois takes the exploration further by adding religious imagery in the poems, which portray the significance of language as a form of cultural identity. The line states that “Sweet Christ pity toiling hands” is a significant call for all African Americans to work hard to free themselves from colonial bondage and slavery (Du BOIS 349). Hence, language is a weapon used to reshape cultural identities and reinforce narratives imposed by external forces in all three cases. This proves how powerful language is in the interaction of identity and power.
Additionally, cultural identity is explored through the geographical context in the writers’ works. Thiong’o’s approach to Africa is intricate by revealing the devastating effects on native cultures. This is exemplified in the specific integration of European culture into Africa and other places, such as the Atlantic West (Thiong’o 8). Equally, the complicated racial politics in the American South are revealed in Wright’s South-based narratives, revealing the complex experiences of African Americans. Richard experiences racial discrimination while living in Arkansas, which reflects the lives of African Americans living in the southern part of the United States in that era (Wright 268). Another perspective was heightened by Du Bois’ examination of the African American experience, which reveals the dual consciousness generated by systemic racism. Notably, his poems reflected the lives of people living in the U.S. northeastern part of them, considering he was born in Massachusetts (347). Thus, the different geographical settings do not just exist as places but also as the embodiments of the historical and cultural milieus in which identities are constructed and contested.
In conclusion, the theme of cultural identity by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Richard Wright, and W.E.B. Du Bois illustrates how external forces affect personal and communal identities. The fight for self-affirmation, the eradication of native memories, and the psychological consequences of systemic oppression intertwine into a complicated story of resilience and resistance. Every writer makes a distinct contribution to the larger debate on cultural identity, struggle, and ultimate return in the face of external influences.
Du BOIS, William Edward Burghart. Black Voices Poetry.
Thiong’o, Ngugi wa. SOMETHING TORN AND NEW – An African Renaissance; Dismembering Practices.
Wright, Richard. The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch.