Episode 11: Decolonization: Theory and Practice


“Pulling down statues isn’t erasing history….erasing history is the fact that you live on land stolen from a people you can’t name.” Em and Jesse dive into  the theory and practice of decolonization–what does it mean, what are post-colonial studies, and how can we put this knowledge into practice, reforming our views of our modern American lives as well as the Middle Ages? This episode has a lot of the decolonization theory, and coming episodes will have a lot more of the practice part, but this episode does have some fun discussions of pulling down statues, weird characters in Thomas Pynchon novels, non-English versions of Shakespearean plays, and various forms of Orientalism in fine art, like the odalisque and the picturesque.

Notes, Annotations, and Corrections

1/ Harriet Tubman projected on the side of the Lee statue. Sometimes it blows my mind that she lived recently enough that we have a photograph of her. She died in 1913! [Agreed–super amazing and impressive! Also, the only Confederate statue left on Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA as of 7/10/20 is Lee. Richmond has taken down Jackson, Stuart, and Maury (Davis was already gone). Arthur Ashe will hopefully be the lone statue on the formerly problematic street very soon. The statue I discuss in Libby Hill Park (the Confederate Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, which was on top of a really tall column on top of a hill overlooking the James River) has been taken down as well. History marches forward, and the former capital of the Confederacy attempts to help form a more perfect union.–Jesse]

2/ Malcolm Gladwell has a really good bit about plaques placed on offensive monuments to “contextualize” them in this episode of Revisionist History. (I don’t think I really need to tell you that RH is a really good podcast overall and I recommend it–Malcolm Gladwell has definitely sold 1000% more books than I have and has a huge following. Nevertheless, it’s a great podcast.–Em)

3/ So I looked this up for episode 10 but I don’t think I mentioned it in the notes–the family apparently originally built the statue basically in the middle of a corn field, and then later the city caught up with it (I believe they gave it to the city and then the city developed in that direction).

4/ As of my writing these notes (7/6/2020), the Lee monument is still up, but the judge who issued a stay of removal has recused himself from the case. Another lawsuit alleging that removing the statue would hurt home values in the area has already garnered FOUR judicial recusals… However, looking at the area on Zillow, none of the recently sold houses appear to use adjacency to the REL monument as a selling point, so I am unconvinced that the property devaluation argument will hold any water (one rental does appear to mention the house being situated at “the Lee circle on Monument Ave.,” but that seems more like trying to give a cross-street than anything else; they could certainly just say “the Dolly Parton circle” if the monument were replaced). [Yes, I believe that “back in the day” (i.e., until a few years ago), the Lee statue was used as a selling point. That no longer happens, but I’m sure some people who still live in the area bought their houses in those days (or their family did), and they might not realize that the statue is now degrading their house’s value rather than enhancing it. That section of Monument Ave is a wealthy and formerly all-white section of town, so…you see where I’m going with this. However, lots of householders have come out in favor of removal, and they’ve been fairly vocal–presumably to distance themselves from the people who are stuck in the past.–Jesse]

5/ Officially, I believe it is a 14′ statue atop a 60′ plinth. Actually would not recommend trying to topple it as a protestor–seems unsafe.

6/ How to Topple an Obelisk.

7/ The full quote from Lee in context (from Lee’s letter to the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, Lexington, Va., August 5, 1869; emphasis mine):

Dear Sir:—Absence from Lexington has prevented my receiving until to-day your letter of the 26th ult., enclosing an invitation from the Gettysburg Battle-field Memorial Association to attend a meeting of the officers engaged in that battle at Gettysburg, for the purpose of marking on the ground by enduring memorials of granite the position and movements of the armies on the field. My engagements will not permit me to be present. I believe, if there, I could not add anything material to the information existing on the subject. I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered. Very respectfully, your obedient servant, R. E. Lee. (Charleston Courier, September 2, 1869)

Jesse: I apologize to Montgomery Meigs for not naming him. He actually started Arlington National Cemetery before his son died (in May 1864; his son died in October 1864). He purposefully buried soldiers near the house so that no one could live there again.

8/ [13:42] “Sometimes it’s hard to be like…well, we messed up on that one, guys.” Comment not meant to imply that North Viet Nam did or didn’t make a mistake w/r/t the Viet Nam War, aka the American War. It was a politically complicated decision. Whereas slaveholders arguably should have given up their slaves prior to the US Civil War. [Slavery, as it was practiced in the Americas, is an amazing lesson on the extent to which people can justify doing *anything* to other people, no matter how horrible. Also see genocide.–Jesse]

9/ “Toppling statues is not erasing history.” More to the point, the statues represent the history of the people toppling the statues as well. [Yes, toppling statues IS history.–Jesse]]

10/ If you want to know whose native lands you’re living on, head to Native-Land.ca. Covers not just North America, but also parts of South America, all of Australia and New Zealand, some Pacific islands, part of Norway, and what I assume are the only inhabitable parts of Greenland. In many cases you can get to the tribes’ websites from there too! (Actually, this raises a big question in my mind about what constitutes a tribe, like I know that there were “tribes” in Central Asia, like the Uyghurs, but also I can kind of see why they don’t count? Although they appear to have been in the Xinjiang area since at least 2000 BCE, aka the beginning of the bronze age. So maybe this is just a work in progress.) Anyway, in addition to the Ho-Chunk, my area of Wisconsin was also home to the Kickapoo, Peoria, Sauk and Meskwaki, Miami, and Sioux at various times.

Jesse: I’m from Chicago [land of the Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo), Peoria, Bodéwadmiakiwen (Potawatomi), Miami, Očeti Šakówiŋ (Sioux)], but I have lived in Richmond, Virginia for the past three years [on and surround by the lands of the Pamunkey, Chickahominy, Youghtanund, Powhatan, Arrohatec, Weyanock, Paspahegh, Quiyoughcohannock, and Appamatuck–all tribes that were part of the Powhatan Confederacy by 1607]. Virginia is a state with fraught tribal recognition. Since Virginia was an early locus of colonization, the Native American tribes were decimated and forcibly removed fairly quickly. Many stayed and attempted to avoid being absorbed into white society, but the early history of violence (including various wars and the burning of Richmond and its records during the Civil War) has made it difficult for many of them to be recognized at a federal level. Virginia race laws also played a role in this, since records frequently recorded Native Americans as “colored,” thus denying them their own identity and making it impossible to demonstrate whether someone was Native American, African American, or anything else considered non-white. In addition, when the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 was passed by the Virginia General Assembly (to prohibit interracial marriage and define “white”) the law included the so-called “Pocahontas Exception.” This clause allowed people of less than 1/16 Native American ancestry (and demonstrably Caucasian-only ancestry otherwise) to be considered white. The point of the law was to enable the First Families of Virginia, many of whom proudly claimed to be descendants of John Rolfe and Pocahontas, to maintain their claims to ancestry while simultaneously maintaining their claims to whiteness. A quick note that the Virginia General Assembly (still the governing body of Virginia) considers itself, as Wikipedia notes, to be “the oldest continuous law-making body in the New World (Western Hemisphere), established on July 30, 1619.” This is nonsense, since the Iroquois Confederacy certainly predates the VGA, as no doubt do a multitude of Native American governing bodies. To make such a statement relies on a very narrow definition of “law-making body”–a definition that, if worded precisely enough, might manage to exclude Native American institutions while only including white institutions. However, given that we are living on Native American land and not in Europe, such a definition would obviously be wrong.

11/ A Ho Chunk page about the history of Merrill Springs. The name given at the park is not one of the names on that page. However, all credit to the Friends of Merrill Springs (a really small neighborhood organization) for trying to decolonize the place, even if it’s not quite working as planned. They’re a really small neighborhood group that cares about a place and doesn’t really deserve my shade.

Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, MN was renamed to Bde Maka Ska. I believe the Parks Department (in conjunction with the DNR) in that case decided to rename the lake and submitted documentation to the US Board on Geographic Names, which adopted the new name. A Minnesota Court of Appeals tried to say the Parks Dept. didn’t have the authority to change the name without the legislature’s say-so, but because the Federal Gov’t had already adopted the new name, the Parks Dept said they weren’t changing the signs back. (The MN Supreme Court later reversed the Court of Appeals decision, by the way.)

12/ Indian Mounds, also known as Native American Mounds, are burial mounds. They’re often in the shape of animals (specifically these are called “effigy mounds“), but conical and linear mounds are also seen. They are actually older than the tribes we are discussing–the ones in my area were probably made by the ancestors of the Ho-Chunk people during what’s called the Woodland period, which goes from 500 BCE–1100 CE. The conical and linear mounds are older than the animal ones and may date from as far back as 700 BCE. Archaeologists used to occasionally dig them up, but now they are largely protected, thank goodness. This random dude’s website has good pictures and data on a lot of the mounds in the Madison region. It also boasts a guide to mounds in the rest of Southern and Central Wisconsin as well as a great bibliography, so check it out!

Here, you can view a list of different original names for the Mississippi River. [We’re naming I-90 in Chicago, for those who are wondering. It’s the [Jane] Addams from the Wisconsin border to O’Hare, and the Kennedy from O’Hare to the city. The Addams is a tollway, but the Kennedy does not have tolls. Just a ton of traffic, no matter the time of day.–Jesse]

13/ Homi K. Bhaba is one of the more incomprehensible theorists I have come across (as opposed to Homi J. Bhaba, who is a physicist and presumably incomprehensible in another way). Not that his ideas are bad or anything, he’s just not a super clear writer. (Check his Wikipedia page–he has won a prize for his bad writing.)

Jesse: Yes, but he’s got some stuff worth reading all the same.

Em: Frantz Fanon wrote about armed revolution as a response to French colonialism in Algeria in The Wretched of the Earth. I believe he also talked about the idea of being “not quite French enough” in Black Skin, White Masks.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is a postcolonial theorist best known for writing “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” which addresses the production of knowledge in colonized areas. And–it’s really complicated, but the answer is no. She also translated Derrida’s Of Grammatology, which honestly seems like enough headache for a lifetime. (Sorry, I’ll keep my snarky philosopher assessments to myself.–Em) She’s also interesting because she will typically cite only female authors in her work wherever possible. [Again, Derrida has some interesting points. Bhabha definitely uses some Derrida, so…we see a trend in Em’s opinions!–Jesse] (Yeah, I mean–Derrida is cool and all but have you ever read a book where you could get through a page in less than 20 minutes? –Em)

Edward Said wrote Orientalism, which is a book describing the relationship of the West to the East, specifically the ways in which the West (specifically, for Said, the UK) has made the East (specifically, for Said, the Middle East–what was once called “the near East”–Americans tend to use the term “Orient” to mean East and Southeast Asia) subordinate to the West.

14/ Odalisque: the term technically refers to a female chambermaid or attendant, particularly in the women’s quarters in the Ottoman Sultan’s household. But it also became an entire genre of painting featuring women (typically white) dressed in or draped with various “exotic” silks (painters love drapey stuff)–or sometimes, not draped with anything much–in a setting implicitly or explicitly reminiscent of the palace of a non-Western (often Turkish) ruler. (Portraits of people wearing exotic clothes are called turquerie: this portrait of Almina Wertheimer is an example.

Almina, Daughter of Asher Wertheimer 1908 John Singer Sargent 1856-1925 Presented by the widow and family of Asher Wertheimer in accordance with his wishes 1922 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03713

Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque is here.

The Guerilla Girls’ version is here.

15/ The picturesque. Some great examples of paintings there.

Kent Monkman is a Cree artist. His paintings are very much in the Renaissance tradition of, for example, Peter Paul Reubens–there are a lot of figures, exquisitely posed, telling a complex story; they are exceedingly well painted and draw on a really wide variety of sources. Many of his works feature a “gender-fluid alter ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle [, who] often appears in his work as a time-traveling, shape-shifting, supernatural being who reverses the colonial gaze to challenge received notions of history and Indigenous peoples” (source). You can see many of his paintings on his website.

Jesse: Monkman has amazing things to say about why he uses Western (especially Romantic) idioms to critique Western culture. I HIGHLY recommend this talk he gave; it’s fantastic. Watch this!!!

The Elgin Marbles were a set of marbles looted off the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin. He took them in the early 1800s; Greece has been trying to get them back since they gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832. At the time the marbles were taken, Lord Byron wrote a couple of disapproving poems about it. So there’s that. [Yes! Let us not forget Byron–who was awesome in many ways, if problematic in others, and also a brilliant poet–and others who absolutely thought of modern Greece as the descendant of ancient Greece and wanted to free Greece from the tyranny of the Ottoman Empire. (They viewed this desire as deeply Romantic and also deeply romantic.) It’s very important to note that the definition of ancient Greece as white and modern Greece as non-white happened slowly and was NOT a foregone conclusion. The fact that the Ottoman Empire had ruled Greece for so long (more than 350 years) undoubtedly factored into the eventual definition of modern Greece as non-white and non-Western.–Jesse]

16/ [34:xx] On race in undergraduate philosophy classes… There’s a longer essay here about ignoring differences (because everyone is a philosopher, so we don’t need to talk about race/gender/etc.) and how it can minimize cultural differences/make people feel excluded/etc. (the difference between being anti-racist and being colorblind). There were relatively few female philosophy majors and we studied very few female philosophers; I wasn’t terribly into representation, but it was enough to make me feel somewhat alienated. I can’t imagine how the ONE Black woman who ever took one of these classes felt.

But also, it’s useful to keep in mind that modern American conceptions of race are largely rooted in skin color and derive from slavery-related distinctions (i.e., you’re either Black or you’re not). In other places and times, what constituted “race” was different. [Yes! Race is always a social and cultural construct and therefore completely dependent on cultural forces. There is no biological definition of race.–Jesse]

See episode 10, note 40 where we talked about polychromy and Greek statues. And episode 3, note 3 for Barthes’s essay on Romans in film.

17/ “In all of Jane Austen, you get the one moment in Northanger Abbey…” It was Mansfield Park, actually. And he was in Antigua, not Barbados. Good job, Em of the past. But it is a weird “we don’t mention the war” moment. Evidence I’ve read suggests Austen was an abolitionist, for all that meant in a world where women had basically no political power.

18/ J.M.W. Turner’s painting The Slave Ship, originally titled “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying–Typhoon Coming on” (long title). It was painted seven years after slavery was outlawed in the British Empire (slavery had been outlawed in the British Isles earlier than that–since 1772, although it didn’t really disappear until 1800 or so). For ease of reference, I’m embedding it here, but you should definitely go read the Wikipedia page about it. Like many of Turner’s paintings, it’s extremely beautiful! Dude was a master! So it is hard to figure out how to feel about it as a painting. In addition, the story behind it (the story of the Zong massacre) makes plain how horrible slavery really was–how the human beings who were enslaved were not viewed as humans, but merely as cargo, to be insured, carried, and liquidated as desired. [I teach this painting. It’s beautiful, as all Turner is, but it’s also terrifying. The beauty itself is almost frightening. Turner’s achievement is extraordinary–a painting that is so captivating that you have to stare at it while seeing an event so terrible and inhuman that it’s almost unimaginable. The viewer can’t look away. The inability to turn away is the point–the viewer is forced to reckon with the event.–Jesse]

Held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. https://collections.mfa.org/objects/31102

19/ Remember that line in “We Didn’t Start the Fire” about Belgians in the Congo? That was Leopold II. The most well-known book about his crimes is King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild. Because of the way the Congo Free State was being run (basically by a charity Leopold ran, rather than by the Belgian government), there were a LOT of atrocities committed there as part of the process of extracting resources from the natives. In 1809, in response to substantial international pressure, Belgium annexed the Congo Free State forming the Belgian Congo, which took control away from Leopold, ending many of the atrocities. Leopold nor Belgium never apologized–THIS FREAKING YEAR, the current king of Belgium expressed his “regrets” to the Congolese government about the “violence and cruelty” inflicted on them. But without, like, saying Leopold’s name specifically or anything.

20/ Here is a great article about the “controversy” over Mary Beard’s BBC cartoon (I put the word controversy in quotes because really it was just people being racist). The real person Beard herself mentioned was from Algeria: Quintus Lollius Urbicus. However, as Matthew Nicholls points out in this article (also referenced in the Guardian article above), there were definitely black Roman soldiers in Britain (they were described as Ethiopian, whether or not they were actually from Ethiopia). Sorry we can’t link to a clip–it doesn’t seem to be available in the USA.

21/ Jesse: Yinka Shonibare (b.1962, British-Nigerian artist) is the best. Here are some videos on his exhibitions Prospero’s Monsters  and Fabric-ation. Here is one more video about an exhibition related to an incredibly famous medieval map (a mappa mundi, or world map): the Hereford Mappa Mundi. (And a video about it!) We’ll definitely talk about this in a future episode. Also, to quote Wikipedia, “Shonibare contracted transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord, at the age of 18, which resulted in a long-term physical disability where one side of his body is paralysed.” Here is Shonibare’s website.

22/ Em: Technically the tribes that are not recognized by the government are referred to as Non-Acknowledged Tribes. Which is a weird name on so many levels.

Jesse: This deserves an entire essay. Please look up the bits of information here to find out more! Federal recognition is not designed to help Native American tribes; it’s designed to help the federal government (or at least state governments) keep control over as much land as possible. However, we recorded this before the incredible 9 July 2020 decision in Sharp v. Murphy, which held that much of eastern Oklahoma is the tribal land of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Amazing!  Please note in the NY Times article that the US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

While Sharp v. Murphy is a landmark case, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation is well documented and established. Tribes without such documentation do not fare as well. The description I give in this section of the podcast is rather garbled because the issue is so complicated. In 2009 the US Supreme Court decided Carcieri v. Salazar, which “held that the federal government could not take land into trust that was acquired by the Narragansett Tribe in the late 20th century, as it was not federally recognized until 1983. While well documented in historic records and surviving as a community, the tribe was largely dispossessed of its lands while under guardianship by the state of Rhode Island before suing in the 20th century. The Court ruled that the phrase [regarding] tribes ‘now under Federal jurisdiction’ in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 referred only to those tribes that were federally recognized when the act was passed. It ruled that the federal government could not take land into trust for the Narragansett or other tribes that were federally recognized and acquired land after 1934” (Wikipedia). Here is the decision.

Carcieri v. Salazar was decided specifically for the Narragansett Tribe regarding lands in Rhode Island. However, this decision has since harmed many tribes that cannot prove federal recognition in or before 1934, most recently the Mashpee Wampanoag of Massachusetts. This ruling is troubling on many levels, not least because it requires Native American tribes to provide documentation from the very government that was intent on erasing them. (See Virginia’s issues above in note 12.) As the Vox article linked above points out, “The Obama administration tried to end this uncertainty about which tribes can put land into trust by creating a framework to interpret the ruling. Notably, this framework is what allowed the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation to be placed into trust in 2015. But the Trump administration has not utilized these guidelines, reinterpreting that original decision more broadly. The Interior Department even went so far as to issue a new ruling in 2018 saying that the Bureau of Indian Affairs, under the Interior, did not consider Mashpee Wampanoag to be under federal jurisdiction in 1934, reversing the Obama-era policy. This has led the tribe to bring new litigation against the Interior in federal court, which is still pending.” In other words, even if an administration is willing to interpret the Supreme Court ruling in Carcieri more broadly, the next administration could take everything away.

23/ Okay, a lot of post-Enlightenment philosophers have critiqued the Enlightenment after the fact, including Carl Schmitt (who was a Nazi), and Jurgen Habermas (who wasn’t), Leo Strauss, etc. Which is funny, because they were mostly blaming the Enlightenment modes of reason for the unrest of the early to mid-twentieth century, while I keep thinking is there a way we can get back to the political stability of the late twentieth century (I mean this is kind of a joke, because it was not politically a great time for a lot of people, but…). Ah, what a difference a couple of decades make. Anyway, check out Philosophize This!‘s recent episodes for a good collection of the critiques.

24/ Afrofuturism > Dickens. Sorry, Charlie. Check out a few of my favs, in no specific order, Deltron 3030, Janelle Monae, Sun Ra, Tade Thompson, Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney. [N.K. Jemisin, currently writing an amazing Green Lantern series for DC comics called Green Lantern: Far Sector.–Jesse]

25/ Jesse: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko–read it!

26/ WWI in Africa. Also a lot of Africans were conscripted (by their colonists) to go fight on the front lines.

Die Schwarzkommando appear to be something Thomas Pynchon made up for Gravity’s Rainbow, but as mentioned there were plenty of Africans fighting in WWI, AND die Schwarzkommando are explicitly linked to a German genocide that took place in Africa between 1904–1908 that you’ve probably not heard about–the Herero and Namaqua genocide, in which the Germans killed as many as 100,000 people, including by putting them into concentration camps. If you’re thinking now, hey wait, wasn’t there something about genocide and concentration camps in WWII–well, now you’re seeing how Pynchon works. Go read GR, it’s great.

Some terrible things happened in the Pacific during WWII. Examples include: the Bataan Death March, the rape of Nanking/Nanjing, the operations of Unit 731, the Japanese kidnapping/use of what are euphemistically called “comfort women” but were really basically women pressed into sex slavery…for a full list, Wikipedia has some helpful articles on Japanese War Crimes during World War II and American Coverups of Japanese War Crimes. There aren’t many works of fiction that talk about any of these things–the only one that’s really coming to mind is Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, a book that was in many ways deeply flawed but really captured the feeling of how terrible the war in the Pacific was.

27/ Ibn Batutta (1304-1368 or 69), from Morocco. Zheng He (1371-1433 or 35), from Yunnan (China).

28/ Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête.

Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. Watch this film!

Many translations of Shakespeare are quite famous; I’ve heard you have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.

Doctor Who on Shakespeare’s sexuality. Seems 100% accurate to me.

29/ [1:07:51] And here we get the E.H. Lupton Used Bookstore Theory of Literary Merit. This may be why no one has asked me to teach a class on literature. Not sure. One of many reasons.

“The death of the author,” by the way–not a wish for violence against JK Rowling (no matter how much we disagree) or anyone else, just a literary theory that lets you examine a text without having to bother with the author’s biography, personal views, or belated Tweeted explanations for what such-and-so character was REALLY doing in chapter 17. (In some ways, Shakespeare is a great example of this–because we know SO LITTLE about his actual biography, we have to take his plays as texts without any other context other than the historical. And often most of Shakespeare is taught without even that, just purely through the texts.) I’m running this together a bit with the new criticism, which is a way of teaching literature that became popular after WWII and the GI Bill brought a lot of students into the university system who were not the traditional college prep-school kids. [Also, JK Rowling is a TERF–Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist–which is a terrible and truly harmful set of opinions to hold. TERFs are neither radical nor feminist. See my long comment in Episode 10 note 17 for more on TERFs and gender generally. Awesomely, Daniel Radcliff—aka Harry Potter–wrote this great essay for the Trevor Project. –Jesse]

You can check out The 1619 Project here if you haven’t already seen it.

30/ Em: I have honestly no recollection of the plot of any Pirates of the Caribbean movie other than swashbuckling, but I think the villain might be the British East Indies Trading Company rather than the Dutch East Indies Company, which through a complicated series of events invented Indonesia and was sort of a predecessor for the Shell Oil company. British East Indies Company was also pretty bad though. [Yes, it was definitely the British East Indies Company, obviously. Oops. Great movies though, and an A+ for using a historical villain that most people probably knew nothing about!–Jesse]