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Critical Essay by Alyson R. Buckman
SOURCE: "The Body as a Site of Colonization: Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy," in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 89-94.
In the following essay, Buckman analyzes how the body can become a site of colonization, and the different methods of resistance as shown in Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy.
Imperialism is an economic, political, institutional, and cultural phenomenon that has been practiced by power elites in relation to the masses of the United States, especially in relation to Native Americans, blacks, women, and immigrant groups such as Asians. Although the term is generally used to describe the control of one nation over the political, cultural, or economic life of another, it may be extended to include internal, as well as external, colonialism. The colonial relationship is one of domination and subordination among groups and is constructed primarily on notions of difference; it is established and maintained in order to serve the interests of the dominant group, fortifying its position and eroding choice for non-elites through force, authority, influence, and dominance. Elites include those in positions of influence and power, i.e., those who have access to resources that enable them to dominate in the creation of policy and culture: religious, political, and economic leaders; educators; artists; publishers; and professional associations, such as the American Medical Association.
The colonial relationship is not only physical, but psychic and cultural as well. Ideology occupies a dialectical relation to legislation, economics, and culture: it arises from and contributes to a system of exclusionary power relations. Those colonized have less access to resources as they are subordinated economically and politically; what resources they do have are tenuous as their bodies, which have become commodities, are dispensable in a surplus labor force. Imaging is one tool used to justify this exclusion and subordination, constructing those colonized as deserving of their lower status.
For instance, Charles Murray's "Model Minority" thesis is used to image blacks as lazy and socially parasitic in comparison to model Asians; if they wanted to live up to their Lockean social contract and take individual responsibility for their welfare, they could. The only reason blacks form a disproportionate number of the unemployed is that they are just too lazy to go out and get a job; instead, they live off of whites. Such propaganda as this reinforces stereotypes conducive to retaining elites in power. Violence is often a result of such imaging; these stereotypes and ideologies often promote physical as well as psychic violence, such as low self-esteem and despair, within and against non-elites. Incidents such as those of Bernhard Goetz, Rodney King, Vincent Chin, Bensonhurst, and the Los Angeles riots are an (il)logical result.
The image-making process is thus a vital part of how domination is (de)constructed. bell hooks and other authors agree that control over the image-making process is a vital part of systems of domination; while hooks specifically discusses racial domination, this is true for gender, sexual, and economic domination as well. Hegemonic discourse must therefore be disrupted and transformed as part of the process of decolonization; those who are dominated must be able to see themselves "oppositionally, to imagine, describe, and invent ourselves in ways that are liberatory." For example, in order to fight against their economic status as the lowest paid workers in America and their status as the primary victims of sterilization abuse and abortion, black women must take control of the image-making process as part of revolutionary activity.
One example of this taking control is Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy; this text functions as an example of revolutionary action against the oppression of those colonized by the imperialist gaze. The female body and the African body are exposed as sites of colonization by power elites; the ritual of female genital mutilation and the AIDS epidemic are both imaged as means to oppression. However, in Walker's text these bodies also become sites of resistance to domination by power elites. In addition, the power relations in this text are not simplistically demarcated in a binary of colonized versus colonizer/good versus evil. Walker posits a complex system of power relations in which those oppressed themselves become oppressors through hegemonic systems.
The female body is revealed as a site of male and national colonization through the ritual clitoridectomy and infibulation that the protagonist, Tashi/Evelyn Johnson, undergoes. Walker bases the experience of her fictional character upon fact. Genital mutilation impacts upon approximately 100 million women worldwide; this is a procedure generally covered by the comparatively innocuous term "female circumcision." This mutilation ranges from knicking the clitoris to infibulation (the excising of all external genitalia and the sewing shut of the vulva—except for a tiny opening barely large enough to allow the passage of very small quantities of blood and urine). The girls and young women who undergo this procedure sometimes die, and medical complications, such as infections and problematic labors, frequently result.
The procedure is based on a variety of reasons dependent on the culture; aesthetic, social, hygienic, and moral values in varying combinations form the basis of this practice. In Olinkan culture (the fictional setting of Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy) as in other cultures, the practice is based on a desire to limit women's sexuality and increase male pleasure. Without the clitoridectomy and infibulation, the woman is imaged as dirty, masculine, and whorish; the general belief is that the genitalia of the "uncircumcised" woman will continue to grow and become masculine, enabling her to satisfy herself. She is generally unable to marry, thus affecting her economic status as well.
For those faced with conflict between traditional and colonial influence, the ritual of genital mutilation gains added significance as a means of resisting tribal colonization. Tashi is a native African woman who is sensitive to the threat posed her people by outside colonizers. When her village is destroyed by a rubber manufacturer from England, Tashi engages in the revolutionary activity of embracing traditional tribal rituals; it is her way of resisting tribal erasure. And, indeed, this activity is sanctioned by a revolutionary figure known only as "Our Leader" (it is against colonial law to mention the man's name out loud), who bears considerable likeness to the Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta. Kenyatta, too, encouraged Africans to return to tribal rituals, such as female genital mutilation, as part of anti-colonial activity. The body is the only means of resistance left, as everything else has been stripped away by the foreign colonizers. Tashi narrates,
I had taken off my gingham Mother Hubbard [that the missionaries had given the women of the tribe to wear]. My breasts were bare. What was left of my dress now rode negligently about my loins…. We had been stripped of everything but our black skins. Here and there a defiant cheek bore the mark of our withered tribe. These marks gave me courage. I wanted such a mark for myself.
However, although Tashi willingly requested to be "bathed" by the tsunga M'Lissa ("bathed" is a euphemism for the ritual; tsunga is a word Walker coined to describe the woman who performs the ritual), she did not realize what, precisely, was involved. This is partly due to the fact that discussing the ritual is taboo; it is enshrouded in a silence that helps to keep the practice intact. She did not realize either the physical or psychic damage that would result from the ritual.
Once a woman who took pleasure in her body, Tashi is embarrassed by the shuffling walk and odor that are characteristic results of the procedure (her menstrual period takes ten days and some of the blood is unable to get out due to the smallness of the vaginal opening); in addition, neither she nor Adam, her husband, could ever again experience the sexual pleasure they had before the operation. The operation ensures that the woman will have no pleasure through vaginal intercourse, and Adam, a non-tribal American male, does not enjoy either the blood or the pain that results for Tashi from forcing the vaginal opening wider. A part of Tashi's self hides away after the ritual ceremony; she is no longer the woman she once was.
Two other examples of genital mutilation are given to the reader to underscore the prevalence and pain of this practice: that of Dura, Tashi's older sister, and that of M'Lissa, the tsunga. Dura's experience is key as it forms part of Tashi's post-ritual madness. A hemophiliac, Dura died as a result of the ritual performed at M'Lissa's hands. After this traumatic occurrence, Tashi experiences a sort of amnesia related to her ensuing madness; when she overcomes this amnesia, a vital part of her cure is effected. This part of the cure entails naming her and her sister's oppression; Dura's death is named a murder which, in addition to the traumatic effects of the ritual upon Tashi, must be revenged. And the person upon whom vengeance must be visited is the one who performed the ceremony and the one praised as a national treasure: M'Lissa.
M'Lissa is also a victim of genital mutilation. She drags her left leg behind her, as the tendons were severed during the operation. M'Lissa's mother (the tsunga at the time) had attempted to simply knick M'Lissa's clitoris; the male witch doctor, however, was vigilant and, perceiving a violation of the ceremony, performed a thorough clitoridectomy and infibulation himself. As M'Lissa bucked under the razor-sharp stone, he also cut the tendons in her left leg.
Although M'Lissa is a victim, the reader is not persuaded to empathize with her plight. Although her body is marked and experienced as a site of male domination, she becomes the next tsunga and thus becomes complicitous with the patriarchy. She learns to stop feeling and becomes callous in the performance of her "duty." As this ritual is her livelihood, she decides to ensure her own autonomy at the expense of other women, women whom she sees as fools. She believes the women themselves to be the agents of their own domination; in her eyes, if women are stupid enough to obey this tradition, then they deserve everything they get as a result. Tashi puts this sort of belief as follows, describing its consequences: "'If you He to yourself about your own pain, you will be killed by those who will claim you enjoyed it.'"
In looking at the female body as a site of colonization in this text, then, a few points are clear. First, those who are colonized may also act as colonizers. This is true of both the tribal leaders who encourage genital mutilation and the tsunga M'Lissa. As the leaders are subordinated to English colonial authority, so, too, do they subordinate women to their own authority, limited as it may be. As Audre Lorde writes, genital mutilation "is not a cultural affair as the late Jomo Kenyatta insisted. It is a crime against black women." Nationalism does not excuse oppression.
Second, Walker avoids easy binary oppositions of male/female, colonizer/colonized, white/black, European/African, and good/evil. This second point is further developed through the use of Adam and his sister, Olivia. While Adam and Olivia are both black Americans and, thus, victims of oppression themselves, they are also agents of colonization. As part of a missionary family (their mother, father, and aunt acted as missionaries to the Olinkans until the village was destroyed), they are seen as outsiders and, more importantly, as cultural TNT by the Olinkans. The mores (concerning religion, clothing, education, sexuality, beauty, et cetera) that Adam and Olivia's family had brought to the tribe are seen as the means to colonization that they are. Tashi phrases this discourse in the following way in a conversation with Olivia before she leaves for the ritual:
They are right, I said to her from my great height astride the donkey, who say you and your family are the white people's wedge…. All I care about now is the struggle for our people, I said. You are a foreigner. Any day you like, you and your family can ship yourselves back home…. Who are you and your people never to accept us as we are? Never to imitate any of our ways? It is always we who have to change…. You are black, but you are not like us. We look at you and your people with pity, I said. You barely have your own black skin, and it is fading…. You don't even know what you've lost! And the nerve of you, to bring us a God someone else chose for you!
In this quote we can see the complexities of both intranational and international colonization for both America and Africa. Here we have two African-Americans who have accepted a religion, foreign to their ancestry, that was once used as a justification for slavery; in turn, they are asking Africans to replace their beliefs with this same religion. We have a woman who comes from and represents a patriarchal background, in religious as well as other American ideologies, begging another woman not to submit to a patriarchal tradition. And we have a woman who, in asserting and celebrating her tribal identity, is victimized by that tribal belief system.
Walker also complicates the male/female binary. For example, the character of Adam provides further complexities. As a colonizer, Adam acts as religious, male, and American figures of domination. The moment at which Tashi spiritually left their relationship, she tells us, is when Adam, a progressive minister, refused to give a sermon on female suffering as evidenced in Tashi's mutilation; he had lectured on the suffering of Christ, and Tashi believed he should lecture on the suffering of women like herself as well.
I grew agitated each time he touched on the suffering of Jesus…. I am a great lover of Jesus, and always have been. Still, I began to see how the constant focus on the suffering of Jesus alone excludes the suffering of others from one's view…. Was woman herself not the tree of life? And was she not crucified? Not in some age no one even remembers, but right now, daily, in many lands on earth?… One sermon, I begged him. One discussion with your followers about what was done to me…. He said the congregation would be embarrassed to discuss something so private and that, in any case, he would be ashamed to do so.
Adam has the power to help revolutionize understanding of structures of domination, yet he refuses this possibility and becomes complicitous in maintaining a disempowering silence.
However, he, too, is hurt by the system of oppression. Although men are not victims of sexism in the way that women are, there are ways in which they are adversely affected by it; many men experience the pain of their mothers, sisters, and daughters as they encounter sexism, often experiencing the ramifications of colonization with them. Specifically, Adam acts as an anchor to Tashi's psychically unbalanced life. He is the caretaker, for instance, when Tashi unconsciously slashes rings around her ankles. He remains with her throughout her voluntary commitments to a mental hospital and her episodic rages. He is also unable to have intercourse with his wife and thus experiences some of the same rupture in sexuality as Tashi does. Thus, the way in which her body has been colonized as a site of subordination has affected his own existence as well.
Another male, Benny, is also hurt by the colonization of Tashi's female body. Benny is the son of Tashi and Adam, and his trip through the birth canal was impeded by Tashi's infibulation; the vaginal opening was not large enough and part of Benny's brain was crushed during labor. As a result, Benny was born retarded. Although he functions fairly well, he cannot remember things and constantly has to take notes on conversations and instructions. Benny is also affected by Tashi's emotional disturbances, constantly rebuffed by the emotional wall surrounding his mother. Although he tries to snuggle up to her, both symbolically and literally, she pushes him away. Benny, although an American male, is clearly not aligned with the colonizer.
To complicate things even further, the male body becomes a site of colonization as the text proceeds; this occurs through the representation of the African AIDS epidemic. While women and children form the background to the AIDS ward, Hartford, a young African male, is foregrounded as an AIDS victim. It is Hartford who reveals to the audience one version of how the AIDS epidemic began. Hartford was recruited to work for a medical laboratory in Africa, first as a hunter of green monkeys and then as a decapitator of those same monkeys. Through his narrative (and Walker's notes, which follow the main text), Germans, Dutch, Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders are all implicated in the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic, as the white technicians use these monkeys in an attempt to find a cure for polio. However, some of the vaccine was contaminated and disseminated within the African population, which was used as a test subject.
This version of the AIDS epidemic corresponds, at least in part, to information that Tom Curtis, a journalist, has uncovered about the origins of the disease. Between 1957 and 1960, Curtis has discovered, at least 325,000, and perhaps more than a half million, people received an oral polio vaccine in equatorial Africa—which was then the Belgian Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda; this section of Africa is now the epicenter of the epidemic. The polio virus was nourished on monkey kidneys, some of which were infected with monkey viruses. While researchers knew about some of these viruses, others were unknown to them; as a result, they could not be screened out of the vaccines. However, the oral vaccine was apparently used prematurely in the Congo, as Dr. Hilary Koprowski competed with Dr. Albert Sabin to be the first to produce the favored polio vaccine. The successful polio immunization of the caretakers of 150 chimpanzees (who were test subjects for the vaccine) became the basis for mass trials in Africa.
In both Curtis and Hartford's narratives, the African body becomes a site of domination; Africans form a disposable supply of test subjects for Western doctors and technicians. In other myths of the origins of AIDS that Walker touches on, the intellectuals among the AIDS victims reach the conclusion that "it must have been an experiment, like the one conducted on black men in Alabama, who were injected with the virus that causes syphilis, then studied as they sickened and died. The kind of experiment that would not have been hazarded on European or white American subjects." This narrative, in conjunction with Hartford's testimony, clearly depicts the African body as a site of colonization.
The AIDS and genital mutilation narratives clearly posit the body, specifically male and female African bodies, as a site of both international and intranational colonization. Both Western and male ideologies posit the Other (African, female) as a commodity whose definition should be fixed by the power elite; after all, the Other is inferior to the dominant self and can be readily displaced within the system of power. This power differential is incorporated through colonial law, tribal traditions and leadership, economics, and cultural products such as image production. However, this system, which produces psychic and physical violence, can be disrupted through the image-making process and the rejection of silence; both are integral parts of revolutionary activity, and both are used in Walker's text.
In discussing a ritual that is traditionally taboo and in verbalizing a creation myth for AIDS that is vehemently denied by dominant groups, Walker deconstructs the silence that helps to empower these groups and disempower the Other. In addition, Walker constructs empowering images of the colonized, enabling the Other to transcend objedification and become subject. Part of this quest for transcendence is constituted by history.
Although Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks turns his back on the past in favor of the present and future, it seems to me that the three are necessarily related as history (and, by implication, memory) can act as a witness against oppression; I am, of course, not referring to histories written by the power elite. If the colonized refuse to forget the past, then they also refuse to be complicitous in their oppression, as it will not be forgotten. As bell hooks writes, "Memory sustains a spirit of resistance. Too many red and black people live in a state of forgetfulness, embracing a colonized mind so that they can better assimilate into the white world." While history may be painful, the Other can, in remembering, deconstruct the history of the colonizer and its falsifying representation of the colonized. Memory can then act as a catalyst against oppression.
Tashi's ability to gain control over her memory and accuse those responsible for her psychic and physical trauma and for Dura's death is the key to her recovery from madness and her growth in agency. Whereas previously her madness was self-defeating, once she gains control over her memory and is able to identify those who have oppressed her and other women, she is able to once again experience agency. Militancy is chosen over madness. Tashi returns to Africa and murders M'Lissa, enacting revenge for scores of women. Her act is not only against M'Lissa, however; M'Lissa has become a "national monument" and, in her act against M'Lissa, Tashi acts against the patriarchy that would subdue womanhood.
That this is not an individual act of aggression with limited consequences is evidenced by the demonstrations of African and Muslim women (also victims of genital mutilation) once Tashi is placed on trial. Professional women visit the president to ask for an appeal of Tashi's death sentence while other women stand vigil outside the jail in solidarity with Tashi, even as they are faced with men physically and verbally abusing them. While M'Lissa was a monument to the patriarchy, Tashi becomes a heroine to oppressed and subjugated women worldwide. These women testify to her status at her execution as well, enacting a pageant of solidarity. The last thing that Tashi sees, which explicates the meaning of her actions, is a banner reading "RESISTANCE IS THE SECRET OF JOY!" (original emphasis).
Not only does Walker image the body as victim, as a site of colonization, but she shows how the status of victim and Other can be transcended to that of agent and subject. Relations of oppression are also complexly imaged. In unmasking systems of domination, many authors are accused of not taking the next logical step and proposing a new solution; this is not the case with Walker. Her text acts as a revolutionary manifesto for dismantling systems of domination. As such, her text is that of a radical. To simply strive for social and economic equality with white men or to simply combat racism is not enough, although liberal and conservative ideology might propose these as solutions for sexism, racism, and classism. Instead, the complete system must be overturned. And the first step is overcoming the silence that empowers dominant groups; this is part of an overall resistance that might very well be the key to the secret of joy.
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