Decolonizing the African Tongue: Language and the contested terrain of African consciousness


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Freedom and its epistemological bases

Of course conceptions of freedom are explicitly and implicitly epistemological. They are moored to the milieu of their conceptualization and operationalization. This is why the critical race theorists’ critique of liberalism is an appropriate one. Liberalism in the western context has been utilized variously as a paradigm that simultaneously championed the freedom of the capitalist class from monarchical tyranny, alongside the subjugation of African prisoners of war enslaved in the Western hemisphere.

Today this liberal discourse advocates the dissolution of the public sector, the unfettering of capital from any constraints, and the notion of freedom as little more than an individual exercise–a form of hyperrelativism wherein freedom can be easily encapsulated as a bourgeois right to take part fully in the capitalist state.

What should be noted here is that freedom is never, in this ideological milieu, defined as the rights of groups to self-determination, or rights to the material resources that can sustain their freedom or in contrast facilitate the accumulation of the capitalist class, or rights to a redress for the historic and on-going predations of the intertwined capitalist state and white supremacist system. “Freedom” in this context is effectively trivialized in its actual potency, while being championed as the apex of human possibility.

One might ponder the explicit or implicit meanings inherent how this idea has been posited within other language/cultural systems. Did the invocations of uhuru during the colonial struggle articulate a bourgeois form of freedom, wherein sham democracy is offered as a substitute for the reorganization of society’s political economy from one centered on the interest of an elite minority to one that is stewarded by the masses as an instrument of their collective will and vision of an emancipatory future? The selection of uhuru here is not incidental, as it was a key element of the anticolonial struggles in Africa, in addition to being a key part of the political discourse during the Black Power era. Thus, in this way, uhuru became symbolic of a notion of Pan-African liberation, reflecting cooperative economics as a liberatory paradigm of political economy, and a discourse pertaining to cultural reclamation and decolonization.

Uhuru is only one example, but it is rich in potential and historic significance. It remains pregnant in its epistemological import and capacity to further illuminate an on-going and increasingly fractured and limited vision of freedom as it is articulated in the modern western context.