Postcolonial Theory, Race and Caste

by Suddha Guharoy (LSE) and Andreas Sorger (LSE)

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Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism, pp. 31-46
2000, NYU Press.
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Publisher’s Note: This classic work, first published in France in 1955, profoundly influenced the generation of scholars and activists at the forefront of liberation struggles in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Nearly twenty years later, when published for the first time in English, Discourse on Colonialism inspired a new generation engaged in the Civil Rights, Black Power, and anti-war movements and has sold more than 75,000 copies to date.

Aimé Césaire eloquently describes the brutal impact of capitalism and colonialism on both the colonizer and colonized, exposing the contradictions and hypocrisy implicit in western notions of “progress” and “civilization” upon encountering the “savage,” “uncultured,” or “primitive.” Here, Césaire reaffirms African values, identity, and culture, and their relevance, reminding us that “the relationship between consciousness and reality are extremely complex. . . . It is equally necessary to decolonize our minds, our inner life, at the same time that we decolonize society.”


Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism is a foundational text in postcolonial theory, which provides an excoriating critique of not only European practices of colonialism, but also the underlying theories and logics used to justify them. Specifically, Césaire takes aim at the view of colonialism as a ‘civilising mission’, where benevolent Europeans would provide non-white non- Europeans with the tools necessary for modernisation. Instead, he argued that colonialism wrought destruction everywhere it went, killing people, eradicating civilisations, and obliterating any alternative cultural ideas that contrasted European values. Crucially, Césaire explores the psychological effects of colonialism on both the colonised and the coloniser – a theme that would be taken further by Frantz Fanon (a student of Césaire’s) in his writings.

Study Questions

  1. Throughout Discourse on Colonialism, Césaire uses images of decay to describe European or Western civilisation. In the sections you are reading, he talks about it as a “stricken” and “dying” civilisation (p.31) and likens every act of brutality perpetuated by Europeans to a “gangrene” that spreads throughout Western civilisation as a whole. What do you think Césaire means by this image? What effect does it have on the reader?
  2. Césaire writes: “The colonialists may kill in Indochina, torture in Madagascar, and imprison in Black Africa, crack down in the West Indies. Henceforth the colonised know that they have an advantage over them. They know their temporary ‘masters’ are lying” (p.32). Why does Césaire suggest the colonialists are lying? Why does this give the colonised an “advantage over [the colonisers]”?
  3. What connections does Césaire draw between Nazism and colonialism? Why does he suggest that every “humanistic … Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century … has a Hitler inside him” (p.36)?
  4. What implications follow from Césaire’s claim that “no one colonises innocently” (p.39)? How might this change the way we examine the legacy of colonial practices today?
  5. What is the “boomerang effect of colonisation” (p.41) that Césaire diagnoses?
  6. What does Césaire mean by the phrase “Colonialism = thingification”? How does this relate to his discussion of the psychological effects of colonialism on both the coloniser and the colonised?
  7. What values does Césaire suggest we can find in pre-colonial non-European civilizations? What role do you think these values play in his wider argument?
  8. On the one hand, Césaire explicitly details the destructive power of Western colonialism, such that entire cultures and civilisations have been eradicated as a result of its On the other, Césaire defends the values of pre-colonial non-European civilisations (see p.44-46). Do you think this points to a tension within Césaire’s argument? If so, how might we resolve it? If not, why not?

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Baldwin, James. Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind

1963, in: The Fire Next Time. Penguin Classics. pp. 3-22.

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Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.


Published in 1963, this essay offers a scathing attack on the racist history of America and its contemporary present in the 1960s. The text provides a trenchant critique of the way racism has shaped, and continues to shape, relations between whites and blacks in American society by suggesting that whites are trapped by a history they refuse to acknowledge – thereby making them unable to conceive of black Americans as their fellow co-citizens. Thus, for Baldwin, it is imperative that whites are made to recognise this history, as a failure to do so will inevitably result in an outbreak of violence. It is a compelling narrative of various quotidian as well as extraordinary incidents interwoven with local and international political causes and repercussions.

Study Questions

  1. With respect to the religious journey of Baldwin:
    • What made him enter the ‘church racket’ (p.6) and get indoctrinated in Christianity?
    • What was his subsequent understanding of the historical role that Christianity played ‘in the realm of power and in the realm of morals’?
  2. “The white God has not delivered them; perhaps the Black God ” (p.12). How would one describe Baldwin’s conception of God?
  3. “…this leads, imperceptibly but inevitably, to a state of mind in which, having long ago learned to expect the worst, one finds it very easy to believe the worst”
    • Why does Baldwin consider not being able to believe ‘the humanity of white people is more real to them than their colour’ to be worst? What do we understand about Baldwin’s idea of love for people?
  4. What was the initial impression Baldwin had of Elijah? Did the impression change? If yes then what was the revised impression of Elijah that Baldwin had?
  5. “…the Negro has been formed by this nation…and does not belong to any other — not to Africa, and certainly not to Islam.” (p. 16)
    • Why does the identity of the Black Americans not belong to Africa and Islam?
    • Why does Baldwin claim that only a radical change in the constitution of American social and political structure can bring a real change in the life of a Black American? Do you believe that radical change in the social-political structure has occurred?
  6. What is the definition of ‘tokenism’ (p.18) that we get in the text? What are its material causes and consequences?
    • Against the idea of tokenism, how does Baldwin envisage freedom?
  7. “…a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror.” (p.19)
    • What, according to the text, was Baldwin’s diagnosis of the problem in America? What does the idea of the mirror evoke?
    • “To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one ’ (p. 20) How does Baldwin envision the creation of a new America?