Postcolonial Temporalities and the Violence of History

Posted: 26 Mar 2014

See all articles by Amanda Lagji

Amanda Lagji

University of Massachusetts at Amherst, English

Date Written: 2014


In The Philosophy of History, Hegel jettisons the entire continent of Africa from the study of world history, announcing, “At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit…What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History” (157). The view of Africa as both unhistorical and undeveloped becomes an integral part of colonial discourse and its epistemic violence, whereby colonial expansion is not only the natural progression of (Western, Eurocentric) History, but also a mechanism by which the rest of the globe can be integrated into this History. At the center of colonial discourse is a will to remove colonial others from the universal narrative of history, a temporal distancing that erases precolonial history and understands the colonial other’s present in terms of the Western subject’s past. My paper examines African novels written within ten years of formal political independence, which in my view is a time period ripe for scholarly reconsideration because of the negotiation of time and history occurring in postcolonial narratives to address and redress the violence of colonial discourse of erasing a precolonial past. As case studies, I read Armah’s Fragments, Sembène’s God’s Bits of Wood, and Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat for their construction of what I call a temporality of waiting. Waiting, as theorized by postcolonial African novels, may be figured in postcolonial narratives as an oppressive distortion or forced deferral of historicity or justice, or a strategic suspension of linear time. Revisiting the definitions associated with the verb “to wait” in the Oxford English Dictionary reveals both active and passive overtones. To wait can entail delay, deferral, and submissiveness, from which we get the sense of waiting as waiting upon others as a servant or “to continue in expectation of” or even “to remain for a time without something expected or promised.” But older meanings of waiting suggest strategy and scheming, as in the sense “to lie in wait for,” “to keep hostile watch” and “to take precautions.” Waiting may risk repeating the violence of colonial discourse by encouraging formerly colonized peoples to stay in what Dipesh Chakrabarty calls the “waiting room of history,” but in my paper I argue that waiting can also be a strategic, active space for maintaining a dynamic relationship between the past, present, and future. These post-Independence novels, I argue, utilize “waiting” as an ambivalent temporality that is central to the formulation of postcolonial temporality, history, and political critique.

Suggested Citation

Lagji, Amanda, Postcolonial Temporalities and the Violence of History (2014). ASA 2014 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Amanda Lagji (Contact Author)

University of Massachusetts at Amherst, English ( email )

United States

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