On decolonizing education and the perils of speaking good english

Racism is both material and ideological, reaching even into the heart of language, thought and memory. Annie Teriba asks how education and minds can be decolonized. This piece was originally published on blackgirlspeak.wordpress.com


When asked about the legacy of colonialism, I point out that we must still speak a colonial language in order to be granted the courtesy of humanity. To be intelligible to the power structures which govern our lives, we must first submit ourselves to its language, to its frameworks and reference points, to the culture which continues to visit violence upon our bodies. I wonder, where was my black when decolonization was happening?

In watching the protests, led by the Student Representative Council (SRC), at the University of Cape Town, I am struck most profoundly by my jealousy.

It is outside of term time – most people will have gone ‘home’, you will put up the event page for a solidarity action, under Oxford’s statue of Cecil Rhodes, at half past midnight. By the morning, 75 people will have clicked attending – You will count 24 people in the photos. The photos will go up soon after; they will be shared by the UCT campaigners. You will be proud and yet your action will still feel lacking. It will feel as though your struggle is borrowed and this solidarity is hollow. You will feel as though you are looking in on another struggle, disconnected and writing home again from home.

They will sing their songs, share in this pain and find strength in their tongues. Who will you share this tongue with?

I speak two tongues; my coloniser’s better than my mother’s. This is the first problem.

“the native intellectual gives proof that he has assimilated the culture of the occupying power. . . . His inspiration is European and we can easily link up these works with definite trends in the literature of the mother country. This is the period of unqualified assimilation.”

Of the 18,550 professors in the UK, only 85 are Black – of these, only 17 are Black women. You know well how this has come about – you have mastered their language but you will never speak their English good enough; your tongue will never rest lazy in their colonize.

You will take the first African History paper you can. All the academics will be White. As will all of the African Studies faculty. Whose heritage are they preserving?

You will praise their progressiveness, congratulate their sensitivity. Having endured as others spoke of Europe as the world, you will delight in the fact that they have deemed you worthy of study. Anything is better than what came before; this is a mantra that you will come to know well.

Remember that you are on a frontline of the colonial project.

You will watch as your truth becomes the object of curious enquiry – they will first ask you to map their European models onto your exotic, if these do not fit, there can be no model. Black may have agency but the uncivilised tribe may not be granted the possibility of a logic. Logic is European.

You will sit in a room looking at white faces; speak of the continued struggle to decolonize. Their faces will contort with scepticism, they may speak of international institutions; they may kindly allow your anger at structural adjustment policies. You may debate the usefulness of Fanon, as you did that time in the pub with your tutor but they will not understand, just as Sartre did not. The elephant will remain in the room, that this classroom is a colonization of your truth, just as Sartre’s preface colonized Fanon and good English colonizes us all.

They will speak of agency to absolve their European – And where is your absolution for daring to wear your Black? Must you beg forgiveness for rejecting the idea that Black history is a mere appendage to a European one?

They will study you but know they can never learn from you; such is the arrogance of hegemony. The violence is in teaching you that there is nothing there to learn.

Who are the keepers of our memory?

I speak two tongues; I think I may be losing one. This is the second problem.

“we find the native is disturbed; he decides to remember what he is… Past happening of the bygone days of his childhood will be brought up out of the depths of his memory; old legends will be reinterpreted in the light of a borrowed aestheticism and of a conception of the world which was discovered under other skies. . . . We spew ourselves up”

Your grandmother will call you Oyinbo. Your friends will cast you Oreo.

They will remind you that your English is good, that your arguments are perceptive, noting how incongruous this is with your dark skin. This is why there are so few of you there – so few of you have mastered the master’s tongue. Maybe this is why your home cannot hear you when you speak any more – you are losing yourself in this sea of white.

And who are you now?

“My subject: how to explain to you that I don’t belong to English though I belong nowhere.”

Your tongue has grown lazy; you have forgotten how to speak what matters. You had worried that this would happen – that the offer would only widen the gulf between you and home. Yet, you knew that you had to take it – that you must submit your tongue to theirs to find its salvation.

And to whom does your voice now have use?

“the native, after having tried to lose himself in the people and with people, will on the contrary shake the people. Instead of according the people’s lethargy an honoured place in his esteem… During this phase a great many men and women…feel the need to speak to their nation, to compose the sentence which expresses the heart of the people and to become the mouthpiece of a new reality in action.”

That hunger to be heard will be sated only once you have slain all this ancestry, dragged the Aso-Oke out of the cupboard by her Brazilian weave; still, you will be a mere approximation.

And so what is the use?

You will remember the first time, when speaking to your mother you referred to Oxford as home. Have you forgotten who made you?

I speak two languages, they are becoming one. Herein lays the possibility for transformation.

“Culture is yesterday’s politics stabilised, depoliticised and authorised as ‘truth’ and ‘history'”

Every day, thousands of people walk past the statue of a man who visited this trauma upon black bodies thinking nothing of it. They do not know or they do not care. Such is the culture in which we are immersed, where to speak of decolonization is to say our White has refashioned your colonial horror more palatable. Thank Mr Rhodes for his generosity Girl, He is philanthropist before he is pass laws and dispossess and murderer. That is to say, he has already paid for your tongue with the money he had made from your blood.

I have spoken a great many tongues in my life, all of which inherited – none of which adequate, many I have tried to teach my comrades.

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

B. Berman describes the ‘palimpsest of contradictions’ which characterises the colonial condition, the shadow writing of the past visible in the text of the present. There is an English in this mouth – this, I am sure, cannot be changed; but can we find a language of our own in this English? Can we speak and yet not be heard by the colonizer’s gluttonous gaze? This is my new work.

Here, I constantly check my words, fix my tone, lift my face – I wonder, would the world fall down if I spoke without first submitting. They would not understand me but it is in this light that I may leave my Black some room to dance.


  1. my english is broken.
    on purpose.
    have to try harder to understand
    breaking this language
    you so love
    is my pleasure.
    in your arrogance
    you presume that i want your skinny language.
    that my mouth is building a room for
    in the back of my throat
    it is not.

    – Nayyirah Waheed


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