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The Sexual Demon of Colonial Power— Pan-African Embodiment and Erotic Schemes of Empire
Greg Thomas

Bloomington (Ind.): Indiana University Press, 2007.
200 pp. ISBN 978-0-253-21894-0


Reviewed by Xavier Pons


This book has been praised by Judith Butler as “one of the most provocative and consequential analyses of empire and sexual politics in recent years.” I wish I could join in the praise but I feel a little baffled both by Thomas’s driving ideas and the way they are presented. The book’s object is, supposedly, an “examination of the erotic identities that continue to clash across the race and class context” of the USA [76] but this examination leaves much to be desired. Each of the six chapters that make up the book takes the form of a review of various publications, which Thomas pronounces either good or (mostly) bad. The point of his book, it would appear, is to settle accounts with the (mostly Black) authors who don’t share his ideology about the glorious Pan-African revolution to come.
Thomas rightly contends that “there can and must be a sexual analysis of the colonial and neo-colonial power complex of white racist imperialism” [x] but there are surely better ways of addressing this important issue. The book denounces “a racialized conflation of Occidental specificity and ‘universal humanity’ which,” Thomas argues, “determines the fashion in which the historicity of erotic identification is recognized” [2]. This is unexceptionable and indeed one should get rid of the illusion that white, Western norms, whether in respect of sex or in other respects, define the essence of humanity. In the same way, it is no longer tenable to associate white people with rationality and black people with an out-of-control sensuality. However, those stereotypes have long been debunked by postcolonial criticism. Thomas believes that they are still very much active in the academic world, and so appears to be flogging a dead horse. He goes on to criticize a variety of writers, mostly historians, for propagating related racist views, including Bernal’s Black Athena because it fails “to affirm a Black identity for ancient Egypt” [10]. Only a handful of black thinkers such as Walter Rodney or Cheikh Anta Diop are exempt from his strictures. The latter is especially praised for his defence of matriarchy—“a blow against the masculine sexual imperialism that is Western domination” [17].

Chapter 2 examines the issue of womanhood in the context of plantation slavery, and dismisses common conceptions of manhood and womanhood, sex and gender, as being nothing more than racist white stuff. Angela Davis and Deborah Gray White are in for much criticism, and Oyèronké Oyêwùmi and Toni Cade Bambara in for much praise. “To be African and enslaved in the Americas,” Thomas writes, “means to be barred from the gender conceits of empire, the humanity of manhood and womanhood and its Western heterosexuality” [47]. While there is no doubt that slavery had a profoundly dehumanising effect, and impacted on the way Blacks saw themselves as either men or women, Thomas focuses almost exclusively on what he thinks is wrong with the approach of other scholars, never developing what a proper perspective might be.

Chapter 3 examines the thinking of E. Franklin Frazier, blaming him for what Thomas calls his “de-Africanization dogma” [69], i.e., the thesis that there are few—if any—significant African survivals in black culture in America. But, once again, this argument is not sustained by any kind of evidence: it boils down to a simple assertion that Frazier got it wrong. Frazier, however, is praised for denouncing a colonizing scheme of white supremacy—“the idea that there are and can be only two true genders, natural and universal” [52], even though the very notion of gender implies it is a social construct, and thus neither natural nor universal. Thomas rails against the notion that “An organic disposition to rape is routinely attributed to Africans by white supremacy or racism” [53], which is fair enough, except for the conflation of “African” and “African-American,” as if American Blacks were essentially the same as African Blacks—a notion that, in many respects, belongs to American racism (in E. Gaines’ novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, a racist white character warns his friend against any involvement with a white-looking Creole woman because “Africa runs in her veins”). Frazier is blamed for advocating a kind of integration that, according to Thomas, means Blacks have to imitate Whites, especially in their sexual mores: Frazier, Thomas writes, “actually endorses sexuality as the most effective means of acculturation” [65], whereas “sexuality can by no means be confined to a single, simplistic dichotomy of universalized heterosexuality and universalized homosexuality” [68]. But once again he offers no sustained argument to prop up his thesis. What irks him, at bottom, is that Frazier did not advocate a revolution: “Whether violent or non-violent in theory or practice, a subversion of the white settler state and society is unthinkable for Frazier, who conceived of total liberation as mass assimilation led by an elite which should be as genteel as culturally possible” [74]. Advocating a revolution, whether in Africa or in the US, is a quaint notion in the XXIst century, given the dismal record of revolutionary movements on the Marxist model, whether in Colombia, Cuba, Zimbabwe or the Congo—or indeed anywhere else.

Chapter 4 is an examination of Fanon’s writings, from White Masks to The Wretched of the Earth. Thomas finds much to like about Fanon, who correctly connects racism and sexual neurosis—whites turning Blacks into sex objects—even though the young Fanon entertained delusions of integration before he became a supporter of revolution and Pan-Africanism. Through Fanon, Thomas returns to his theme, namely that “Like heterosexuality, and all sexual neurosis in the West, homosexuality is a culturally specific rather than natural, universal phenomenon” [87]. Evidence for this thesis (which recalls Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s recent assertion that there are no gays in Iran) is scanty. Thomas notes that, in respect of the Algerian revolution, Fanon “stresses the revolution in subjectivity, erotic in nature, vital to any liberation from imperialism” [92], but he actually doesn’t go far beyond highlighting the erotic connotations of the traditional Islamic veil for white colonizers, a subject that has already received plenty of attention, and which hardly justifies his phrase, “rebel erotica” [100], to encapsulate Fanon’s thought.

Chapter 5 is a very critical examination of the writings of Jamaica Kincaid, whose entire corpus, Thomas says, “encodes a mind and body tragically captured by Western colonization” [105]. Her political outlook “is exposed for its crude conservatism” [118] and she believes “it is better to be colonized in a beautiful way [?] than to be left outside the high cult of England altogether” [119]. This is a gross distortion of Kincaid’s outlook, which is quite critical of colonialism (“They [the English] don't seem to know that this empire business was all wrong and they should, at least, be wearing sackcloth and ashes in token penance of the wrongs committed, the irrevocableness of their bad deeds, for no natural disaster imaginable could equal the harm they did. Actual death might have been better,” she wrote in A Small Place), even though it is true she doesn’t let her countrymen and countrywomen off scot-free—post independence Antiguans, she contended, "do to [themselves] the very things [colonists] used to do to [them]." The phenomenon of female bonding, which plays such a significant part in her works, is cast by Thomas in a very negative light. If daughters find it hard to separate from their mothers, it is simply because they are “en route to the promised land of Western or Westernizing individualism” [111]. What drives them apart is “the force of convention ordained by Britain in its colonies” [120]. It is as if only British colonialism was responsible for most daughters growing out of an erotic fixation on mother and other females, and as if this amounted to some kind of alienation. The ultimate rejection of mother is seen by Thomas, not as a normal aspect of the process of growing up, but as a rejection of Kincaid’s African roots—a view that is little more than a caricature.

Chapter 6 denounces “the hegemony of US Occidentalism today” which, Thomas argues, “is disguised by a rhetoric of post-coloniality which shields the reality of neo-colonialism from view” [129]. The point of this hegemony, it would seem, is to discredit Black nationalism and its revolutionary potential. It does this, oddly enough, by denouncing Black homophobia from a perspective that is necessarily that of gay white men, and thus racist; the perspective of “the erotic codes of a colonial middle class” [134]. To make matters worse, even some Black creative artists such as Isaac Julien submit to “the conventional categories of masculinity and femininity when it comes to the culture and music of the Black masses” [139]. Even Ralph Ellison is blamed for his conservatism.

Thomas’s argument seems to be that prevailing academic conceptions of sex and gender, for all their insistence that such conceptions, are cultural constructs rather than facts of nature, have an inherent anti-Black or “Negro-phobic” bias because they promote patriarchy and fail to recognize the matriarchal conceptions that characterize African culture. This ipso facto makes them counter-revolutionary—they amount to a “white racist appropriation of history” and a “patriarchal demonization of matriarchy outside Europe” [156].

The connections Thomas makes between approaches to sex and gender on the one hand and “the veritable ecstasy of Pan-African revolt” [158] on the other are based on sheer assertion rather than analysis of actual practices. The prevailing tone is one of denunciation rather than argumentation, and what argumentation there is fails to tease out with any sort of clarity the possible connections between sexuality and a Pan-African revolution. The rhetoric sounds empty and unconvincing.



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