A Postcolonialist Walks into a (Low) Bar
I can only describe the person I saw on the other side of the street as being straight out of Dickens, his long nightshirt unmistakably at odds with the broad daylight. His ensemble was completed by a nightcap that drooped sadly to one side, slumpy like his gait and the workworn expression on his face. It had already been a challenging first day on the job. Surely, I must still be jetlagged I thought to myself, having only recently decamped from the settler-colony of Australia for the eastern shores of settler-colonial America as a then-itinerant postdoctoral scholar of postcolonial literature. Nevertheless, a fortnight hence, I saw the man again, this time propping up the bar at the pub a colleague had invited me to for an after-work drink. It was light outside, but the glum chap was still wearing the aforementioned nighttime garb and, on this occasion, his floppy cap—echoing his lethargy—threatened to fall into his beer.
Concerned about why this apparition continued to be visited upon me (surely I could not still be jetlagged!), I whispered to my new workmate: “Please tell me you also see the strange man at the bar?” He took a quick look and shrugged. “Probably works down the street.”
“You know, at Colonial Williamsburg. They do reenactments of the old times. You know, early America…”
No, I did not know.
They had left that part out during the video interview. Undoubtedly, this is something a postcolonialist should have been made aware of before they took the job. But then why had said postcolonialist not been clued in from the name of the town: Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia?
While the question above is central to my pedagogy and scholarship, it also informs (as it is informed by) my own residence in the American South. New to the region, I continually ask myself what it means to be in the midst of a settler-colonialist project (as I will explain) while being a postcolonialist with investments in transoceanic/continental literary and cultural studies. In what follows, I aim to demonstrate how these various vantage points bear continuities. Likewise, in participating in this special journal issue, it is with the view that the present decolonial turn cannot be construed as a new phenomenon. Rather, postcoloniality’s reading of anti/coloniality must be seen as the elements from which a contemporary decolonial stance in the study of the tropics can be evinced.
Of Williamsburg, its use of colonial drag/cosplay (as evidenced by my encounters with the bedgown-wearing Dickensian character), and the re-enactment of a supposed history of the beginnings of white(ned) America, its British origins are what are best known. Both named for English monarchs, the city of Jamestown in the state of Virginia (which commemorates Elizabeth I, known as the Virgin Queen) was America’s first British settlement, created in 1607. Later in the seventeenth century, Williamsburg (also christened for an English ruler) would take over as Virginia’s capital. Apart from claiming these lands for England, such naming practices also contributed to erasing Indigenous histories.
However, the town bore the destructive wrath of the divisive Civil War of the 1860s. Famously funded by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Williamsburg’s reconstruction in the 1920s would bring about the Disneyland-like version that exists today. In part an effort to promote the republic, the repairs were also likely aimed at salving the wounds of the internal war. In Creating Colonial Williamsburg: The Restoration of Virginia’s Eighteenth-Century Capital, Anders Greenspan describes the “restoration [as representing] the glorious antebellum period that many Southerners longed to revive [, even if] … it might have been a ‘Yankee reconstruction’” (2009, p. 38). Similarly, for the rest of America, Colonial Williamsburg “would be preserving the values of the colonial era and with it the lure of the antebellum South” (Greenspan, 2009, p. 39).
This vision of a nation united, predicated on the simulacra of a re-enlivened past, is also markedly the coherence of an American identity that is white. Dependent on a remaking of the antebellum period, such nostalgia produces whiteness by investing in what makes that moment of American history distinct, and that is the ownership of enslaved Black people. Reenacting white supremacy as Americana, Colonial Williamsburg may gloss over the harshest aspects of the lives of the enslaved, but is still a tourist destination seeking to profit from parlaying some version of the pre-Civil Rights past. “The means and modes of Black subjection may have changed,” Christina Sharpe notes in In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, “but the fact and structure of that subjection remain” (2016, p. 12).
Yet, this is not to suggest that no resistance is sounded within Colonial Williamsburg itself. At this site and other historically sentimental ones, Native American, Black, and other “interpreters” of colour (as historical reenactors are known), attempt to reveal little know stories while “walk[ing] a corset lace-thin line between informing audiences and alienating them; between self-preservation and showcasing the vulnerable lives of minorities” (Barger & Davis, 2020, par. 16).
What I have offered so far is a decolonial reading of Colonial Williamsburg, one that surfaces the white supremacist engendering of the site via its links to a history of British settlerism. Even so, Virginia has an even older colonial history, and a pre-British one at that. Placing the region within a hemispheric nexus of trade, weather patterns, and geopolitical entanglements of the early modern period, one that involved the tropics—Iberia, the Caribbean, and Latin America—Anna Brickhouse
[draws] from a series of Spanish colonial writings about a sixteenth-century Jesuit settlement on the Chesapeake Bay that was established in preparation for a Spanish attempt at colonization of the area. The archival record of this Jesuit mission exposes the fictionality of Virginia as the site of what the English themselves, first in Roanoke and then in Jamestown, often imagined as an originary moment of European-indigenous encounter. (2007, p. 19)
In identifying non-Anglo-American/non-English sources that narrate how Indigenous peoples resisted colonialism, Brickhouse challenges “the United States as the default center of the scholarly narratives we create” about the making of the nation (2007, p. 32).
By unsituating the United States as solely being bred of (and severed from) England, then additionally locates it within its tropical entanglements across oceans and continents. In other words, to tell America’s story postcolonially, what is required is a greater panoply of colonial-era sources, linguistically and geographically diverse ones. This work is incomplete without considering different forms of storytelling, oral and otherwise, carried by the marginalized. What are the overlaps, and schisms, between these chronicles? The work of decoloniality can be done more effectively in tandem with post/(anti)colonial legacies, ones that are as varied as they are illuminative.
Barger, J. and Davis, H. G. (2020, September 25). “Historical Interpreters Share their Side of the Story.” National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/historic-interpreters-changing-the-conversation-about-race
Brickhouse, A. (2007). “Hemispheric Jamestown.” In C. F. Levander and R. S. Levine (Eds.), Hemispheric American Studies (pp. 18-35). Rutgers University Press.
Greenspan, A. (2009). Creating Colonial Williamsburg: The Restoration of Virginia’s Eighteenth-Century Capital. University of North Carolina Press.
Sharpe, C. (2016). In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press.