Colonialism and Oppression in the African Diaspora
The experiences of the women of the African diaspora are as diverse as the regions they have come to inhabit. Despite the variety in their local realities, African and African-descended women across the planet share in many common experiences. Wherever they have made their homes, these women tend to occupy inferior or marginalized positions within their societies. Whether in the United States, Europe, Latin America, or even Africa itself, black women must confront what Patricia Hill Collins describes as a “matrix of domination” which has, for centuries, perpetuated their subjugation and oppression. According to Collins, a matrix of domination is a comprehensive social organization in which intersecting oppressions are created and maintained (Collins 246). Although these systems are manifested differently depending on the cultural context in which they were birthed, most have similar origins. In the cases of both Africa and the United States, the most salient factor in the development of oppressive orders is the widespread European colonization which took place from the sixteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. This historic domination of Africans and their descendants, combined with the near-universal presence of patriarchy in human cultures, have worked together to place black women among the most oppressed groups worldwide.
Arguably, the effects which Europe’s global colonialism have had on women of the African diaspora can be most easily seen on the African continent. Kenyan feminist and environmental activist, Wangari Maathai, explores the legacy of colonialism and oppression in her native country through her moving 2006 memoir, Unbowed. Maathai explains that over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Africa experienced a massive influx of white settlers. In an effort to solidify control over recently acquired colonies, many European powers had encouraged large numbers of their ethnically white citizens to make a new home on the African continent. As a result, thousands of native Africans were displaced. Even Maathai’s ancestors, the Kikuyu and Maasai peoples, were among them.
The majority of these forced dislocations took place in the highland regions. The rich soil and temperate climate of this area had proven attractive to native African peoples for centuries; and it seemed the new British settlers found it equally tempting. After most of the land’s original occupants were transported to the Rift Valley region of western Kenya, settlers began taking advantage of the highlands’ vast natural resources. The land was essentially ravaged as ancient forests were clear-cut in order to make room for agricultural plots. The introduction of the plantation system, with its non-native plant species, large-scale hunting, and systematic recruitment of Africans as field laborers, signaled the next phase in the oppression of native Africans (Maathai 6-9).