Often subsumed within narratives of political “transfer of power” from colonial empires to postcolonial nation-states, decolonization was a longue durée sociocultural process that traversed the long 20th century. Its trails were global and intertwined with parallel metapolitical processes like the Cold War, and it cast long shadows that revealed the afterlives of political decolonization beyond the events that marked the arrivals of independence. South Asia is a particularly fertile ground for studying such expanded temporalities, sociocultural structures, and shadows of decolonization. While the late 1940s saw the retreat of the British Empire from India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka after 1972), as well as the climactic partition of India and creation of Pakistan, decolonization itself remained an unfolding process. It manifested in continuing struggles around cultural sovereignty and the liberation war of 1971 that birthed Bangladesh from the former East Pakistan, and continued in unresolved ethnic conflicts and regional struggles for autonomy and social democracy. The cultural field offers a unique lens for reading the more quotidian and less spectacular sites where such longue durée trails of decolonization were experienced, negotiated, and imagined via artistic forms. Aesthetics of decolonization can be read as the sensorial, imaginational, and ethical negotiations of postcolonial freedom, as well as the micropolitical and contradictory dynamics that lay therein. It can loosen the metaframe of the nation-state and the nation-form to reveal both locational and subnational differences, as well as the multiple ways in which the global itself was filtered, invoked, or negotiated from below. Aesthetics of decolonization, in other words, is the imagination of a new historiographical modality for thinking through how freedom was visualized in the postcolonies, how such visions produced new cultural modernities unique to such transitional polities, and how such modernities can be read in their transnational trails in the long 20th century.
The Aesthetics of Decolonization in South Asia
African America and Japan
African American and Japanese people share a rich history of nearly two hundred years of transnational engagement and activity. African American writers discussed Japan as early as 1828, and, in the African American and abolitionist press, the 1860 Japanese Embassy to the United States inspired a perception of transnational solidarity between African American and Japanese people based on the shared experience of racial prejudice and the right of all men to participate in the affairs of the world. From the 16th century to the early 19th century, Japanese ideas surrounding Blackness were very different from the racial ideologies prevalent in Europe and later the United States. Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War inspired African American admiration for Japan as a global leader in the fight against racism and imperialism, although Japan expanded its imperial activity across Asia throughout the early 20th century. At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the Japanese racial equality bill made Japan even more of a symbol of the fight for racial equality to African American civil rights leaders and writers. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, many Japanese intellectuals were inspired by the African American struggle for civil rights, as well as their transnational engagement with African American people, to promote anti-imperialism within Japan. Meanwhile, in the 1930s, pro-Japanese organizations proliferated across the United States and influenced tens of thousands of African American people. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ended much, but not all, African American sympathy for Japan. The FBI was concerned that Japanese military agents would racially agitate African American people into subversive activity. As part of the war effort, the Japanese military did plan pro-Japanese racial propaganda targeted toward America’s Black people. During the Occupation period, many Japanese people adopted negative racial attitudes toward Black people. At the same time, during the postwar period, many Japanese and African American people shared transnational relationships free from the increasing racial prejudice perpetuated by the American state. Japanese and African American relations, as well as representations and perceptions of Black people in Japan, have continued to change throughout the 21st century.