What Does Subaltern Mean Anyway?

In Postcolonial Theory, “Subaltern” describes people in the lower social classes and the Other social groups that are displaced and marginalized while also living in an imperial colony. If there is little access or no access at all to the cultural imperialism then one is described as subaltern. The term Subaltern was coined by Antonio Gramsci, who was an Italian Marxist intellectual. He used it when describing cultural hegemony, in order to identify groups that were excluded, displaced, and marginalized due to the socio-economic institutions put into place, so their political voices would be denied. Gayatri Spivak states that “the reasonable and rarefied definition of the word subaltern that interests me is: to be removed from all lines of social mobility” (Spivak, 475).*

Now knowing what subaltern means, I am going to apply it to examples. In India, “the evidence suggests that Subaltern Studies has been an effort by secular “Southerners” (Biharis, Bengalis) to withstand the hegemony of the ‘North’, represented by the liberal-Marxist alliance centered in New Delhi” (Gran). It has also been an effort to withstand the religious fascism that has been rapidly trending in the “South” of India. Anyone who is not associated and one with the hegemony force, or part of the religious fascism that is spreading is considered to be subaltern. There is no line of mobility in the social hierarchy for the marginalized group(s). “Consciousness of the oppression of the subaltern, one senses from reading Guha, will induce the ruling class to change its ways” (Gran). Even with this consciousness of what is happening, it would be extremely hard, and near impossible to change the institution from the inside out to revert from its oppressive practices in the hierarchy.

The field of Subaltern Studies is about examining the “histories from below” (Ludden, 403). Ludden states that, “Subaltern Studies from its beginnings was felt by many, with some justice, to be somewhat too dismissive about predecessors and contemporaries working on not entirely dissimilar lines, and the claims of setting up a new ‘paradigm’ were certainly overflamboyant” (Ludden, 403). It studies the conditions of those in the social groups that have virtually no way to climb up the hierarchy of power within the institution that they dwell in. It studies the socio-economic conditions and statuses of those considered to be subaltern, and how the groups are affected as they are. The late Subaltern Studies has focused on three areas to study, which comprise of ‘derivative discourse,’ indigenous ‘community,’ and ‘fragments (Ludden, 407)’. The ways in which in this field is studied have and continue to change. This can be attributed to always evolving institutions, new scholarly perspectives, etc.


Works Cited:

Ludden, David. (2005). “Reading Subaltern Studies: Critical History, Contested Meaning, and the

Globalisation of South Asia”Permanent Black

Gran, Peter. (2004). “Subaltern Studies, Racism, and Class Struggle: Examples from India and the United States”. International Gramsci Society Online Article. http://www.internationalgramscisociety.org/resources/online_articles/articles/gran01.shtml

Spivak, Gayatri. (2005). “Scattered Speculations on the subaltern and the popular”. Postcolonial Studies, 8(4). https://doi.org/10.1080/13688790500375132


*Quick note from Caroline: Devon is doing a great job explaining a really tricky concept, and I want to highlight this important quote. Someone, or a group, who is subaltern is not just Other, minority, or disadvantaged; they are essentially unable to speak for themselves in the existing structures of power. That’s what Spivak is talking about here, and what Devon is talking about in the second paragraph.

The Importance of Toni Morrison’s Works

Toni Morrison was an African American female author born in Wofford, Ohio, in 1931 (The Most Influential American Author”, 2019). Throughout her lifetime, she wrote multiple novels that gained large popularity – mainly due to the fact that not many authors during the 20th century wrote considering the perspective of the black female. Her novels exposed the overall experience of an African American individual living in America during slavery and post-slavery; this perspective helped many Americans gain insight on a topic that has otherwise been invisible to the majority (The Most Influential American Author”, 2019).


There are many famous works of American literature that have centralized on the topic of racism and discrimination (such as To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee), however, most of these novels draw from the perspective of a white man. To add, it is usually the white man who contributes to “solving” racism. This is where the influence and impact Toni Morisson’s works have on our American literature society – having the person whose struggle is the central topic of a work have their perspective shown gives readers a much more three-dimensional understanding of the problem being written about.


Reading a work of Morrsion’s, such as her short story “Recitatif”, can help to convey this idea better. Readers can see that the two main characters in the story – Twyla and Roberta – are of different races (perhaps white and black), because at a point in the story, Twyla expresses her discomfort of rooming with “a girl of a whole other race” in her new orphanage. Additionally, Twyla is seen as being “different” from the other girls at the orphanage because she was “dumped” – not because her parents passed away. These differences between Twyla and the other girls helps to point out how different races are treated differently and have different experiences. 


Having such a unique set of work compared to other authors during her time, and having her be of the same race as the character’s whose perspectives she writes from, makes Toni Morrison’s works of literature stand out. Her works have shed light upon the perspective of being an African American female in America; this brings about important effects of opening up the conversation that racism is still deeply rooted in our system and that it is not right to be bystanders of such an issue in America. 


Margalit Fox. (August 6, 2019). Toni Morrison, Towering Novelist of the Black Experience, Dies at 88. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/06/books/toni-morrison-dead.html


The most influential American author of her generation, Toni Morrison’s writing was racially ambiguous. (August 7, 2019). Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/the-most-influential-american-author-of-her-generation-toni-morrisons-writing-was-radically-ambiguous-121557

The Critique of Colonialism

As a reminder from week 2, colonialism is an example of domination where one nation or group exerts economic and political control over another nation. Colonialism has been a common practice that can be found in a multitude of examples throughout history. However, the terms “colonialism” and “imperialism” are often used interchangeably. The root of colonialism is “colony”, a Latin word meaning farmer. Therefore, colonialism is often linked to a transfer of people to a new territory. “Imperium” is another Latin word that means, “command” and may include the means at how a nation exerts control over another nation. The practice of colonialism is often critiqued, and this critique may occur due to the way that colonialism can easily shift into a practice of imperialism.

The colonizer often exerts their beliefs, morals, and values onto the colonized nation and its population. The Colonial powers often attempt to justify their actions and values based on a belief that these ideals should be used in order to provide better education and civilization to the colony. However, certain attitudes of cultural, religious, and racial ideals are viewed negatively.  For example, European colonialism in Africa can be argued to be have yielded very negative effects that are still seen in Africa today. The Europeans came to Africa in search of slaves that they could provide for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The domination that the Europeans exerted over the individuals in Africa could be equated to extreme violence.

However, in an attempt to justify their actions, Europeans sought to claim that these measures were necessary in order to bring order to higher civilization and education among society. One viewpoint indicates that, “colonialism is predicated quintessentially on race” (Ndobegang, 633). The idea that race is the apparent reason for one nation to exert control over another nation is why colonialism can be viewed so negatively. Equating race to status and role in society leaves a society to be solely based on discrimination, violence, and inequality. The Europeans came to Africa in search of finding slaves that they believed would bring a better quality of life to the populations that relied on slaves for labor. As they encroached on Africa’s territory, it brought along a justification for the violence and racial injustices that followed.


Works Cited:

S. D. Fomin & Michael M. Ndobegang(2006)African Slavery Artifacts and European Colonialism: The Cameroon Grassfields from 1600 to 1950, The European Legacy, 11:6, 633-646, https://www-tandfonline-com.proxy.lib.ohio-state.edu/doi/full/10.1080/10848770600918224.

Kohn, Margaret, and Kavita Reddy. “Colonialism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 29 Aug. 2017, plato.stanford.edu/entries/colonialism/.

Omolewa, Michael. “THE HISTORY OF COLONIALISM IN AFRICA–REVISITED.” The Journal of African American History, vol. 94, no. 2, 2009, p. 248+. Gale Academic Onefile, https://link-gale-com.proxy.lib.ohio-state.edu/apps/doc./A206692962/AONE?u=colu44332&sid=AONE&xid=b7560051.