Europatriarchy takes centre stage in Minna Salami’s elegant book of essays Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone, writes Shayera Dark.
Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone
Each of the nine self-contained essays in Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone, the eagerly anticipated collection of essays by award-winning feminist writer Minna Salami, offers new ways of thinking about concepts ranging from beauty to womanhood to liberation, through a feminist lens.
To describe the pervasive white male perspectives being imposed on women, and men, around the world, Salami coins the term ‘Europatriarchy’—a result of the extensive invasions, on many levels, of colonial rule. While Salami makes it clear that patriarchy existed in various societies prior to colonisation, as evinced, for example, in the aggressive efforts ancient Egyptians took to erase evidence of Queen Hatshepsut’s reign as pharaoh—a period marked by prosperity—there’s no denying the unrelenting corrosive effects of the European influence on African life on the continent and elsewhere.
In the chapter titled ‘On Knowledge’, Salami reimagines a world where students take courses in dialogue and empathy alongside science and mathematics, and where reciprocity and sustenance are prized more than wealth and gross domestic product, the objective being to achieve equilibrium with nature. She questions whether knowledge acquisition can ever be neutral, considering the social conditions and personal biases involved in its production.
For one, as Salami points out, science has been a handy tool for Europatriarchal rule. Europatriarchy has demonised, deceived and justified racial and gendered subjugation under the guise of cold, hard rationality, because in such a world rationality is king. Yet in Yoruba folklore, as she says, humans must receive ogbon-ori and ogbon-inu (knowledge of the head and knowledge of the gut, respectively) to be fully wise. In other words, without empathy to guide cognition, intelligence is incomplete.
Salami argues that valuing intellectual intelligence over emotional intelligence results in a rule-bound, ‘robotic’ society, where violence erupts owing to breakdowns in communication and repressed feelings. Robotic societies emerge where sensuous creations, such as indigenous artwork, are destroyed, because art and storytelling represent the visual, emotional knowledge of a people. To rob, distort, suppress, or wreck is to uproot communities, rendering them mindless and ripe for indoctrination:
‘Those who seek to destroy progress—fundamentalists, imperialists, sexists, corrupt governments, white supremacists, military men, greedy corporations, and so on—discourage a sensuous approach to knowledge because tyrants have always understood that the more robotic people are, the more easily manipulated they are.’
In her chapter ‘On Decolonisation’, a favourite topic among public and armchair intellectuals in Africa, Salami opens with an anecdote in which she recalls grappling with whether to call an ex-boyfriend by his English or Ghanaian name, and contemplates whether a colonial name can become localised:
[…] our encounter led me to discover that I was the one still grappling with the effects of colonisation. Because despite asking him to tell me his Ghanaian name—Akwesi—so that I could call him that, I stuck to Anthony.
It just seemed forced to suddenly swap the name he had introduced himself with for a name I had requested on semipolitical grounds. I felt as though I’d asked him to put on an Afro wig and a kente robe and act natural.
The story demonstrates just how far-reaching the roots of colonialism are, how the colonial legacy is entrenched in the psyche of Africans. Excising these roots requires much more than reclaiming lost land, as many African nations already have, or Africans adopting African languages as their primary mode of communication, as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o suggested in his seminal book Decolonising the Mind, or imposing taxes on foreign weaves and wigs to encourage pride in Afros and natural hairstyles as debated in Tanzania (notwithstanding the president’s fondness for Western-style suits).
For true decolonisation to occur, Sensuous Knowledge posits that Africa must regain freedom from the tyranny that includes NGO propaganda, excessive foreign debt and resource theft. But most importantly it must liberate women from the clutches of patriarchy. Salami refers to Toni Morrison’s observation that sexism is ‘the oldest class oppression in the world’, and quotes feminist revolutionary Thomas Sankara, from his 1987 address to Burkinabé women, ‘The Revolution Cannot Triumph without the Emancipation of Women’:
The first step is to try to understand how this system [of slavery] works, to grasp its real nature in all its subtlety, in order to work out a line of action that can lead to women’s total emancipation […] Women’s emancipation is at the heart of the question of humanity, itself, here and everywhere.
Many African nations have yet to duly recognise women’s contribution towards independence, even though they fought as hard as their male counterparts. But the moment white male domination ended, these men turned around to inflict the same pain on their compatriots, with women suffering the brunt. This is the Europatriarchal maelstrom in which Africa currently finds itself.
But amid the bellows of the Europatriarchy, Salami insists that joy, which she defines as an ‘inner quality that is itself political in nature’ and as ‘freeing yourself from the predefined notions of identity’, can thrive. In her view, the growing tendency of marginalised communities to continuously prove to the dominant group they’re just as smart, capable, artistic and knowledgeable is as ineffective as it is frustrating. Abusers do not care about the abused and constant resistance is unsustainable.
Salami also cautions against the danger of cleaving to an identity, as she believes that by doing this individual personalities and variant experiences are often overlooked or suppressed. A robust approach to acquiring justice and equality requires staking a claim to our shared humanity, rather than banking one’s existence on the fragility of identity, an ever-changing concept society can render extinct tomorrow. Consequently, she urges readers not to picture identity as a weapon for zapping racists, sexists and the like, but as a compass to steer themselves towards the joy of being, of revelling in their own existence.
A similar call to unburden identity from the language of protest appears in the chapter ‘On Blackness’. As a sociohistorical marker existing long before the demonym ‘African’, the transatlantic slave trade and the Scramble for Africa, blackness imbues meanings independent of and far more enriching than the shackling, narrow views imposed by whiteness. For this reason, Salami exhorts that blackness should decentralise racism from its narrative and reflect shared histories, philosophies and folklores that extend beyond nations and ethnicities, arguing that whites, instead, be saddled with the weight of racism, since they’re likely to perpetrate it.
The need for humanity to overturn long-held but erroneous beliefs about power, knowledge, blackness, adulthood and the like as devised under the destructive, invisible hand of the Europatriarchy is an existential argument Sensuous Knowledge makes in accessible but pregnant language. It throws on its head the so-called enlightenment and technical expertise Europatriarchal Knowledge claims to have bestowed on humanity, even as perpetual hunger, poverty, famine and wars—catastrophes that disproportionately affect women—abound. For long-lasting solutions to humanity’s problems, Sensuous Knowledge contends logic and emotion must work in tandem.
- Shayera Dark is a writer whose work has appeared in publications that include LitHub, Harper’s Magazine, Al Jazeera, AFREADA, The Kalahari Review and CNN.