Overcoming the Standards of Colonial Modernity

Today I had several conversations with friends around one issue, the codification or lack of codification of African knowledge, African history, African feminism. Someone had again asked us to elaborate on why we were using terms developed outside of the African continent to describe Africa. They asked: “what are our African understandings of intersectionality and of black nationalism outside of the work written by Black American scholars in a Western context? What applicability do they have here?”

My answer was multifold:

Firstly, the search for the African versions of American theories, is somewhat ideologically disingenuous, by trying to say that American scholars should not be our point of reference, we in fact make them the standard by looking for African equivalents. While we’re busying ourselves looking for the African versions of Crenshaw, we could spend that time, reading and discovering the thinking of African scholars on other context specific issues. But instead we fixate on placing them in the paradigms we claim ought to be undone.

Secondly, intersectionality, can be said to be descriptive of many people’s lived experiences beyond just Black America. Many of us, even before encountering Crenshaw’s work, understand even if just subliminally the ways in which race, gender, class and ability is deterministic of power and privilege within society. Many people we know, our grandmothers, our mothers, queer relatives practice intersectional feminism before or sometimes having never encountered the term. Theories, particularly in the social sciences, are informed by people, their lives, their experiences. Yes, the term is not African, we might not yet be able to fully translate it into many African languages. But we know intersectionality, because we live it.

Moreover, it disturbs me the amount of times that in conversations around finding or creating African parallels in efforts to decolonise, we continue to reinforce some of the negative aspects of colonial modernity. We look for our knowledge or our “replacement” knowledge, in codified examples, we want university affiliated, published post-colonial scholars or we look at the precolonial societies that have historically codified their knowledge. Implying that that which is not written, is not important or valuable as knowledge. When people want to speak of Africa’s pre-colonial greatness they refer only to the empires in which the Africans wore clothes, wrote, built with stone, had universities and  trade. They speak of  Ancient Egypt, the Ashanti empire, Mansa Musa’s empire, Abyssinia etc. In this understanding, those Africans who did not wear clothes, who might have hunted and gathered and drew on cave walls, are not appreciated as having contributed to society, They are ahistoricised and their societies portrayed as if they had little complexity. Whatever knowledge that exists in these societies is further othered. 

This is perhaps because one of the fundaments of racism is the argument that African societies were undeveloped and in need of saving by “civilised whites”. It is not uncommon to hear many whites today still remark that European colonists developed Africa, glossing over the settler colonial genocides, ethnocides and deliberate underdevelopment that is colonialism. So it is not surprising that many post-colonial theorists spent their time proving the ways in which Africa, had codified knowledge, not only before colonialism, but before Europeans had done this themselves. But, to what end? As Anthony Appiah argues,

“It is not black culture that the racist [disdains] but blacks…[N]o amount of knowledge of the architectural achievements of Nubia or Kush guarantees respect for African-Americans…[C]ulture is not the problem, and it is not the solution.”[1]

Appealing to the standards of colonial modernity is setting us back, why are we still so convinced that western rationality models fit here. Why are we still stuck in the belief that academic expression should purely be written, and sourced from other similarly coded sources? What about looking beyond what can be measured or understood by colonial modernity?: Looking at African spirituality, protest songs, music, fabric-making, dance, art, weaving, oral history. As millenials, we could even look into our uses of social media, the microcultures that we produce in townships, in schools etc. There is a depth of knowledge on this continent, we just are not recognising it is as such. We do not need to find versions of ourselves that have comparative value with European or American standards. It is enough to just be Africa. 


[1]Anthony Appiah, “Multicultural Misunderstanding” cited in Charles W. Mills, “Multiculturalism as/and/or Anti-Racism?” in Anthony Simon Laden and David Owen (eds.), Multiculturalism and Political Theory (Cambridge University Press, 2007): 94.