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“Epistemic Freedom in Africa”

Book presentation

Wednesday 20 July 2022, by siawi3


BAR Book Forum: Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s Book,
“Epistemic Freedom in Africa”

Interview of Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni
by Roberto Sirvent

13 Jul 2022

In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni . Dr. Ndlovu-Gatsheni is Chair of Epistemologies of the Global South, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and Vice-Dean: Research, Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence, at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. His book is
Epistemic Freedom in Africa: Deprovincialization and Decolonization .

Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?

Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni: My book directly addresses and explicates the topical issues of the intersections of the colour/race line as articulated by W.E.B. Du Bois (1903), the epistemic line (which I introduce and define in this book), and the gender line which has preoccupied Black and African feminist scholarship and activism; not as past concerns but as constitutive of the contemporary political and social climate characterized by asymmetrical global power structures, invisible social pyramidal which is racialized and gendered, and contemporary politics of global political economy knowledge, which has remained imbricated in coloniality and mediated by unequal intellectual and academic divisions of labour. As such, this book delves into perennial and tormenting existential questions of how does it feel to be kicked out of the human family so as to be subjected to genocides; how does it feel to be socially classified and racially hierarchized as sub-human so as to be subjected to enslavement, colonialism and racial capitalism; how does it feel to be a people whose history and knowledge was denied and stolen so as to be subjected to the colonial juggernaut of cognitive imperialism, which invaded the mental universe of its targets; and indeed how does it feel to live in a world that is framed and shaped by what James Blaut termed “the colonizer’s model of the world.” In this sense, Epistemic Freedom just like Franz Fanon’s classic work The Wretched of the Earth, is an indispensable handbook for the current insurgent and resurgent decolonization of the 21st century, confronting the combined and inextricably entangled afterlives of racial slavery, afterlives of colonialism known as coloniality and indeed rampaging global racial capitalism and its exploitation of not only labour but also nature resulting in ecological crises and plunging the human lives the verge extinction.

What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?

What activists and community organizers must take away from this book is that the knowledges which plunged the world into the present crisis of the Anthropocene cannot be the same knowledges which takes the world out of the present systemic, institutional and epistemic crisis and into a better world free of racism, heteropatriarchy, sexism and anti-Blackness. Therefore, activism and community organizing has to involve recovery of knowledges that have been suppressed, displaced and stolen from the enslaved and colonized peoples as well as producing new knowledge born from the battlefields of history and struggles themselves. What my book underscores is captured in chapter 1 in terms of “seek ye epistemic freedom first,” which like the warning from Audre Lorde, is about how the knowledge of the master cannot change the colonizer’s model of the world and is never meant for liberation of the descendants of the racialized, enslaved, colonized, feminized and exploited. What this book offers is the other archive, the Black archive, the African archive, the Black feminist and African feminist archive, the subaltern archive, the Indigenous people archive as constituted by a relevant knowledge emerging from battlefields of history and born of struggles against racism, enslavement, colonialism, imperialism, heteropatriarchal sexist normativity, and racial capitalism with its exploitative enslaving epistemes and practices. At the same time this book does not decouple the epistemic from the material and the ontological; rather it demonstrates how the epistemic is deployed by colonialists in its identification of who to subject to genocide, who to subject to enslavement and who to cosign to the zone of the wretched of the earth.

We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?

Epistemic Freedom in Africa introduces the readers into what the Black/African feminist and indigenous people’s liberatory formations have termed “learning to unlearn in order to relearn.” This is a painstaking decolonial process and struggle to liberate the consciousness from its entrapment by the colonial cognitive empire. Hopefully after reading this book there would be concerted effort by readers to abandon what Carter G. Woodson termed “mis-education” and invest energy in “re-education” framed by decolonization and depatriarchization. So, this book invites us to “unlearn” a lot: mimicry and imposed inferiority; complexes, assimilation of colonizer’s knowledge and the tendency to see bourgeois conceptions of family, life and the world as a universal standard; colonial languages, cultures and mannerisms; individualism, capitalism consumerism and its “I” consciousness; divisive Olympics of oppressions which destroy solidarities; xenophobia, Afrophobia and narrow nationalisms that takes us nowhere; and indeed colonially imposed alienations that have lead the oppressed peoples of the world to abandon their history, cultures, names and heritages of struggle. Relearning necessarily entails picking up the struggles from the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and escalating the decolonization struggles as part of a reworlding from the underside of the present Euro-North American-centric modernity. Therefore, Epistemic Freedom’s clarion call is for what I have termed the “ten d’s” of the decolonial turn: deimperialization of asymmetrical global power structures; depatriarchization of the heteronormative sexism; dehierarchization of the invented racial social pyramid and of conceptions of humanity; deracialization through destruction of the colour line; decanonization of canonized knowledges; decorporatization of the corporatized ways of living; deparochialization of social theorizing through opening it up to epistemologies of the Global South; deuniversalization of the colonizer’s model of the world and embracement of pluriversality; debourgeoisement through shifting from bourgeois way of life as an aspiration of everyone; and desecularization partly because secularism is itself a spirituality of a sort and partly so as to open up to spiritualities that are constitutive of lives of the majority of the people. These are some of the ideologies that have to be dismantled urgently.

Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?

Epistemic Freedom in Africa was and is inspired by numerous intellectuals, academics, activists and leaders from the Black and African world in its planetary reach as well as other progressive thinkers and intellectuals from the rest of the world. These giants in the struggles for Black and African liberation include but are not limited to Edward Wilmot Blyden, William E.B. Du Bois, Cheikh Anta Diop, Angela Davis, Gloria Anzaldua, Molife Kete Asante, Theophile Obenga, VY Mudimbe, Ifi Amadiume, CLR James, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Frantz Fanon, Steve Bantu Biko, Joshua Nkomo, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, Aimé Césaire, Nelson Mandela, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Walter Rodney, Samir Amin, Issa G. Shivji, Cedric Robinson, Kimberly Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Maria Lugones, Audre Lorde, Oyewumi Oyeronke, Bagele Chilisa, Linda T. Smith, Walter D. Mignolo, Cathrine Odora Hoppers, Adebayo Olukoshi, Souleymane Bashir Diagne, Achille Mbembe, Anibal Quijano, Mahmood Mamdani, Archie Mafeje, Bernard Magubane, Ibbo Mandaza, Thandika Mkandawire, Amina Mama, Fatou So, John Henrik Clarke, Malcom X, Marcus Garvey, Toyin Falola, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Terence Osborne Ranger, Ngwabi Bhebe, Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Amilcar Cabral, Ali A. Mazrui, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, and many other giants. I learnt a lot from their works most of which were produced in the midst of struggles and are therefore born of the struggle and from the battlefields of history.

In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?

The last chapter of Epistemic Freedom is entitled “African Futures” and it underscores the fact that the past, the present and the future are still snared to the systemic, structural, institutional and epistemic straightjacket of global coloniality. Global coloniality operates through theft of past, present and the future. Remember that the very materialization of Euromodernity is through what Gurminder K. Bhambra correctly identified as “rupture” and “difference.” Rupture was and is technology of colonization of time, dividing it into “premodern” and “modern” with the colonizers claiming and monopolizing the “modern” temporality. The targets of genocides, enslavement and colonialism, were pushed into a “premodern” temporality known as the “past.” It is this confinement of the majority of the people of the world into a “discovery” and a “past” that their history, their present and indeed their future was denied. The paradigm of “difference” became a justifying ideology of theft of other people’s history, present and the future via social classification and hierarchization in accordance with race. Therefore, decolonization in its various iterations some problematic, is fundamentally about reworlding from the underside of Euromodernity. This struggle and process begins with relocation of the targets of racism, enslavement, colonialism, patriarchy and racial capitalism back to human history. This relocation is about taking charge once more for one’s destination. It entails release from coloniality of what Kwame Nkrumah termed the “African genius” and indeed the Black genius. In short, the struggles of the Black and African people have produced various utopic registers of the future across space and time and carrying various names but all framed by Black radical tradition. Thus, one can speak of Ethiopianism, Garveyism, Negritude, Pan-Africanism, Harlem Renaissance, African Renaissance, Afropolitanism, Afrotopia, Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter as intellectual-cum-cultural-political-cum-activists formations inspired by an ongoing imagination of a better world in which Blackness is not considered a problem to be solved. In the words of bell hooks, nothing which is not imagined can ever become and indeed in the wisdom of John Henrik Clarke “If we are going to be master of our destiny, we must be masters of ideas that influence that destiny.” Epistemic Freedom is informed by this thinking and this is why it invites all the victims of racism, enslavement, genocides, colonialism, heteronormative patriarchy, and racial capitalism to “seek epistemic freedom” not as an end in itself but as a means to an end. Our imagination of the future and our practical reworlding of the world from the Global South predicated on decolonization has to tap into other knowledges, our knowledges born of struggles and that are most relevant for an envisioned decolonized and depatriarchized pluriversal world of all of us.

Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.