EssaysFeatureImaginal PoliticsRace/isms

The African Decolonial Thought of Oyèrónké Oyĕwùmí

Black Issues in Philosophy

As the history of philosophy shows, its major developments often come from thinkers who were not formally trained as philosophers. Among the Europeans, Margaret Cavendish (poet, novelist, playwright, and physics), Émilie Du Châtelet (mathematics, physics), Gottlob Frege (mathematics), David Hume (lawyer and historian), Edmund Husserl (mathematics), Karl Jaspers (physician), John Locke (physician), Friedrich Nietzsche (philologist), Bertrand Russell (mathematics), Ludwig Wittgenstein (engineer), and Mary Wollstonecraft (educator, journalist) are clear examples. In the African world and its diaspora, Anton Wilhelm Africanus Amo (physician and lawyer), Steve Bantu Biko (physician), W.E.B. Du Bois (economist, sociologist, historian), Anna Julia Cooper (mathematician, French literature, historian), Cheikh Anta Diop (historian), Frantz Fanon (physician), Anténor Firmin (anthropologist, lawyer, statesman), C.L.R. James (historian, journalist, novelist, playwright), and Maria Stewart (journalist) are famous exemplars.

Recently, the Nigerian sociologist Oyèrónké Oyĕwùmí has earned her place among many of the living in conversation with this stellar community of ancestors by virtue of her contributions to contemporary African philosophy. Readers who haven’t heard of her should take this opportunity to familiarize themselves with her work.

Oyĕwùmí specializes in the sociology of gender, race, culture, and knowledge, the sociology of inequalities, transnational feminisms, and decolonial and pan-African studies. Her work is primarily as a theorist informed by historical, linguistic archaeological, and ethnographic research. Specifically, she engages critical debates in archaeolinguistics and genealogical poststructuralism, as those theoretical models have dominated discussions of gender, race, and sexuality in the academy since the late 1980s well up to the present, with regard to social constructivist models of identity and subjectivity.

In her lectures for the University of South Africa’s Decoloniality Summer School (January 2018), she reflected on difficulties she discovered during her doctoral studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Social criticism was permitted, she observed, as long as certain lines of social criticism didn’t receive criticism. Radical critique, she learned, was welcomed in Black Studies. The combination of mentorship she received there and from her mentors in Nigeria, which included the great sociologist, political economist, and political theorist Peter Ekeh.

Oyĕwùmí brought this critical insight to her groundbreaking book The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourse (University of Minnesota Press, 1997), which received the Distinguished Book Award from the Gender Section of the American Sociological Association and was a finalist for the Herskovits Prize of the African Studies Association. (The Herskovits Prize in African Studies is the most distinguished book prize an Africanist can receive; I know of Africanists who have received prizes from the Swedish Academy who still lament not having received or even been nominated for a Herskovits.) She later received the Distinguished Africanist Award in 2014 from the New York African Studies Association.

To this, I would like to add that I’ve taught Oyĕwùmí’s work since 1998, and I know of many colleagues in sociology and Africana Studies who do the same across the globe. Her work is included in my courses: “Africana Philosophy,” “Recent African Political Thought,” and “Contemporary African Philosophy.” The profile offered here is, then, part of an ongoing meditation on her work.

What impresses me about Oyĕwùmí’s work is the extent to which she painstakingly follows the thread of a theoretical argument through to its contradictions or verification, always guided by resources of language and history. One learns through reading her writings, which is the purpose, after all, of research and scholarship.

I make the distinction between research and scholarship, since, as should be evident, not all research embodies excellent scholarship. The former produces what is original or at least new (in the sense of an addition), and where creative, a re-imagining of tasks at hand. The latter is expert knowledge of a subject matter through which the former could sustain the force of evidence.

Oyĕwùmí’s virtue is that she offers new insights into the theoretical challenges posed by postructuralism to the social sciences and offers scholarship (and field research) to support her conclusions. It is for these reasons that I’ve not only taught her work but also cited her various writings in many of my articles and books, especially An Introduction to Africana Philosophy (Cambridge UP, 2008), which covers nearly 2000 years of African and African Diasporic Thought. Discussions of her work appear on pages 194, 207–210, 212, 215, and 218. Given how selective I had to be in that study, only essential readings were prioritized. Her place in Africana thought, in other words, should be clear.

As I have already written on The Invention of Women, and debates on it abound, I would like to take this opportunity to explore how its arguments have unfolded in her subsequent work. This will afford readers of this blog an opportunity to learn both about the arguments she offered there and her current work.

Oyĕwùmí has written a series of important articles, produced some anthologies, and a spectacular recent monograph since the publication of The Invention of Women. Her articles include a series of explorations in the journal JENdA: A Journal of Culture and African Women’s Studies, edited by the equally renowned Nigerian philosopher Nkiru Nzegwu. They include “Alice in Motherland: Reading Alice Walker on Africa and Screening the Color Black” (2001), which offers a courageous critique of the famed novelist Alice Walker’s portrayal of female circumcision/genital mutilation in Africa as ultimately not about its purported subject matter. She joins social scientists such as the Sudanese anthropologist Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf in pointing out the pre-given economy of pathology onto which the discourse is placed. There is an unfortunate and ironic form of black antiblack racism in Walker’s portrayal through which the African functions as a primitive term onto which agency is eradicated while (contradictorily) placed in a logic of African patriarchy. There is, in effect, epistemic closure on activities African through the normative presupposition of non-African “brown” female legitimacy. Erased in the process are African understandings of motherhood, agency, and the historical reality of limited options posed by colonialism.

Like Abusharaf, Oyĕwùmí argues for the expansion of agency through the diminution of coloniality as a better route for addressing such phenomena. I begin with this article because it sets the tone for much of Oyĕwùmí’s subsequent work, which is simultaneously critique and explanation (expansion of knowledge). This dialectical feature of her scholarship belies the poststructuralist context of her thought. Given the debates in which she is involved, it would be easy for her to be mistaken for a poststructuralist. She is in fact offering a critique (the proper use of the term, since it is immanent) of poststructuralist anti-essentialist claims — namely, their tendency to collapse into essentialist claims they disavow or essentialist anti-essentialism. Her critique of Walker, in other words, is that in her effort to disentangle “woman” from the yoke of patriarchy she entangles African women into the racial economy of antiblack racism that invests in the eradication of African female agency.

Connecting to her earlier book, The Invention of Women, she argues that Walker’s error is exacerbated by her ignorance of what women mean in Africa since the latter are thought about instead of through and with. This concern is also present in “Ties that (Un) Bind: Feminism, Sisterhood and Other Foreign Relations” (2001), where she interrogates the concept of “sisterhood” as an imposition on other sociologically rich categories of bonding by which the avowed subject of cross-racial connection — African women — may live. For example, she contrasts motherhood with sisterhood to point out that the family structural connections may be different. It is not only prioritizing the nuclear bourgeois family that guides Western feminist presumptions of female solidarity but also a form of generational pairing instead of cross-generational model. Where there are no mothers, there can only be sisters or cousins. Where there are mothers, however, a variety of tropes over which there is much debate and ambivalence in Western feminism come to the fore. That article brings to the fore Oyĕwùmí’s work in family systems theory, which she conjoins with her archaeolinguistics and ethnography.

“Conceptualizing Gender: The Eurocentric Foundations of Feminist Concepts and the Challenge of African Epistemologies” (2002) is her continued critique of Eurocentrism in feminist theory and the critical question of what African forms of knowledge are. This is a theoretical piece that segues into sustained research on the problem raised in her argument for motherhood over sisterhood in African anti-colonial discourses, to which she returns in “Abiyamo: Theorizing African Motherhood” (2003). That article introduces her work specifically on Yorùbá conceptions of motherhood. She offers what could be called a relational, developmental, and communal account in which mothering is also prenatal and (in Western terms) cross-gendered or not limited to one sex.

The process of mothering, as a community affair at the prenatal stage, creates a link between the process of the living and the unborn. Birthing is another stage, and there are subsequent relations she distinguishes as manifestations of “motherhood” instead of “mothers.” The former, she argues, is honorific and prized. Here, she continues her sociological pragmatics, if we will, of focusing on the practice rather than imposed terms on which to understand a concept. The Yorùbá conception of motherhood offers a portrait of expanded agency instead of, as in the Eurocentric model dreaded by many (that is, not all) feminists, being “trapped.” One could think of the derisive term “knocked up” to summarize the different views. Used as the introduction to issue number 4, 2003, of the journal JENdA focusing on motherhood, the article introduces the intellectual platform with which her research community and she are building their work.

Oyĕwùmí’s book chapters explore different dimensions of her work in the sociology of knowledge, which we could also call critical epistemology, as she articulates the particularities of Eurocentric epistemologies posed as universalities, her work on conceptions of gender beyond biologism and corporeality, and her work on motherhood. These themes clearly emerge in, for example, “Multiculturalism or Multibodism: On the Impossible Intersections of Race and Gender in White Feminist and Black Nationalist Discourses,” in Claudia Michaels et al’s Black Studies (Kendal Hunt, 2001) and “Translation of Cultures: Engendering Yoruba Language, Orature and World Sense,” in Elizabeth Castelli’s Women, Gender, and Religion (Palgrave, 2001), in which she deconstructs particularities of western feminist thought posed as universalities.

“Conceptualising Gender in African Studies,” in Paul Tiyambe Zeleza’s The Study of Africa (COEDESRIA, 2006) offers her argument for exploring gender through African thought instead of as an imposition on it. Here, she is in effect challenging the conception of African studies as applied European studies wherein theory is presumed equivalent to European thinking. It is an argument posed across Africana though in an ongoing debate between two schools of practitioners — those who believe in the application of theory as presumed legitimate and universal in the European-centered academy versus those who see theory as transcending that presumption and thus in need of interrogation. I see Oyĕwùmí as not preserving a binary here through a simplified assertion of another side. She is instead raising the question of the scope of thought, which means, where the subject is an African community, the question of its agency and responsibility for signification and symbolic formation — in short, culture and meaning — must be taken seriously. This is evident as well in a series of book chapters from 2005 through 2011.

We arrive, then, to Oyĕwùmí’s monograph What Gender is Motherhood?: Changing Yoruba Ideals of Power, Procreation and Identity in the age of Modernity (Palgrave, 2015). Having challenged in her earlier work the presumed universality of Euromodern formulations of gender, the succeeding decade and a half of her career was devoted to a sustained study of motherhood among the Yorùbá with the goal of offering insights for the concept for other areas of African studies. At the outset, an objection could be made about the particularity of this work. A response, as I see it, is similar to the one about binaries above, but this time placed in the category of the dialectics of potentiated double consciousness, to which I now turn.

Her critical work could be read as against first-stage double consciousness, where blacks could only be “seen” through the presumed legitimating gaze of whites. This, as W.E.B. Du Bois showed in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and other writings, created a “Catch 22” of intrinsic problematic existence, for the black, or in Oyĕwùmí’s case the African, is examined as a presumed illegitimate subject instead of a human agent negotiating illegitimate situations (such as colonialism, racism, sexism). Realization of the systemic production of illegitimacy — that is, of being problems — a metacritical position requires examining the ways in which such problematizing emerge in the first place. This move could be dialectical or even sociologically transcendental in the sense of exploring the conditions of possibility for the concepts at hand. Oyĕwùmí’s preferred approach is to examine linguistic archaeological conditions, but the implications include the realization of an initially posed universality’s particularity.

This leads the critic/theorist to what the Antiguan sociologist and philosopher Paget Henry calls a potentiated double consciousness movement in which the knowledge field is broadened (see his Journeys in Caribbean Thought, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). In basic logical terms, it means the domain is broader in scope than presumed at the outset. The error, however, would be to presume that the other perspective is “the” universal. Instead, that other point of view requires a relational, ongoing practice of negotiating meaning. In short, though not “the” universal, it is a universalizing practice in the sense of reaching forth to others. As the Yorùbá are part of a vast and complicated history of Central West Africa, and their linguistic bases facilitate communication across many other African communities, exploring Yorùbá concepts invites a communicative practice of producing African knowledge — including that of self-awareness — than the conceptual frameworks offered by Euromodern impositions in which African peoples function as nodal points of the primitive or cultural practices with no proper place in the present or future. Her study of motherhood is thus heuristic as well as theoretically original in that as being very much part of the present, since the negotiation of the concept didn’t end during colonialism but instead took on forms to address the Euromodern situation, it offers much for non-Africanists to ponder.

Her introduction, “Exhuming Subjugated Knowledge and Liberating Marginalized Epistemes” outlines this argument. A striking thing about this book is that it’s not only a work in sociolinguistics, translation, the sociology of knowledge, gender studies, and Yorùbá but also a work of philosophical anthropology. Oyĕwùmí is in fact taking on the grand task, as did not only the Haitian anthropologist and jurist Anténor Firmin but also the German anthropologist and physicist Franz Boas before her, of articulating what the Jamaican novelist and literary theorist Sylvia Wynter distinguishes as the “human” beyond the “man” question. Her critical work up to this point has done much through the disaggregation of gender and sex from corporeality, and her first chapter brings her critical discussion into the metatheoretical question of the subject of sociological study into what is aggregated into the aggregate of groups.

The first chapter’s discussion of legitimacy and authority in reference to seniority instead of genitalia harkens to many discussed African cosmologies of value, wherein seniority (ultimately manifested in ancestors, who, in a conception of time of good beginnings exemplify greater value) sets the basis for a philosophical anthropology of relations. One, after all, is often simultaneously older than and younger than many others. One’s location is always relative. The myth of twins, for instance, where the one who is born first is actually the junior (because of the authority the one who is born second has of having sent the former to check the terrain) is also well known among the Luo in Kenya. The theme of elders and juniors, in other words, is cross continental among African peoples. The main theoretical point, however, is that the biophysical “man” is only part of an anthropology, and, like Firmin, she argues for a multifaceted understanding of the study of human phenomena.

Human study demands, in other words, understanding how discourses from the linguistic to the axiological to economic features to mythopoetics and many others “work.” This challenging task makes the metatheory of anthropology “open” instead of closed, and thus, when one is conducting a sociological study of African peoples as human beings, that openness to meanings is crucial.

Why is this book important?

First, the chapter on matripotency brings to the fore Oyĕwùmí’s argument for the positive or honorific understanding of motherhood (especially since mothering always has a senior relation) and her discussions of disruptions and genealogical shifts in power that mark the imposition of linguistic transformations, via Christianity and Islam, into an ongoing, negotiated hybridity. In some cases, I suspect creolization may be the consideration but for the presumed purities asserted by Christian and Islamic forces. The work, in other words, is also a careful study of transition. The focus on motherhood already hits directly a tension in African diasporic scholarship, as the measurement of healthy family systems in the Americas are patently patriarchal and premised on the bourgeois family as normative. Indeed, studies of African diasporic pathology, from E. Franklin Frazier through to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Orlando Patterson treat the venerated role of the mother and motherhood in African diasporic families as a sign of dysfunction. Debates on African retentions and the pragmatics of surviving slavery aside, a concrete question often overlooked is the normative logic at work in the meaning of mothering and motherhood from where the ancestors of these populations came.

This debate has returned to Africa in contemporary notions of “modernization” in the form of Europeanization. Such models tend to be male-centered with regard to hegemony, leadership, and power. They also carry the baggage of non-relational, atomic philosophical anthropologies locked in corporeality.

Oyĕwùmí argues that mothering and motherhood, as relational, offers alternative models of leadership both endogenous and pragmatic for African contexts, many if not most of which are maternal-focused beneath the colonial order of maleness. Her conclusion spells out political possibilities of this consideration, since such a realm is the broadest social one of relational power (instead of dominance) in which the symbolic power of motherhood is being negotiated and tested in African postcolonies.

I have much more I could say about this book. It is clear to me that it will afford much discussion in contemporary debates in the fields to which it applies, especially since it challenges the foundational philosophical anthropology of those dominant in the social sciences of Euromodern academies.

My praise for Professor Oyĕwùmí’s work should not be interpreted as my not having any criticism. I think all excellent work generates critical questions. One thing that has always struck me is that the extent to which Professor Oyĕwùmí engages critically her opposition, it makes her work appear, at the methodological level, to reinforce their hegemony. Poststructuralism and linguistic archaeology are, after all, Euromodern devices.

She could easily respond to such a criticism by making a distinction between pragmatic versus hegemonic usage. There is a difference between using a useful method and invoking the method for legitimacy (regardless of its usefulness). If we grant that response, the question is then raised about the extent to which that approach, though necessary for the illumination of signification, is sufficient.

This is where I think, at the methodological level, Oyĕwùmí distinguishes herself from poststructural feminist social scientists who may in effect collapse, in phenomenological terms, into a naïve structuralism of foundational binaries. Oyĕwùmí’s linguistic archaeology consistently moves to lived and intersubjective resources, where situations become the contexts and subjects of meaning. Put differently, the human beings appear in her work as lived realities. Unlike some Africanists (no point naming them here) who refer to Africans as “them” and to theorists as “us” (even when those writers are African) who are trying to understand “them,” Oyĕwùmí always facilitates the appearance of African peoples as “we.”

In short, the universalizing practice — again, not identical with the universal — is of an ongoing communicative work of mature understanding. Her argument about motherhood and mothering, then, is not only an object of study but also the methodology at work. I see this as an extraordinary contribution.

These reflections are but a sparse introduction to her thought. I expect more to come as her contributions to what could also be called the African decolonization of thought continues to make its impact across the globe.

Lewis Gordon is editor of Black Issues in Philosophy and Professor of Philosophy at UCONN-Storrs; Honorary President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies; the 2018–2019 Boaventura de Sousa Santos Chair in Faculty of Economics of the University of Coimbra, Portugal; and chair of the Awards Committee for the Caribbean Philosophical Association. 

This article was originally published by the Blog at APA.

Also for you:

Lewis Gordon

Previous post

The 'Fear Index'

Next post

U.S.-Canada Relations, Kate Spade, and A.P. History