by Mwaona Nyirongo
Western Science and Black Bodies
The economics of Black bodies has remained one of the saddest stories of humanity. Throughout space and time, Black bodies have been questioned if they are human enough and capable of thinking. These racist engagements have been practiced and preserved even in spaces that claim to embody high human values such as the church and scientific communities. Western science continues to enslave Black minds to propagate the dismemberment of the Black people (Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2018; Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2018). Black bodies continue to be weighed in the economics of bodies and they rank at the bottom of human hierarchy (Nyamnjoh, 2012). No matter how well educated an African Black person is, even if they were schooled at ‘white’ universities and taught by white teachers, they are simply not human enough to harbor scientific thoughts. This paper explains how Western science preserves and practices racism as far as knowledge creation is concerned.
The scientific expression of “cogito, ergo sum” by René Descartes which means, “I think; therefore I am,” fully describes how the West use science to preserve and practice racism (Maldonado-Torres, 2007, p. 252). The expression represents a Western scientific belief that existed and is being perpetuated that a person who does not think logically-western logic, is not human enough and must not be taken seriously. Non-western Black people especially Africans struggle to meet Western logic and in due course some are killing the Blackness inside them, to get rid of Black reason and Black experiences. They are abandoning their heritage and alienating themselves from their communities so that they can whiten themselves in a world that seems to be anti-Blackism. There are however intriguing and worrying hierarchies being established as a newly emergent African middle class with access to the transnational political, social, economic and cultural capital that simply reproduces these racist inequalities, but in ways that are masked because of their African-ness. These individuals are also however subjected to ‘anti-blackness.’
Black intellectuals are misunderstood, captured or ignored through the categorisation of; ‘magic’, ‘witchcraft’, ‘sorcery’, ‘superstition’, ‘primitivism’, ‘savagery’ and ‘animism’(Nyamnjoh, 2017, p. 255). Some Eurocentric Black African elites tend to reproduce these racist views uncritically and engage on Black on Black epistemic violence (Nyamnjoh, 2018). These elites have internalized western ways of generating scientific knowledge to become Black outside and White inside (Maldonado-Torres, no date, p. 12).
The ordinary Black Africans who have immersed themselves in the traditional meaning-making are Othered, considered unreasonable and denied the right to think and represent their subjective realities rooted in the ways of being human they have grown to know (Nyamnjoh, 2017, p. 255). The Western schooled Black elites are quick to Other such intellectuals as ‘the African mind’ rooted in traditional knowledge instead of allowing such thought to be seen as A tradition of knowledge. This setup has led to the murder of Black bodies (Ndlovu-Gatsheni et al., 2001, p. 32) and it only benefits the Western mimics by pushing the Indigenous Black thinkers to the Othered space. However Black people can think too and if the Scientists would like to know this, they would need to re-immerse themselves in indigenous Black realities.
Nyamnjoh (2017, p. 256) takes the example of Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola, who conceptualised the African Black reality from the Indigenous knowledge systems. In The Palm-Wine Drunkard, Tutuola speaks of the reality beyond what our frail bodies can experience externally to encompass experiences beyond the sensory perceptions (Nyamnjoh, 2017, p. 256). Tutuola argues that being and becoming is more about the consciousness and not the outer body that houses the consciousness. The consciousness is not limited by the body it was born in because it can be lodged by any other body – container’ – human and non-human, animate and inanimate, visible and invisible – regardless of the state of completeness or incompleteness of the container in question’ (Nyamnjoh, 2017, p. 256). Reality, in this case, has endless possibilities, especially with the multiplicity of consciousness.
Tutuola perceives life as more extensive than logic and that logic and reality constructed on Western science must be challenged. Nyamnjoh (2017, p. 256) argues that in these multiple realities, nothing remains constant, even the unity of being; everything keeps on changing. All things, including gods, spirits, plants, and animals, do not live forever, after a while, they change, or they are destroyed. Apart from that, he explains that ‘anything can be anything,’ meaning that beings react to their environment and bring forth a character that is adapted to environments. Power and weakness are also chameleon-like in that they change hands without even a warning. At the same time, he explains that human beings can be Gods, and Gods can also be human beings, and all this complexity creates what he calls, ad infinity, where things and beings rise so that they can be humbled. Nyamnjoh (2017, p. 256) observes that Tutuola’s universe confronts Cartesianism, a form of rationalism that posits that scientific knowledge is innate.
Black African Bodies as Frontier Thinkers
Nyamnjoh (2017, p. 258) writes that Black people`s rejection of duality of being, binary dichotomies and the reaffirming of infinite realities that dominate Western science show that Africans are frontier beings. He argues that frontier Africans confront the often ‘institutionalised and bounded ideas and practices of being, becoming, belonging, places and spaces (Nyamnjoh, 2017, p. 258). Nyamnjoh (2017, p. 258) writes;
With frontier Africans, everyone and everything is malleable, flexible and blendable, from humans and their anatomies to animals and plants, gods, ghosts, and spirits. No boundary, wall or chasm is challenging enough to defy frontier Africans seeking conversations with and between divides. At the frontiers, anything can be anything.
This understanding allows frontier Black thinkers to understand belonging and identity as highly fluid and dependent on context and necessity and not the illusion of permanence (Nyamnjoh, 2017, p. 259). They envision an infinite world characterised by flexibility of ‘mobility, identity, citizenship and belonging,’ which is beyond the illusion of duality of reality (Nyamnjoh, 2017, p. 259). Nyamnjoh (2017, p. 259) further writes;
Myriad interconnections, inextricable entanglements, and creative interdependencies, despite persistent hierarchies at global and local levels, afford Africans the opportunities to explore the fullness of their potentialities without unduly confining themselves with exclusionary identities. If civilisation means confinement to a narrow idea of reality characterised by dualisms and the primacy of the mind, the purportedly autonomous individuals, and a world of sensory perceptions, then Africans (or any other race, class, gender, generation or social category) who feel unduly severed, dismembered, scarred, caricatured or savaged by such limited and limiting indicators, have every reason to disabuse themselves of civilisation and modernity
Nyamnjoh (2017, p. 259) writes that if Western scientists and their Black mimics if they can try to appreciate the African frontier`s view, they would encounter a world where one can belong and at the same time does not belong, one can be a present absent and at the same time absent present. This understanding helps us see that being and becoming are ongoing; hence identity and identification can always be renegotiated in part my mobilities and frontier encounters, beyond token of tolerance, to accommodate substantive sameness rather than pushing for similarities in the worlds (Nyamnjoh, 2017, p. 260).
Is Conviviality the Solution?
Conviviality is to recognise and provide for the reality that we are all incomplete hence a need to celebrate and preserve incompleteness and challenge the completeness delusion (Nyamnjoh, 2017, p. 262). Conviviality challenges us to be open-minded and open-minded in our understanding of identities, being and belonging (Nyamnjoh, 2017, p. 262). Incompleteness challenges us to find ways for complementing ourselves with the incompleteness of others, not that we should become complete, but to improve our social relations.
Conviviality also encourages the pursuit of collective goals, allowing one to live above self-self-interest, manipulative and self-centred traits that sometimes people portray. The group is also able to push for these goals because the group itself, just like the members, is incomplete. This is important because it empowers the individual and the entire group. The group would advance togetherness beyond tolerance (Nyamnjoh, 2017, p. 262). An individual would thus express themself to the public, meanwhile paying attention to the fact that they need to maintain some level of restrain to secure the group’s interests. This collective subjectivity is vital in unsettling racism (Nyamnjoh, 2017, p. 263).
Western scientists need to understand that Western epistemology is incomplete on its own. For it to make full sense, it needs to drop the racist tendencies and accommodate other ways of thinking that would welcome Blackism in spaces. This way, there will be multiplicity of possibilities of creating new knowledge and making inventions. Racism does not make science strong; it only undermines it.
The paper has shown that science is bult on Western logic. Every person who does not practice this logic is not seen as a thinking being hence not human enough. Thoughts of Black communities that rarely embrace empiricism and Western logic, are considered as superstitious and therefore not scientific enough. As such, many Black thinkers are not taken seriously in spaces and this in turn makes science exclusionary of Black bodies. This kind of racism is intersectional and cuts across with capitalism and extractive coloniality. There is a need for Western scientists and their African mimics to take a conviviality turn which would acknowledge the incompleteness of knowledge to necessitate accommodation of a wide range of sources of knowledge.
Mwaona Nyirongo is a doctoral student at Rhodes University, reading towards a PhD in Journalism and Media Studies. He is part of the Licence to Talk project led by Professor Anthea Garman, Head of the School of Journalism and Media Studies. This project studies talk in South African public life and uses listening theory as its primary method. Mwaona Nyirongo is particularly interested in probing Black public life to understand how Black public intellectuals are contesting the how, what and who of public debates and injecting Black experiences into South African public life.
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