Queer African Studies: Personhood & Pleasure

I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.

—John Mbiti

Let us face it. We are undone by each other. If we are not, we are missing something.

—Judith Butler

I have been reading bits and pieces of African philosophy focused on the problem of personhood. This particular exploration started when I read John Mbiti, and this passage in particular:

Marriage is the one experience without which a person is not considered to be complete, ‘perfect’, and truly a man or a woman. It makes a person really ‘somebody’. It is part of the definition of who a person is according to African views about man. Without marriage, a person is only a human being minus. (Introduction to African Religion 112)

I was captured by the role of marriage in granting “complete” personhood and “true” gender-sex. Mbiti’s use of “complete,” “perfect,” and “truly” generated varieties (or genres) of personhood and gender-sex: complete/incomplete, perfect/imperfect, truly gender-sexed/untruly gender-sexed. Beyond the broad categories suggested by binary thinking, other variations can be imagined, for instance, complete, mostly complete, partially complete, somewhat incomplete, mostly incomplete, and fully incomplete.

Mbiti’s passage became even more compelling when I read Alex Weheliye’s parsing of humanity in racial modernity (following Sylvia Wynter) into full human, not-quite-human, and nonhuman (Habeas Viscus). I wondered how those distinctions could be read into and through African thinking on personhood. In African Religions and Philosophy,  Mbiti writes that one who does not marry is “not only abnormal, but ‘under-human’” (133). Marriage confers and affirms gender-sexed personhood. Personhood is gendered, sexed, and sexualized.

How might a queer thinking and politics intent on generating possibility—livability and pleasure—for varieties of humans engage Mbiti?

Mbiti’s passage ticks many boxes within mainstream Queer studies : compulsory heterosexuality (Adrienne Rich), gender normativity (Gayle Rubin), and heteronormativity (Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner). Each of these come with specific archives—objects, situations, histories, methods—rooted elsewhere (even if Rich gives a nod to non-western geohistories and Rubin draws on anthropological archives). From Wambui Mwangi and Frantz Fanon I learn to begin from where I am standing. And this also means returning to where I started.

I came to Queer studies through feminism and, more specifically, through the essentialism/social constructionism debate. Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir had written that a woman is made, not born; sociologist Mary McIntosh had argued that the homosexual could be seen as “playing a role” instead of expressing a “condition”; the Combahee River Collective had written, “As Black women we find any type of biological determinism a particularly dangerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic.” Frantz Fanon had taught that “the Negro” is viewed as the “biological” in Western thought and politics and daily practice. Judith Butler’s work on gender performativity was a Liyongian final word on gender.

The work I was looking at—Feminist theory, Gay & Lesbian studies, Postcolonial theory, African American studies, and Queer theory—was all deeply convinced that it was important to address biological determinism. Even when it glanced at non-western locations, it understood biological determinism predominantly through North American and European archives and methods.

An Aside: Claiming something is socially constructed does not make it less tenacious than something biologically determined. Both cases, after all, are about forms of sedimentation (sociality as sedimentation, or what Fanon called sociogenesis, and biology/evolution as sedimentation—in both cases, what accumulates over time. The glib uses of “social constructionism” as the tool often fail to reckon with this sedimentation. As I read through African thinking, I realize the problem is how to reckon with different kinds of sedimentation that often elude the essentialism/constructionism binary—we cannot presume that binary directs all possible ways of imagining gender, sex, and something called sexuality).

First Interruption: And then I encountered Ifi Amadiume and Oyeronke Oyewumi. The provocation was simple: what if African thinking did not take biological determinism as the way to think about gender? What if the essentialism/constructionism debate that had taken up so much space in feminist and queer debates was not very useful for thinking through African art, culture, history, and politics? What if broadly held ideas of African gender-sex—often rooted in ritual-social transitions from one stage to the other—demand a different set of conceptual tools?

Second Interruption: In 2008, I returned to Kenya for a short period and I encountered the human rights paradigm. Encountering that paradigm nudged me to think more deliberately about the human. Certainly, I’d been doing this work, especially as I worked through the problems of the subject in psychoanalysis and the abject in feminism/queer studies and the colonized in postcolonial studies. But given the dominance of the human rights frame in Kenya, I turned to thinking about what that human was: What was its archive? How was it imagined? Who imagined it? How was it working? For whom was it working? What idea of the human was adequate to gather those pursuing freedom? To think with the human, I had to return to the African diaspora archives I had been working on and to learn to think again with Frantz Fanon and Hortense Spillers, at first, and then Sylvia Wynter, Fred Moten, Christina Sharpe, and M. NourbeSe Philip, again and again.

An Aside: I am not sure what kind of human is produced by human rights. I do not yet have the archives and methods to think about this problem, and I’m not yet convinced it’s the most useful way to think about the human and freedom

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As I was returning to Kenya in 2013, I had been thinking about what felt like twisty thinking in some of the Africa-focused work I was reading. Theory/method sections would work through North American or European thinkers and then turn to African archives to build their arguments. Most work did not attempt the conceptual translation that would justify such a practice. So it read as disjointed, if not incoherent. Why invoke Beauvoir or Butler or Berlant when thinking with African archives, historical or contemporary? After all, these works—philosophy or theory or however one might describe them—emerged from and engaged very particular archives.  As Nkiru Nzwegu writes, “more African scholars need to undertake ground-up research to better grasp their theoretical analysis. Until they do, their work is a mish-mash of disconnected ideas that, on the one hand, fails to explain African phenomena, and on the other, totally distorts the logics of African reality” (“Osunality”). Moreover, if one is to embrace non-continental thinking, what is the place of Afro-diasporic thinking? To the extent that thinking in European languages means traversing modernity, surely Afro-diasporic thinkers have generated indispensable frames.

How does thinking in place, thinking with a geohistory, produce knowledge? An encounter with Katherine McKittrick’s work had led me back to Glissant and, through him, to how to think with and in place. The appearance of “geohistory” in my prose marks this process.

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I’m feeling itchy about the “I” in this writing. It exists to track something idiosyncratic rather than representative, to track how geohistory demands—and, in demanding, might produce—a listening “I.” To mark what have often feel less like epiphanies—I never experience those—and more like stubborn rocks against which I keep stubbing my toes, so that I must experience the place I am.1

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Here’s what I have found so far. The available field of African philosophy is dominated by men: they are the dominant, if not exclusive, figures in common anthologies. They are most commonly cited by other men. For instance, a partial bibliography of personhood thinking includes Tempels, Mbiti, Menkiti, Wiredu, Gyekye, Ikuenobe, Masolo, Matolino, and Oyowe. Gail Presbey makes a very brief appearance, but is anomalous. It has been difficult to find work by African women philosophers. Even when I have found that work, it is generally not cited as important in the field of personhood. (I’m still learning this work, so feel free to correct me.)

Most of the work I’ve read abstracts from its contexts, so while women might have provided languages and frames for what the male philosophers write, the archive of that labor is not evident. Not only is women’s thinking mostly absent from this body of work, something called “womanhood” is rarely taken up as a philosophical idea. Oritsegbubemi Oyowe and Olga Yurkivska write, “African philosophy shows very little concern with gender identity or gender issues.” However, In looking at their bibliography, gender translates as womanhood, and no scholarship from African Masculinity studies or African gay and lesbian studies or African queer studies is cited. Disciplinarity strangles thinking.

I know that something called philosophy is not restricted to the discipline and, indeed, for minoritized people it cannot be. I continue to learn from Barbara Christian:

For people of color have always theorized – but in forms quite different from the Western form of abstract logic. And I am inclined to say that our theorizing (and I intentionally use the verb rather than the noun) is often in narrative forms, in the stories we create, in riddles and proverbs, in the play with language, since dynamic rather than fixed ideas seem more to our liking. How else have we managed to survive with such spiritedness the assault on our bodies, social institutions, countries, our very humanity? And women, at least the women I grew up around, continuously speculated about the nature of life through pithy language that unmasked the power relations of their world. (“The Race for Theory”)

Still, one needs a starting point.

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Places to think from:

Most radical thought about sex has been embedded within a model of the instincts and their restraints. Concepts of sexual oppression have been lodged within that more biological understanding of sexuality. It is often easier to fall back on the notion of a natural libido subjected to inhumane repression than to reformulate concepts of sexual injustice within a more constructivist framework. (Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex”)

Kinship in Africa is unalterably social in focus, and where social kinship and biological kinship diverge, the social prevails. Thus, in many east and west African societies, and among many Bantu-speaking peoples, a child may call his natural mother’s sister’s husband “father.” In many areas, a woman is permitted to undertake rites of marriage to another woman, and act as, and be, father to the progeny who come about by the action of a chosen sexual partner for the mother. Among many Bantu-speaking peoples . . . the terms “father” and “mother” are not even restricted to the biological parents of a child, but are applicable to every adult member, male or female, of the father’s siblings in the one case and the mother’s siblings in the other. Hence, some fathers turn out to be female, and some mothers male. (W. Emmanuel Abraham, “Crisis in African Cultures”)

Across a broad body of work in African philosophy, the ritual-social function of kinship and gender is widely acknowledged. Gender and sex and something that might be called sexuality are not taken as biological givens, but as ritually-socially created. The trouble here: I repeat a certain move that I don’t think needs to be engaged.

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Third Interruption: I am increasingly irritated by the dominance of sexological thinking, which is to say, taxonomic thinking, where gender, sex, and something called sexuality are concerned. A brief look at Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis should convince us that proliferating gender and sexual categories has little to do with freedom, even as the world we inhabit attaches legibility to freedom, or to the promise of freedom. I find the sexological demand, “what is this called in your African language?” silly and dangerous. As silly and dangerous as I find the repressive statement, “this does not exist in x African language, so it didn’t exist.” Why attach taxonomy/etymology to bodily practices and experiences of living? Why take the presence or absence of such taxonomies/etymologies as evidence of anything? Are we to imagine that a word exists to name every single way we experience our bodies and pleasures?

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Compulsory sexuality might be useful here. The problem is the place of desire. Not pleasure.

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Nkiru Nzwegu provides a way to think. Here are four claims:

  1. African sex practices insist on pleasure for all partners, especially women.

Copulation entails notions of reciprocity and acknowledgment of pleasure with gifts. The positive conception of vagina and the recognition of women’s sexual autonomy yields a richer description of the vagina as “mature and experienced,” “taunting” (referring to dexterous pelvic movements during intercourse), “assertive,” “firm,” “tight,” “moist,” “warm,” “rhythmic,” “textured,” and “pulsating.” A corollary of these linguistic developments is that the penis equally comes up for review. Is it long and big enough? Is it experienced and adequate? How long can it retain turgidity? Women decide the criteria for judging penises; their evaluations are required so men could improve their performance and ensure their fulfillment and satisfaction. These evaluations arguably accommodates the interests both sexes have in achieving fulfilling intercourse.

2. Africans understand the distinction between sex for pleasure and sex for reproduction, and value both equally.

In current theoretical discourses, Yoruba ontology, as other ancient African ontologies, seems to emphasize fertility over sexual pleasure and satisfaction. That sexuality appears “hidden,” “concealed,” or “glossed over” is because the philosophical grammar of the ontologies are becoming lost to modern Africans who are disengaging from the indigenous worldviews. No such loss of meaning occurs in the disaporas in the Americas where Òrìsà worship is prevalent and Òsun’s sensuality is celebrated. Epistemologically, Òsun is constituted by two principles—sexuality and fertility—and an elaborate sequence of processes; the former yields sexual pleasure and the latter, children.

3. African sex practices are taught and practiced—in Foucault’s terms, Africans have an ars erotica

The discourse and underlying notion of osunality encourages the treatment of sexual pleasuring and enjoyment as being of optimal importance. To drive home that point, the institution of advisors emerged in diverse societies to facilitate pleasurable experiences, and to instruct young women and couples in the art of lovemaking. “Nuptial advisors” are found in different regions of Africa, and include the Sande sowei (Boone 1986), laobé of Senegal, nwang abe of the Ubang of Nigeria (Uchendu 2003), magnonmaka of Mali (Diallo 2005), ssenga of Baganda (Tamale 2005), shwenkazi in Banyankore, Uganda; tete among the Shona of Zimbabwe; alangizi of the Yao of Malawi and the Chewa of Zambia; nacimbusa of the Bemba of Zambia (Richards 1956), and mayosenge in parts of Zambia, olaka of the Makhuwa of Mozambique (Arnfred 2007) and others.

4. African thinking and practices of pleasure survive in the Afro-diaspora, even when they are lost to or forgotten by continental Africans. This is not “survival” or “retention,” as these words come to us, but something more sacred and dynamic: memory-work, wake-work, pleasure-work.

In current theoretical discourses, Yoruba ontology, as other ancient African ontologies, seems to emphasize fertility over sexual pleasure and satisfaction. That sexuality appears “hidden,” “concealed,” or “glossed over” is because the philosophical grammar of the ontologies are becoming lost to modern Africans who are disengaging from the indigenous worldviews. No such loss of meaning occurs in the disaporas in the Americas where Òrìsà worship is prevalent and Òsun’s sensuality is celebrated. Epistemologically, Òsun is constituted by two principles—sexuality and fertility—and an elaborate sequence of processes; the former yields sexual pleasure and the latter, children.

Whereas African male thinkers—philosophers, theologians, anthropologists—are stuck on kinship, marriage, and reproduction, African women thinkers have mapped the important role of sexual pleasure in African communities. Sexual pleasure—Nzegwu maps it as pre-coital, coital, and post-coital—was studied, taught, practiced, and valued. Sexual choreography was an essential element of dances and sex,  taught by older women to younger women: position your body like this, move like this, stay still like this, take pleasure, give pleasure. Pleasure was enhanced through body adornments—beads worn around the waist, for instance—and body modification. At the heart of sex education and practice was women’s pleasure.

African Queer studies has not spent enough time thinking about the role of women’s pleasure in African communities. What would an African Queer studies that took women’s pleasure seriously look like? What would it sound like? What would it highlight? How might it be a (much-needed) bridge between African Feminism and African Queer studies?

African philosophy has not spent enough time thinking about personhood from the perspective of women’s pleasure. How does pleasure build worlds?

As always, Audre Lorde:

The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with any other person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the thread of their difference.

Another important way in which the erotic connection functions is the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy. In the way my body stretches to much and opens into response, hearkening to its deepest rhythms, so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience, whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, examining an idea.

That self-connection shared is a measure of the joy which I know myself to be capable of feeling, a reminder of my own capacity for feeling. And that deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy comes to demand from all of my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible, and does not have to be called marriage, nor god, nor an afterlife.

This is one reason the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom at all, when it is recognized at all. For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourself and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe. (“Uses of the Erotic”)

Nzegwu teaches me to think of Lorde as a diaspora voice carrying knowledge that Lorde terms “ancient and hidden,” knowledge that has “survived and grown strong” (“Poetry is Not a Luxury”). I think of this knowledge as Afro-diasporic knowledge. I hear it when Gloria Wekker and Omi Tinsley write about mati work as women’s erotic work. I read it in Jackie Kay and Louise Bennett and Dionne Brand and Nalo Hopkinson and Octavia Butler and Zora Neale Hurston. I hear it across musical genres—the insistence on black joy grounded in women’s pleasure, from which living together can be reimagined and practiced.

And I return here, where I stand, knowing the world of the ancestors is Mary Nyanjiru and Zora Neale Hurston, Mekatilili and Ida B. Wells, a gathering of women across Africa and Afro-diaspora, whispering and humming and singing and dancing in our dreams, daring us to embrace the worlds they have imagined.


1. Audre Lorde and Samuel Delany teach me to risk the “I,” and Christina Sharpe gives me the sentences, as she hears them from Saidiya Hartman: “The ‘autobiographical example,’ says Saidiya Hartman, ‘is not a personal story that folds onto itself; it’s not about navel gazing, it’s really about trying to look at historical and social process and one’s own formation onto social and historical processes, as an example of them.’” (In The Wake)