Sensuous Knowledge: A black feminist approach for everyone by Minna Salami

Review by Peter Reason

Minna Salami Sensuous Knowledge

Minna Salami is a Nigerian and Finnish social critic, founder of the MsAfropolitan blog, who draws on Africa-centric and feminist perspectives to offer a more inclusive vision of relations between women and men, and with the more-than-human world of which we are all part. I came across her writing on the social media platform Emerge, where she contributed Exousiance: A Black Feminist Vision Of Power And Nature; this led me to her book, her blogs, her TEDx talk and other material. Her writing links power, social justice, poetic knowing from a black, feminist, decolonial perspective that she describes as ‘hybrid… stitching worlds together—mythology and science, psychology and history, creation stories and evolutionary theory.’ She is certainly a woman with a viewpoint that demands our attention.

Her book is an exploration and advocacy of ‘Sensuous Knowing’—an embodied way of knowing that is both emotional and intellectual: ‘We need an approach to knowledge that synthesises the imaginative and the rational, the quantifiable and the immeasurable, the intellectual and the emotional’. She contrasts Sensuous Knowledge, with ‘Europatriarchal Knowledge’—that she sees as originated by elite European men during the Enlightenment—although arguably its roots go right back to Ancient Greece and to the foundations of monotheism. It is a dualist way of knowing that seeks power and control (pace Bacon) through acquisition; a form of knowledge that is self-perpetuating, unable to see the ground on which it stands.

One might well retort that none of this is new. There is a significant literature by both women and men attempting to undo or reconstruct the Western worldview and epistemology going back at least to Blake’s protestations about ‘single vision and Newton’s sleep’. I have been at it myself for the past 50 years (with less success than I would like). But as Audre Lourde taught us, ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. Salami argues that black feminists, because they are ‘outside the centre of power with respect to gender, race, and often class’ can provide ‘not the only but the most rounded critique against Europatriarchal Knowledge… Black feminists have always integrally understood that we need new ways of conceptualizing what we know.’ She points out how ‘joy’ is so often omitted from the Western perspective, joy as an inner quality that ‘is itself political in nature’: ‘This is why the biggest “fuck you” a black woman can give to Europatriarchy is to take genuine pleasure in being alive.’

Given the essential validity of this argument, it is rather impertinent and maybe foolhardy for an elderly, white, retired professor to offer a review, even though the book is advertised as ‘A black feminist approach for everyone’. But I believe so strongly in her thesis that ‘The world is suffering because of the biases of knowledge’ that I will give it a go. This book is written for a wider audience than retired academics; we all have a duty in these challenging times to stretch our minds and hearts beyond the Western mindset.

One might also protest that her portrayal of Europatriarchal Knowledge is extreme. But as she writes in Exouciance, the most pressing issues the world faces are a consequence of a contention between what is and what is claimed to be what is. She quotes the description of the ‘meta crisis’ by philosopher and author Jonathan Rowson: ‘Our inability to see how we see, our unwillingness to understand how we understand; our failure to perceive how we perceive or to know how we know’. Salami wants us to see just how self-sealing the Europatriarchal Knowledge system is. While it has resulted in significant achievements, ‘Instead of producing thriving, exciting, and wise societies, as knowledge should do, Europatriarchal knowledge creates a world of social, psychological and spiritual suffering.’ 

In contrast, she points to African knowledge systems as a ‘treasure trove of narrative for informing feminist ideas of knowledge.’ With some of the oldest civilizations in the world, Africa also has some of the oldest patriarchies, and so some of the oldest protofeminist narratives. In African creation myths there is no supreme male creator god, and the underpinning myths are egalitarian with respect to nature of other living beings. She sees African worldviews as founded in a ‘philosophy of interbeing’ and argues that there is depth to be gained from African myth and philosophy at a global level.

The opening chapter of Sensuous Knowledge lays out the foundations of her argument. It is followed by reflections on liberation, decolonization, identity, blackness, womanhood, sisterhood, power and beauty. She writes of liberation as the reinvention of the self; of decolonising the mind from a whole network of influences that enact servitude; of sisterhood as ‘that multi-layered fabric made of love, anger, betrayal, reconciliation, and tenderness…’ Throughout the book she weaves intellectual argument with African myth and autobiography—the chapter on Womanhood draws together the African myth of the goddess Asi and the origin of indigo blue; stories from childhood and relationships with her grandmothers; her experience of wounding through rape: ‘all women must go through a reckoning with patriarchy to receive the gift of womanhood’.

In the chapter on Blackness she draws the African diaspora together with the people of Africa—who don’t necessarily see themselves as Black—seeking to bind together Africa’s descendants sociohistorically. Blackness is ‘the glue that connects us all’ in the face of white supremacy. And she demands we all stop seeing blackness as a negative identity, as always bound up with oppression, defiance and protest, ‘not merely as a condition of being, but also as a contention of being.’ Her words are particularly resonant as I write the day after George Floyd was buried in Houston and the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol city centre was pulled down and dumped in the Avon: ‘It is whiteness, not blackness, that transmits the history of racism.’ This connects with her contention that to be a white male in Western society is to have a ‘normal’ identity: ‘The more whiteness and maleness claim “the neutral,” “the default,” and “the norm,” the more marginalized groups… are pushed to the periphery.’ I know from experience, and from the challenges over many years from feminist colleagues, just how easy it is to rest comfortably unaware of my white male privilege.

All this is tied up with how we understand power in Europatriarchal society, an issue that has long engaged Salami. She reviews, briefly, some of the classic social theories and argues that they all see power in terms of hierarchy and dominance: ‘The state has power over people; humans have power over nature; men have power over women, the rich have power over the poor, and so on.’ She is not even happy with the egalitarian notion of ‘power with’: ‘Power must itself be boldly reimagined,’ she asserts. She asks us to consider a river, in particular the River Niger, its irresistible flow as it swirls and gurgles and pushes toward the ocean under the influence of gravity. She writes, ‘Power is to human beings as gravity is to rivers. It is the vital force that helps us flow through the meandering streams of life’. Power resides not in individuals or institutions; to think that way is to fragment the whole. Power, she argues, quite simply is, the ‘life force within every living entity, woman, man, animal, tree, river, stream…,’ reflecting notions like Hindu prana, Chinese tao, or the Yoruba ashe. She wants us to understand power as enabling, and to consider nature as the source of existential meaning for human society.

This book is an attempt to see through the attitudes and points of view we so often take for granted, drawing on African and women’s perspectives that have been side-lined by colonial culture. She wants us—those carrying ‘normal’ central identities—to see that we simply don’t realize that we have a perspective. What is particularly important is the way Salami draws the issues together: we can’t understand relations between women and men, black and white, without also reflecting on our relationship with the more-than-human world.

I like Bernadine Evaristo’s comment on the back cover, that this is a ‘book that dares to position black feminism as the prism through which we can better experience and understand the world.’ My guess is that all readers, black and white, female and male, will have fierce arguments raging in the heads as they read this book—I certainly did. Minna Salami has dared to add an African perspective to the feminist task of breaking the seals that legitimize the Europatriarchal perspective. It’s disturbing, it’s infuriating, it’s opinionated, in places it’s extreme. And all the better for that!

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Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. He writes a regular column in Resurgence & Ecologist, and has contributed to EarthLines, GreenSpirit, Zoomorphic, LossLit, The Island Review, and The Clearing. His book In Search of Grace was published in 2017 by Earth Books. His previous book Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea is published by Jessica Kingsley. Find Peter at peterreason.net, and on Twitter @peterreason.

Minna Salami, Sensuous Knowledge: A black feminist approach for everyone (Zed Books, 2020) ISBN 9781786995261, hardback, 216pp..

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