An African Queer in the academy

We do not have to die, become sick or leave the academy to live and be in this space.

Photo by Changbok Ko on Unsplash

An article, “African Studies Keyword: Autoethnography,” (Mara & Thompson 2022) published in the African Studies Review, the official journal of the African Studies Association, which dominates the discipline in the US), has sparked justifiable criticism over the extractive nature and unethical methods of data collection employed by the authors.

The authors propose “centering their personal experience as white women to help ‘decolonize’ African studies.” (InsideHigherEd has a good summary of the article and the fall out.) What is astonishing, to critics, is the fact that this paper has passed through various stages of peer and editorial review.. As an African, queer and gender non-conforming PhD scholar this signals a politics of collusion, underpinned by gaping fractures within “African” curated spaces within the academy, which implicates individual and institutional actors as well as within the meta space of African Studies. In order to contribute to this conversation, I reflect on my brief experience in African Studies while doing my PhD.

Lived experience is not just a set of past/current experiences that can be packaged into a physical body, invited into the academy and used as a measuring stick to deconstruct how the colonial academy has violated, characterized indigenous peoples and policed non-conforming expressions of genders and sexualities. Lived reality is first a reconfiguration and reclamation of power actively denied by structures and cultures of exclusion. It is saying: “I know.” It erases the gaze of Western empiricism that speaks for subjects. It means shedding the paternalism “of giving voice” because the voice has always been there: it is silenced by structures of racism, imperialism and heteropatriarchy; sustained by carnal, exploitative power relations through capitalism; and further cemented by institutional cultures that are competitive, void of trust, and absent of care for both practice and research.

Lived experience is also not static. Although I was raised in relative poverty and with various forms of violence done to my body, I have also received multiple degrees (with distinction) from world-ranking universities. I am no longer the young person who established a community-based organization (CBO) in my hometown to challenge the failures of the DA-led government in Coloured communities in Cape Town. I no longer speak Afrikaaps, and express myself predominantly in English, the language of my trade as an academic. And yet, by virtue of my lived experience and regardless of the upward social mobility my education affords me, I continue to exist precariously within academic spaces, particularly “African-” and “Gender-”curated spaces. Many times I have been reminded by senior peers that academia is a game and we know that games always produce winners and losers. In this supposed game I wonder where African Queer lived realities factor in and whether I have agency.

African Queer lived realities can be understood as the productive site in which we grapple with a reconfiguration of gender, sex and sexuality, pleasure, joy as modes of existence. It also speaks to spiritual decimation and the reclamation of spirituality from which Queer people are often robbed. Of course, I cannot speak for all African Queer lived realities, especially as a South African Queer person (who enjoys conditional freedom afforded by my nation state). Although African Queer lived realities are not homogenous, these power relations structurally and institutionally underpin our understanding of them. Therefore, for me, African Queer lived experiences is a possible antidote to this silencing mechanism employed by the “rational” academy.

My lived reality poses a critical question of power in the Western university space: Do universities and centers or departments of Black, African, Gender Studies know how to engage African Queer realities as equal producers of knowledge? Writing, reading and doing a PhD has meant absorbing epistemic violence, during a pandemic, during the implosion of my country’s already dubious liberal democracy. Through grief, illness and anxiety. Reading then how trans* lived experiences are constructed by supposedly seminal texts, how race is conceptualized, the role that religion (that has saved me so many times) played in producing the violence we experience becomes a violent encounter with history, politics, economics and culture. All of this must be digested by me and then translated into a research output that does not replicate epistemic violence, exclusions and power relations.

From one vantage point, my body (already an archival meeting point of complex histories) becomes the buffer, absorbing violence and histories and outputting texts that invite liberatory politics, joy, and love, which a neoliberal university can usurp without much effort. No generic academic workshop would help me in this sense. It takes me twice as long to read and to write. It breaks down my spirit, and no amount of meditation will address the structural/institutional flaw that enables this breakdown. I ask myself, why are white and cishet scholars writing about Queerness and trans* identities not being asked if they are ready for the work? What about my African Queer subjectivity exposes the flaws in “African-” curated spaces in a neoliberal, white university? If I have the intellectual ability, these questions must follow: “What about this process, our spaces, our centers cannot hold space for African Queer lived realities as equal producers of knowledge?” and “How can we pool our resources to support these scholars and their work?” Such questions bring discomfort and expose structural, institutional, and individual incapacities.

“The PhD is lonely.”

“The PhD feels like this.”

“It does get better.”

These are the generic responses an encounter with my lived reality produces.. Before the pandemic, there were already gaping inconsistencies and inequalities for PhD students, and students in general. It is harmful and borderline unethical for university staff to “address” the concerns PhD students raise with generic responses that reverberated through their own graduate journeys. It indicates a lack of understanding, radical care and illustrates complicity in replicating power dynamics that leave many PhD students, particularly African, indigenous, queer and women, living precariously.

We need academics to be radically invested in dismantling the very systems, cultures and practices that afford them undue privileges in the academy and in the world. This radical dismantling requires them to turn deep within to see how they personally benefit from the historically constructed structural oppression of the very communities they study in Africa. This is not something that can be simply encapsulated in a positionality statement, ethical board review or secondary PTSD workshops post fieldwork.

Of course, most who have done a PhD will tell you it is difficult and demanding. There is no denying that. However, these age-old and clinical responses to concerns of loneliness, mental health, juggling egos, and financial concerns cannot be fixed through generic responses. These issues require an institutional response, truthful reflexivity, and a radical shift in imagining knowledge production. Yet, these necessary movements to address concerns of African Queer scholars are eclipsed by the bureaucratic, neoliberal business model universities employ, power struggles between those in academic ranks in relation to student bodies, and the continuous co-option of African and indigenous knowledge systems and practices in which academics are experts and those of us with multiple degrees, lived experience and heterogenous politics of decolonisation are decentred. Additionally, the failure to listen when we speak stems from a culture in academia where “speaking up” is often detrimental to funding, grants and career advancement, and shrouded in subtle (and sometimes overt) harassment and bullying.

I wonder if centers of African studies in Europe, historically white-only institutions (and those in the US), know what decolonisation might mean. Do they know about radical care and empathy? Do they know that their majority white and cis-gendered staff will have to do work to deconstruct their  life experiences, to lay bare the intimate dimensions of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalist exploitation? It will require accountability that cannot be encapsulated in a workshop series that can be filed for tenure promotion. I wonder if they dare to admit the deep failures and gaps in their knowledge and practices? It will require Africans and Queer persons who are already established in these spaces to shake the mentality that there is only one seat at the table, which leads us to claw, connive, and scheme for space. This breaks down efforts of community building, which are central to a caring, decolonial turn. It will require of scholars like me, with my lived reality, to be critical of our affiliations to a Global North university studying African Queer lived realities—the material and structural privilege my institution might grant me when applying for jobs. I must ask myself, am I open to the radical rebuilding of the very space that affords my meals and fuels my inquiry?

We cannot decolonise methodologies, curriculums and spaces without trust. Who do I trust to hold and create space for my African Queer lived realities? Who will be an ally if institutional cultures and policies push for “business as usual” throughout a deadly pandemic that reconfigures modes of existence, income and creates more precarity? I doubt ally-ship because during my MSc and current PhD studies, so many of my peers remarked, “Westerners are pushing LGBT politics down our throats.” Yet, they were touted as the best from Africa, and some were previously employed in influential positions. I saw the replications of colonial norms and gendered power relations; I saw greed and historical revisionism.

More troubling is that the probability of these people being employed by aid agencies, institutions of governance increases because of their international degrees and the currency this carries in various African spaces. Trust is central to decolonization because it facilitates the building of communal practices and spaces that colonization has so violently disrupted. African Queer survival 101, which is orally passed down from the one friend, colleague or ally in the department, is that you find community and trust outside of the institutional space. These conversations of community happen in pockets within the institution, or outside of it. I have built such communities in different institutions in South Africa, the US and the UK, and they are why I am still here, willing to continue. The joy, love, and care I experience when I am in commune and relation with other Queer and African Queer beings drives my work. Too easily, the institution and its agents can exclaim, “Do not bite the hand that feeds you,” and so we fill in annual reviews and course evaluations with glee and lay bare the truths only in the inner circles we trust.

However, times are indeed changing. Communities of joy and love that practice radical care and community-making are on the rise. We are creating new practices of engaging our bodies, each other, spirituality and our existences in this world. We do not have to die, or become sick or leave the academy to live and be in this space.

Further Reading

The academic game

African Studies scholars write for the gate-keepers, to prove our own legitimacy, for the stimulation of conferences and the relief of rising recognition by algorithms.