From the Series: An Otherwise Anthropology
Anthropologists working to look beyond the grim circumstances of our present have attuned their ethnographic sense to the ways people, often marginalized in various ways, have and always will imagine otherwise. I caution against co-opting these inspiring potentialities into another mechanism that reproduces the “Other” as otherwise from the norm or as exceptional. To look to the Other for ways to imagine/do/think/be otherwise dances a fine line of re-exoticizing “them.” So how can we avoid the repetition of our past (and present) intellectual demons? Before initiating any search in this direction, we need to be grounded in the assumption that our interlocutors are unremarkable. It is only from this point of departure that we can productively, and most importantly ethically conceive of the ways African subjects are imagining, thinking, acting, being, and doing together otherwise.
Turning to African diasporic subjects and the expressive forms that emerge from these communities to look for ways of imagining otherwise has been a productive starting place for moving beyond the inevitability of oppressive structural forces (Redmond 2014). A brief genealogy of African diaspora–oriented ethnographers highlights a decolonial tradition that can serve as a model for work rooted in the assumption of agency, humanity, and the unremarkability of their marginalized interlocutors (Allen and Jobson 2016; Hurston 2018). This lineage has shown how subjugated groups are situated within rather than outside of modernity’s structures, even when they are deemed to exist in a position of radical alterity (Thomas 2016). In my own work, I see working- and middle-class West African martial artists as another avenue toward decolonizing the remarkable: by looking at activities of leisure and play in urban African contexts that have boundless political possibilities.
Capoeira, a martial art developed by African men under conditions of enslavement in colonial Brazil, has grown popular across West Africa since the 1990s. In Dakar, Senegal, university students and young professionals who migrated to the country primarily to study medicine, science, and law, have been particularly drawn to the practice because of the transient nature of their stage in life. What brought many of them together was the need to kill time between class and home, and to build community in a country that was not their own. During a routine administrative meeting after training at the Franco-Senegalese elementary school in Dakar, a senior member of the group Afreecapoeira (Senegal’s first capoeira school), decided to empty the contents of his worried mind by posing a question to the tired trainees: “My country is not well. What can capoeira do?” Mahmoud, a Burkinabé who has spent much of his adult life in Dakar, was referring to the recent coup that ended the twenty-seven-year reign of Blaise Compaoré through military intervention and democratic protest.
The capacious imagination embedded in quotidian practices by African subjects are all too overlooked when African experiences are so often read in relation to violence, economic precarity, ethnic or religious strife, and other overdetermined tropes of life on the continent. These young people show up to train every evening for friendship, “ambiance,” and exercise. When political strife arises, many have seen the potential of their practice, something they frame as the quintessential tool of Black liberation. It continues to carry with it an inherent potential for liberation in their own contexts, whether it be literal or (dare I say) otherwise.
When I spoke with Mahmoud later about his inquiry at the meeting, he laughed at my immediate assumption to take the question literally rather than the rhetorical provocation he meant it to be. Those who imagine otherwise, like the anthropologist, are also playing with the reality of this potential, recognizing that the immateriality of the otherwise is a necessary component of its actualization, whether it be playful, metaphorical, or provocative. This method of physical and metaphysical liberation that Brazilian capoeiristas engaged in for centuries becomes a working- and middle-class activity of leisure in urban Senegal that carries the potential for large-scale political implications in one creative gesture. They take from what was successful in fighting some of the most oppressive structures in human history—slavocracy and global White Supremacy—and imaginatively apply it to their postcolonial challenges. They turn to a Black, grassroots fighting form, in which the trained body and mind are the only weapons necessary to achieve freedom. And they use it as a modality to imagine ordinary people like themselves taking on this tradition to challenge political elites that disrupt the democratic process through the potential of a capoeira spirit.
Members of capoeira schools across West Africa are reformulating the past otherwise by enacting their artistic medium of Black liberation in the House of Slaves on Gorée Island, a central site of the trans-Atlantic trade for centuries. The Capoeira Association of the Gambia constructed a sacred space for their regular training sessions which they named “The Door of Return,” to create a space of welcome for lost diasporic kin healing from the violence of slavery. Through the repetitive practice of gathering in symbolic, historic, and most often mundane urban spaces, West African martial artists manifest their solidarity with Afro-descendants across the Atlantic. In doing so, many see their artistic presence as reversing the monumental processes of history. Others playfully reimagine the possibilities beyond precarity in the present, like Mahmoud’s provocation, which toyed with the idea of capoeira’s “energy,” “magic,” and “atmosphere” as having the potential to contaminate political strife with a spirit of collaboration.
Those who permit me to write about them are cosmopolitan, transnationally oriented young people who have posed a conceptual “problem,” or rather nightmare, for much of the intellectual history of anthropological engagement in the region (e.g., anxieties about “évolués” in colonial French West Africa [Genova 2004]). In the context of writing about these urbanites, their radical “otherwise” lies in the recognition of the unremarkable nature of their contributions before we can find what is remarkable about them. We have first to make room for narratives of Africans centered around joy, intellectualism, subtlety, and performative practices that are not haunted by the racist tropes of Black subjects as exceptional.
Allen, Jafari Sinclaire, and Ryan Cecil Jobson. 2016. “The Decolonizing Generation: (Race and) Theory in Anthropology since the Eighties.” Current Anthropology 57, no. 2: 129–48.
Genova, James E. 2004. Colonial Ambivalence, Cultural Authenticity, and the Limitations of Mimicry in French-Ruled West Africa, 1914–1956. New York: Peter Lang.
Hurston, Zora Neale. 2018. Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.” Edited by Deborah G. Plant. New York: Amistad.
Redmond, Shana L. 2014. Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora. New York: New York University Press.
Thomas, Deborah A. 2016. “Time and the Otherwise: Plantations, Garrisons and Being Human in the Caribbean.” Anthropological Theory 16, nos. 2–3: 177–200.