An Ode to Kente Epistemology: Theorizing Black Gay Life

This post is part of our online roundtable on Jafari S. Allen’s There’s a Disco Ball Between Us.

A traditional kente cloth in a workshop (Shutter stock)

I enter Jafari Allen’s There’s a Disco Ball Between Us: A Theory of Black Gay Life as an anthropologist of African descent, Black and gay, whose work crisscrosses the vast time-space of the African continent and its myriad diasporas. The book’s storied form, the epistemologies and pedagogies that undergird it, and its palimpsestic character, make apparent those unimagined connections between supposedly unfamiliar forms. In other words, Allen’s narration of the complex stories animating the pages of the book is reminiscent of the “Ananse (spider) tales” popular in Akan folklore. Known as “anansesem” (Ananse story) among the Akan ethnic group of Ghana, Ananse stories are characterized by the fictionalization of the spider as a wisdom-bearing subject with the ability to deftly weave together the unfamiliar and unrelated. In the words of the Jamaican-born artist Michael Auld, Ananse stories are “part of an ancient mythology that is rooted in West African folklore and concern the interaction between divine and semi-divine beings, royalty, humans, animals, plants and seemingly inanimate objects.” This essay is twofold. First, I suggest that There’s a Disco Ball Between Us be read as an Ananse story precisely because it refuses the disciplines that confine us to the pigeonholes of academic obscurantism, revitalizing the situated knowledges of those habitually confined to the margins. Second, the book’s non-disciplinary orientation away from the hegemonic habitus of knowledge production exemplifies rather beautifully what I term “kente” epistemology in this essay.1

At the book’s start, we see an early riff of this epistemology when Allen writes:

In a conventionally disciplined book, or one in which the strategy was to perform the sort of interdisciplinarity that privileges disciplinary “tradition” while filling in with the color or flavor of feminists, queers, poor people, or “natives,” for example, who is topping whom in the intercourse of high culture and low culture, or of interpellation and self-making would be easily apparent and unremarkable. Not so here. We will stroll the road a piece with one, then the other, flip flopping rather promiscuously, shamelessly, and, we hope, generatively (Allen, 21).

Allen’s allusion to “flip flopping” at the end of the quote can be read as interpenetration, such as the one that undergirds the weaving that yields the web spun by Ananse. The spider web, as it were, is the template for the kente cloth. The kente fabric owes its strength and fidelity to the spider’s web. Stitching the strange to the familiar and the familiar to the strange, the book threads/treads over and under hegemonic Eurocentric, hetero-centric, and phallocentric bipolar epistemologies. It welds space to time, Blackness to queerness, and the Diasporic to the African, among other examples. Thus, it advances an epistemology that overcomes the binarization of these modalities of being and becoming by suggesting that “being each other’s stitches is essential in a world in which one’s peace is too often casually torn apart” (Allen, 29).

The multitextured and multilayered content of this ethnography on Black gay life enables an encounter with an epistemology that traverses broad, unquantifiable temporal and spatial domains. From “the anthological generation” to supplementing the diaspora with the “Black/queer polis,” the book subtly weaves various traditions of knowing and praxis. Perhaps the habit of tying together discrete elements, what Allen calls the “Black gay habit of mind,” is what Richard Wright anticipates when he shares this reflection about his grandmother in his short essay entitled, “Memories of my grandmother” as follows:

“This tendency of freely juxtaposing totally unrelated images and symbols and then tying them into some overall concept, mood, feeling, is a trait of Negro thinking and feeling that has always fascinated me. I think it was this part of my grandmother’s personality that fascinated me more than anything else. The ability to tie the many floating items of her environment together into one meaningful whole was the function of her religious attitude. It seemed indicative of a certain strange need on her part.”2

To make this reality comprehensible, the art and act of weaving (what Wright calls tying) is a critical habit that refuses academic epistemologies as the formative scenes of knowledge-making. Wright’s grandmother, therefore, offers us insights into those other ways of knowing privileged in the book. Or, to echo Allen, being “promiscuous.” This betweenness does not enable separation. Indeed, it makes space for the orchestration of connection and relationality. By tying and “culling” worlds violently sliced by the regimes of slavery and coloniality, Allen hopes “for generative connections to our individual projects” unfolding either here or there that work to imagine alternative freedom pathways.

If the cornerstone of There’s a Disco Ball Between Us is an epistemology content with assembling dissimilar knowledges, ways of knowing and not knowing, in the spirit of the kente fabric (which always has frayed ends), then this epistemology allows Allen to achieve two objectives. First, he is able to free himself from the malaise that has long beleaguered anthropology, exemplified by the discipline’s inability to break away from the colonial obsession with the subject-object binary. And second, this rupture yields other ways of thinking and knowing masked by this colonial obsession. Hence, fundamentally, the book presents us with an iteration of what happens when the “native” inhabits the figure of the ethnographic authority.

A multi-genre monograph that is simultaneously ethnographic and autoethnographic, epistolary and poetic, intergenerational and intragenerational, immanent and transcendent, the book works in the tradition of what the late South African anthropologist Archie Mafeje calls “non-disciplinary.” Preoccupied with what other ways of doing anthropology in Africa might look like and what those different ways would mean for the future of Anthropology, Mafeje gravitated more towards a non-disciplinary orientation than the interdisciplinary form. Being non-disciplinary did not imply the rejection of disciplinarity but encouraged an approach that wove insights from “researchers in the different social sciences in Africa, specifically sociologists, economists, historians, political scientists, social geographers, lawyers (especially those interested in land tenure), philosophers, and literary critics.”3

Dwelling on the future of African Anthropology in the immediate aftermath of the independence of colonized African nations, Mafeje illuminates how: “the only way out of this dilemma was to participate in the ideological, political and intellectual deconstruction of colonial Anthropology. The latter was difficult to realise because we were not prepared for it organizationally or institutionally. So, it was left to individuals to live up to their own convictions.”4

Allen’s There’s a Disco Ball Between Us ultimately arises from a conviction invested deeply in critically reorienting Black Studies and Anthropology to meet the needs of Black non-heteronormative subjects in the contemporary moment. The book may not have been anticipated by Mafeje, who primarily focused on the freedom projects for the postcolonial African subject, but it may be figured as Mafeje’s dream come true. Unlike Mafeje, however, Allen’s magnification of Black gay life promises to complicate the postcolonial generative by imagining the postcolonial project as an ongoing process. The theory of Black gay life afforded us by Allen is like the frayed, promiscuous, untamed edges of kente cloth, waiting to be stitched to something else, now, later, or never. It is a theory of epistemological reorientation, which highlights that:

“The allure of Black/queer spaces in the life is not just the music and bodies (although there is always music and always bodies moving). There is also intense (if also sometimes vague) curiosity and solidarity, tearful migration, and sometimes split-second exile and the specter of never returning (or finding) home.” (Allen, 228).

In sum, Allen focuses on Black gay life and the spaces in which they thrive by revitalizing an epistemology that does not slice, dichotomize, and is obsessed with unrequited taxonomies, like those Eurocentric epistemologies which enervate Black habit of mind. And if Black gay life and its concomitant practice of mind are in Nairobi or Rio de Janeiro, in the Global North or the Global South, and in the Global North in the Global South and in the Global South in Global North, the book’s deft weaving of Blackness through queerness, diaspora with the continent, ancestors and the living, resignation, and hope makes kente epistemology an epistemology on its own terms.

  1. According to James Padilioni, Jr., “Kente is a meaningful sartorial device, as every aspect of its aesthetic design is intended as communication. The colors of the cloth each hold symbolism: gold = status/serenity, yellow = fertility, green = renewal, blue = pure spirit/harmony, red = passion, black = union with ancestors/spiritual awareness.”
  2. Richard Wright, “Memories of My Grandmother” in The Man Who Lived Underground (New York: Harper Collins, 1941), 176.
  3. Archie Mafeje, “Anthropology and Independent Africans: Suicide or End of an Era” in African Sociological Review Vol. 2 (1998), 30.
  4. Ibid., 29.
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Kwame Edwin Otu

Kwame Edwin Otu is currently an Associate Professor of African Anthropology at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is the author of Amphibious Subjects: Sasso and the Contested Politics of Queer Self-Making in Neoliberal Ghana. Currently, he is at work on his book manuscript, provisionally entitled, The Salvage Slot: Technology and Ecologies of the After-Afterlife, an ethnography of the entwined lives of e-waste workers and e-waste on a dump in Ghana.

Comments on “An Ode to Kente Epistemology: Theorizing Black Gay Life

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    Very good read!!! Insightful contribution to the process of rethinking disciplinary silos. I need to read There is a disco ball between us.

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