Sound thinking: Black women’s acoustemologies as resistance – Fellow’s seminar by Uhuru Phalafala

5 October 2022

“This project is about framing sound thinking and sound knowledge within Ntu cosmology. Ntu is a cosmology that informs southern African identities, relationalities, and philosophies of community-making, most well-known through the principle of Ubuntu – I am because we are. Ntu is a life force pervading all that has, is and will exist including all dimensions – seen and unseen. It’s a principle of wholeness, oneness, totality, interconnectedness and interdependence. Humans are composed of the living, the living dead and not yet born – in an onto-triadic structure of being, becoming and emergence,” said Iso Lomso Visiting Scholar Uhuru Phalafala of the Department of Literary Studies at Stellenbosch University.

Iso Lomso Visiting Scholar Uhuru Phalafala

“At the heart of this research are the dogged questions of Blackness and being, of Black female subjectivities in Southern Africa, white settler colonialism, and resistance. I offer an exploration of the sonic as counter-cosmology to a New Worlding cosmology disseminated through colonial expansion. The latter cosmology, characterised by material fundamentalism and ocularcentricism, produces differentiating and bifurcating categories of ‘human’/being, knowledge, gender and temporality. Ntu cosmology maps and generates alternative forms of ontologies, relationalities, epistemologies and ecologies.”

Phalafala explained that the colonial viewpoint created a dichotomy between coloniser and colonised, master and slave, human and non-human, Black and white, male and female. “When the coloniser spoke of the ‘native’ he spoke of the Black man,” she said. “One undifferentiated mass identified as Black men. To speak of women exceeded colonial logic.”

Drawing on Jamaican writer and philosopher Sylvia Wynter’s 1995 essay 1492: A New World view, Phalafala highlighted that as Europe extended and reproduced itself it imposed its own creation stories, medical theories, beliefs, rituals and ceremonies creating “human life as a racialised, taxonomic character”.

Colonisation privileged the ocularcentric with seeing as a mechanism of making knowledge and the world. “The privileging of sight, the eye, seeing is at the basis of colonial society,” said Phalafala. “Not only racialising but also gendering. Reality is only perceived through the eye – it frames the logic. The not seen is illogical and unintelligible. This furthers a binary system – black/white, mind/body, human/nature. Reason and mind take primacy over the body.”

She explained that in material fundamentalism what you cannot see is unreal, the realm of the spiritual is relegated to an external force, the relationship between man and nature is one of hierarchical domination, while women’s power is undervalued, criminalised, delegitimised and demonised.

“Western Enlightenment saw the body as a trap from which to escape, as it is unpredictable, uncontrolled. The cerebral and rational were equated with whiteness and full humanity, while cultures of the body were equated with blackness and sub-humanity. Women and nature were seen as the feminine not producing intelligible knowledge.

Phalafala believes there is a need for a multisensory approach and alternate possibilities.

“I’m on a quest to open up to other forms of being. Humans are not only physical and biological but born through myth, narrative, cosmology and stories. The physical world is not privileged over metaphysics. All are interdependent in a co-constituted entanglement.”

She believes that using the method of sound thinking and the modality of sound knowledges – including poetics, narratives, indigenous languages, oral traditions and histories, ritual, ceremony, dis/embodiment, dreams, interiority, performance, dance, song – can afford an epistemic break from coloniality.

“We perceive these acoustemologies as a science coming from elsewhere, accessible through breaking with the dominant paradigm and its violent monopoly on Being/Power/Freedom/Truth, towards a praxis that integrates the ocular with the multisensorial whole: a convergence of the mind with the body, the cognitive with the affective, the animate with the inanimate, and the human with more-than-human worlds. This productive solidarity of the senses is deployed as metaphor for pluri-versality: the co-existence of multiple worldviews and universals, of multiple cosmologies, and multiple modalities of being and knowing. Functioning at this nexus opens possibilities for hearing/feeling the community as a whole.”

With this basis, Phalafala focuses on listening to South African history in literature and performance to surface forms of resistance – especially that of Black women – usually omitted from dominant historiographies of revolution.

The Black sonic

“In this, sound is central,” she said, “knowing the self and world through sound. This includes both the oral tradition and the larger sonics – the frequencies, vibrations, and soundwaves of the living world. Listening is the primary mode of perception, while ‘seeing’ is a sensory perception beyond the eyes, including divination and prophecy.”

She indicated that in this the drum is a central organising symbol and that in the languages of the land the word for drum is also the word for song, dance, and ritual used for petitioning the presence of the living, living dead and unborn – the past, present and future.

Orators, poets, musicians, sangomas and diviners are the knowledge keepers of intergenerational knowledge and memory.

She gave examples of how this translates in recently released music ranging from Tumi Mogorosi’s jazz album Group Theory: Black Music – an example of “the evolution of Black sonic from ritual and ceremony to jazz and a contribution to Black study – knowledge produced by the living in collaboration with the larger sonic community” to Nduduzo Makhathini’s album In the Spirit of Ntu which foregrounds “singing as a way of being, of becoming, sound as a modality to knowing each other and the world”.

Unpacking the matriarchive

She also focused on what she describes as the matriarchive, a counterpoint to the Euro-patriarchal-archive, which sees women as custodians and stewards of history, continuity and intergenerational wisdom, as well as the link to the world of the unseen but felt.

Describing her method as “diligent listening” she pointed to Solomon Plaatjie who attributed his writing to information passed on by female family members – “facing the erasure of his cultural heritage, he turned to the matriarchal line”; Mazisi Kunene whose translation of an epic poem passed down from his great great grandmother offered a corrective history of King Shaka “foregrounding his great great grandmother as historian, philosopher, sociologist, keeper and gatherer of sacred knowledge”; and, Es’kia Mphahlele’s autobiographical novel Down 2nd Avenue in which “a young Es’kia witnesses refusal and learns respect in a matrilineal-headed home highlighting the minor acts of resistance from women who instilled integrity, humanity and self-respect – learnt at the hands and hearth of females and later rallied as weapons to wield against dominance”.

“I want to highlight the importance of being attuned to feelings in liberation politics,” she explained. “Poetry articulates the feeling, giving the masses a language or a song to transfer their feelings to thought, and thought to action – it’s beyond logic, grounded in feeling. Feeling is crucial to the logical steps of action. The sonic positions feeling as a legitimate source of knowledge.”

“The matriarchive defies the stasis and immobility of conventional archives,” she added. “It refuses to be locked into a fixed record. It lives beyond death, and has an ongoing production according to who engages with it. With-nessing not witnessing.”

In discussion, Phalafala was challenged to explain how this work can be used in teaching.

“This needs to co-exist within multi modalities of knowledge. We need to invite society into the corridors of academia. Knowledge is not produced only by those with PhDs. We need to open up the curriculum, not throw it out. Opening up to multiple perspectives of what we consider human enriches us. I advocate for shattering the narrow confines to represent all stakeholders and knowledge makers in Africa, challenging the egocentric arrogance of Western imperialism that shames the curriculum to allow for multiple other knowledges to co-exist. We cannot be teaching a Western curriculum only – we need to teach all equally – privileging one is reproducing colonial violence. Conviviality is my guiding principle. Looking at other ways of doing research, politics and history that encompass the totality of the head/body, male/female, white/black, human/animals.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: supplied

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