Interview with Minna Salami
Philosophy | Interview for Emerge
Minna Salami is a Nigerian, Finnish and Swedish writer, feminist theorist and the author of theinternationally acclaimed book Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone (2020). Translated into several languages, Sensuous Knowledge has been called “intellectual soul food” (Bernardine Evaristo), “vital” (Chris Abani) and a “metaphysical journey into the genius the West hasn’t given language to” (Johny Pitts). Minna writes the hugely successful and award-winning blog Ms Afropolitan, is co-director of the feminist movement Activate and a Senior Research Associate at Perspectiva. She sits on the advisory board of the African Feminist Initiative at Pennsylvania State University and the editorial board of the Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of the Sahel. You can find Minna on Instagram. For this interview, she talked to Anna Katharina Schaffner.
Anna: Minna, such a pleasure to be speaking to you today. When I first met you, you very memorably introduced yourself saying you carry many passports, and speak many languages. Let’s start with your intriguing background. Minna: I grew up in Lagos in Nigeria, in a multifaith household, where I lived with my parents and my extended family. Lagos is a very cosmopolitan city, drawing in many different ethnicities of Nigeria, but also from Africa and around the world. My mother was Finnish, and my father is Nigerian Yoruba. He is a Muslim and my mum was Protestant. My parents had met in Germany, so they spoke German with each other and with me. My mother and I spoke Finnish, and with my father, I spoke English. But there was also Yoruba around me because my aunties and cousins and grandmother lived with us as well.
When I was a teenager, my mother and I moved to Malmo in Sweden and I lived there for 10 years before moving to Spain for some time. Then I spent three years in New York. Eventually, I landed in London, where I've been for over 15 years now. People sometimes ask me whether I became a feminist in Sweden. Of course, Sweden strengthened my feminist tendencies, but actually, the seed was planted in Nigeria. Nigeria has its own very entrenched patriarchal norms. When I moved to Sweden, I had to contend with quite a lot of prejudice and racism. I was bullied. And I was called the N word. I was sometimes physically attacked, due to my race. In Sweden, I started to really reflect on being somebody who was racialized and minoritized and seen as inferior. Without question, these formative years have shaped my interest in equity between genders and between races, ethnicities, and religions.
Anna: I’d be really curious about how you feel the numerous linguistic and cultural influences in your family, and the different places in which you grew up, have shaped you.
Minna: It has taught me two things. First, that I didn't fit in anywhere. It made me always be on the search for home. Eventually, I found that home of sorts in feminism, and in black feminism more specifically. But it also led me to know that it is possible to live a different type of life – that it is possible to create a different reality, not only individually, but collectively. I saw that people were actually very similar deep down, no matter where I lived. But at the same time, there were differences. For culture and language can really shape how you perceive your environment, think and behave.
And it is also important to say that having had these experiences is incredibly enriching and a privilege. It has helped me to cultivate an open-mindedness towards the world, towards people, and towards knowledge. So whatever laments I have about it in terms of never feeling like I could easily fit in and find a home is countered by its gifts.
Anna: You write an incredibly successful blog called Ms Afropolitan. I love the term “Afropolitan” – what does it mean to you?
Minna: “Afropolitan” was coined by a writer called Taiye Selasi in 2005. The simplest definition of Afropolitan is of course that it's combining the words Africa and cosmopolitanism. In the modern world, cosmopolitanism is often seen as something elitist, associated with globe-trotting and luxury. But for me it evokes the kind of cosmopolitanism associated with the Epicureans of ancient Greece – being a citizen of the world, and feeling a sense of interest, curiosity, and responsibility towards the world. Being a world Earth citizen, understanding that your life is impacted by globality. And that you impact the world as well. When you combine these two, Africanism and cosmopolitanism, the sensibility that arises has to do with having a global perspective, but still being Africa-centred.
For me, Afropolitanism is a worldview. My life is very shaped by this worldview in which you're looking at things both globally and as a pan-Africanist, and someone who is concerned with black liberation. It shapes how I interpret the world, whether it is philosophical issues, or social thought, or politics, or feminism, or popular culture. It even describes many of my lifestyle choices, such as the food I eat and the art and leisure I consume.
Anna: I imagine that with a large readership such as yours comes responsibility and also pressure. How do you deal with being an influencer, in the intellectual sense, with your very considerate reach and impact? You have spoken on five continents and in dozens of countries, and your blog has had over a million hits.
Minna: The central thing for me is always to strive to live with integrity. And that's very difficult to do, probably even for the most enlightened of people. I have my blind spots, but it's really important to me to be able to look in the mirror and feel like I'm practicing what I preach. In fact, it's more important for me to practice the things that I speak about, the changes that I advocate, than it is to advocate them. If I had to choose between living a feminist life, or speaking about living a feminist life, I would always choose the former. Any work that I do that is public-facing is only a fraction of the work that I do privately in terms of personal transformation. And, of course, understanding how that feeds into and is fed by social transformation. My emphasis is to be the change that I want to see in the world, to use that popular phrase.
I have spent a lot of time and energy in trying to undo the patriarchal education within me and to really understand myself and my ethos and the soul and energy that I bring into this world. And so I can trust that to a great extent in terms of responsibility toward others. It's a bit like being both the chemist and the lab experiment. I've tried and tested the things that I encourage others to try and test myself. Yet I am typically not didactic, I am not interested in telling people what to think as I am in inspiring them to think differently.
It’s about having your own kind of moral code. And living according to that code is ultimately a great source of joy. I say that even as a feminist and social change advocate at large and as somebody who ruminates and philosophizes a lot about radical change. It could seem like living according to those kinds of principles would be something heavy, but actually, the more of a feminist life I live, and have been living, the more joyous I feel.
Anna: Can you talk a bit more about your notion of joy?
Minna: I understand joy as something political, as something that emerges. My worldview is something that emerges when you combine rage and joy. For me, those two things always coexist, the tremendous sorrow and desolation that I feel about the way that women are still treated in the twenty-first century, not only structurally, but psycho-socially and psychologically. The tremendous repression of personhood for women. I feel anguish about that. But the more I live in a way in which I don't compromise my integrity with patriarchal norms, the more joy I feel.
Anna: I really love your book, which came out last year. It is called Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach For Everyone. The title already contains two clever provocations. It programmatically expands the idea of knowledge beyond the terrain of the intellect. And it puts forth the claim that black feminism has lessons and insights to offer that are relevant to everyone – not just black women. Let’s start with the first part. You write: “The idea that calculable reasoning is the only worthy way to explain reality … is one of the most dangerous ideas ever proposed.” Could you talk a little bit about your understanding of sensuous knowledge, and the role of African knowledge systems and ‘female’ ways of knowing in that concept?
Minna: Sensuous knowledge is a spiritual, combined approach to knowledge. It is knowledge that involves not only the mind and the intellect, but also feeling, the senses, and art, dreams, embodiment, spirit, and the idea of oneself as part of a larger whole. And also the idea of knowledge as a living entity, as something that you have a relationship with, rather than as something that is static, and rigid, and that you accumulate.
With sensuous knowledge, you have an ongoing intimate relationship with knowledge, almost like you would with a lover. Things are forever changing and growing and transforming and sometimes dying, and you realize, oh, this knowledge is no longer of service. Collectively, too, we can come to a place where we might say, OK, this knowing this, this body of knowing that, this particular part of social thought and social life is no longer very useful. We have to either reimagine it, or adapt it, or discard it entirely. Sensuous knowledge is really about having a very open mind as you navigate the world.
In my book I argue that the type of approach to knowledge that we have today is Euro-patriarchal knowledge. What Euro-patriarchal knowledge typically does is to divide, to create a distinction between the political and the aesthetic. The political includes science, analysis, statistics, and politics. The aesthetic includes nature, the body, feelings, emotions, the senses, art, and poetry. And Euro-patriarchal knowledge divides these two, in order to create societies that can be controlled, and in which everything can be placed in fragmented department. Sensuous knowledge, by contrast, is a worldview and a way of being in the world in which there isn't a distinction between those things. And sensuous knowledge is also non-hierarchical, synthesizing and inclusive, pluralistic, indigenous, friendly, feminist, therapeutic, art-inspired, and imminent. It is Earth-based.
Anna: What really struck me about your book is that you basically argue that black feminism is always already, by its very nature, integral. You write: “There is no other ideology – not socialism, not Marxism, not black radicalism or white Western feminism – that at core has created liberation theories for addressing class, gender, and racial discrimination combined.” African women, you argue, have always had a more respectful, less exploitative relationship with nature, and place more emphasis on interbeing. So we can add an environmentalist and a spiritualist orientation to the list, too. And you say that black feminism incorporates “poetry and art, the language of love” …
Minna: And sensuous knowledge is rooted and an earthy way to know and, therefore, sensuous knowledge is a black feminist approach. Partly because I've written it and I'm a black feminist, ha ha, but it is also informed by black feminist ideology at large. More than in any other school of social thought, this kind of earthiness and connectedness and care for others – for the self, for the cosmos, as well as for science and theory and academic analysis – is integral to black feminism.
It probably has to do with how black women have always been outsiders and it speaks to some extent to what I was saying at the beginning about not ever really fitting in. The black female experience is very often related to that sense of not fitting in. Black feminism, as it emerged from black women's experiences, was always a school of thought in which there was not only an emphasis on the structural and the philosophical and the analytical, but the combination of all of these, and, in particular, the connection between the political and the aesthetic.
Anna: Another thought you emphasize in your book and that really resonated with me is the importance of caring for language. You write, for example, on good ideas: “What an idea makes us feel is just as important as what it makes us know. Good ideas are like good songs, you could say. With the right elements – if the words have cadence, if the voice has beauty and passion, if the ‘rhythm’ of the idea resonates with the zeitgeist – they catch fire and ripple into mainstream culture.” This is such a perceptive observation. To make an impact, we need to emotionalize the information we impart. However, we need to do so with great ethical care. Especially in times like ours, where our political discourses have become emotionalized in a highly dangerous way. How, do you think, can we emotionalize and mobilize affect in a conscious and caring way? What role do poetry and the arts have to play in our collective attempts to create better tomorrows?
Minna: Thank you for such a beautiful question. Part of the answer is in the question. I think in order to emotionalize and mobilize affect, as you put it, we have to do it with ethical care and with a moral compass that is about care. This is why I go to great lengths to emphasize in Sensuous Knowledge that sensuous knowledge is a synthesis of the political and the aesthetic. I argue that it is a synthesis between rational thinking and emotional intelligence. And I use the example of ogbon, the Yoruba word for knowledge, which is split into ogbon-ori, and ogbon-inu, meaning knowledge of the gut and knowledge of the head. Those two have to coexist. You would just be half wise if you only had emotional intelligence, or if you were only are able to think rationally.
We need an approach to knowledge that synthesizes the imaginative and the rational, the quantifiable and the immeasurable, the intellectual and the emotional. Without feeling knowledge becomes stale. Without reason, it becomes indelicate. And that last part is the answer to your question. I would say it is when we emotionalize affect without reason that it becomes indelicate. And that's what we see a lot happening now. Euro-patriarchal knowledge diminishes the emotive side and also creates an uncaring ethics. But in the same way that the now very dangerously emotionalized atmosphere becomes uncaring, the one that is very rigid and robotic is also uncaring.
Anna: What, do you think, can we learn from African knowledge systems, and, more specifically, from Yoruba philosophy? You share some beautiful stories and notions in your book.
Minna: I just spoke about that a bit when I mentioned the word ogbon. There are tens of millions of Yoruba people in Nigeria. There are millions in the rest of West Africa, specifically in Togo and Benin. And Brazil and Cuba, in particular, have large numbers of people who are descendants of Yoruba people. But Yoruba religion and philosophy is also influential across the Diaspora in the US, embedded in Caribbean and Brazilian influences. I mention all that because we're talking about millions of people who have some part of their identity and their being rooted in Yoruba philosophy.
That doesn't mean that Yoruba philosophy is the right prism through which everybody should look at the world. But again, if we want to get to the truth of something, we have to look at it from many different angles. And here we have one angle that has a huge influence upon the world, and yet in Western societies, we don't really know about this ontology. Yoruba philosophy views knowledge very much in this rounded way I talked about, as sensuous knowledge. It doesn't use that exact phrase, but sensuous knowledge is, in many ways, a Yoruba way of looking at knowledge.
Anna: A final passage from your book really stayed with me. It centers on your notion of forgiveness. You write that “the absolute triumph over violation comes from making ample space in your life for love and preventing the paralysis of indifference from taking root.” “Forgiveness,” you suggest, “is not something we do merely out of the goodness of our hearts; it is what we do when something more important than anger fills the heart. It is when we don’t give others what Toni Morrison called ‘the gift of hatred.’ Forgiveness is never about forgetting the past; it is instead about placing more importance on well-being in the future.”
Minna: Yes, the question about the gift of hatred and forgiveness when it comes to identity and race is very important in my work. For me, real liberation and freedom lies in pursuing life – in the sense of living a joyous and a virtuous life. I think most of us share at least three desires. We want intimacy and companionship, and we want a better society, and all of the many different things that that might mean. And we also want clarity, and we quest for knowledge.
When you center on the oppressors – be that men or white people or rich people – then those desires are compromised. And the oppressing system is strengthened. It's very important that we learn how to center on ourselves, but not in an egocentric way, rather, to be able to live with dignity and to pursue this world with open eyes. And, whether it is forgiveness, joy, identity, pursuing the production of knowledge - in all of these areas to not just be in constant resistance.
Anna: I am, finally, also very curious about what you make more generally of this wider ecosystem of social change activists, of which Emerge and Perspectiva are a part.
Minna: The most promising approaches, I think, are the ones that are based on the interweaving of worlds and different ways of knowing. And the ones that are cultivating an openness to the felt, the senses, the body, and the spirit - whatever that means to people. For me, it has to do with shaping the quality of people’s peacefulness within, and our desires and our dreams, and things that are not easily described with analysis, but maybe rather with art or nature.
And I'd like to see more of that, more openness, and always more of feminist and black feminist approaches. And more breadth of voices - I would like to see much more global narrative in this space. When there's a lack of inclusivity knowledge itself is compromised, the truth is compromised. When the group of people shaping collective knowledge isn’t diverse, so much knowledge is lost. Even in these kinds of spaces, there's a risk of not seeing the full picture, not even seeing a fraction of the picture, because it's shaped by a small demographic segment in society.
Finally, going back to Afropolitanism, I'd love to see more stories from Africa, but also from Latin America and Asia. And I’d like to see these stories disseminated in the spirit of learning, of co-innovation, rather than as a form of sensationalist othering. Stories of equals in pursuit of creating a better world, post-tragedy, seeking to exist on a higher dimension together. Thank you for these wonderful questions.
Minna's most recent essay, "A Feminist Analysis of the Soul," has just been published by Perspectiva. You can find it here.