Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Too Black for Canada, too white for Congo: re-searching in a (dis)placed body

I am here. You are here. We are here. The academy’s knowledge production machine depends on Black silence. I, You, We will not play that game.

Jen Katshunga
28 June 2019
The Congo River, Kinshasa, 2016.
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Jen Katshunga. All rights reserved.

Adhering to their own time and ways of doing things, my ancestors sent me a poem in a dream at the end of graduate school that disassembled my experiences of (dis)placement, knowledge production and violence within the academy.

Neither here nor there
Yet now and here
Nazali áwa (I am here), Ozali áwa (You are here), Tozali áwa (We are here)
The ancestors whisper
And they cry out – reminding
And they nudge, prompt, provoke
And they ground, stoke
Settle in common and comfort-in-between
This is your (un)belonging, they say
Take hold, go places
Be in the world, be
As the re-searching never dies
In this here and now
Neither here nor there
The re-searching survives
In (dis)placed bodies
By (dis)placed bodies
For (dis)placed bodies

The de-cluttering of institutional violence I experienced during my master’s is ongoing. However, I want to situate this piece in ‘re-searching’ my (dis)placement and its relationship to the destructiveness of ‘producing’ and ‘consuming’ ‘knowledge’. I want to unpack a constant question I ask myself, “Where is my place when/if I am participating in the production and consumption of my own unhumaning?”

When I first asked this question, it caused me to spiral deeper and deeper within interrogations of placelessness and the relevancy of research to (dis)placement.

Two years of my master’s was spent striving for lucidity – struggling to name what was happening to me and to others I care for – a form of violence in and of itself. By engaging in this praxis and survival of re-searching, I am making sense of my (dis)placed and colonised positionalities and inserting my experiences within research and academia.

A large part of this insertion required me to enter a process of re-searching. I offer a small caveat here: I do not have a clear definition for processes I have undergone and/or am currently experiencing. However, I can elaborate that at this moment, for me, re-searching was and is beyond the reflexive, at times surface level questioning and ‘check-box’ practices that academics undergo in their methodology courses.

Re-searching considers and reckons with systemic and structural violence, but it also necessitates that we answer where and how care (in all senses of the word) exists.

It is more than probing ethics and positionalities. We have to question care, what and how it can look like, where it is in our work, and how to continue to focalize it in our work, our communities, and for ourselves, especially on a careless earth.

This deep inquisition also disregards all white western Euro-American (this includes Canada which is often disappeared from discourse on ‘North America’) constructions of ‘rationale’ and ‘order’, and requires us to go back whilst moving forward to ask, ‘why here, why now?’ This question continues to serve as a critical rupture in my relationship with placelessness within the academy.

My relationship to (dis)placement – too Black, too white and making space for grey

I am a Black African immigrant cisgender woman with Congolese origins. Defined by a life of transiency and nomadity, a rare constant has been my lengthy residence in the geopolitical space of Canada. This country is heralded for its politeness, ‘feminist’ prime minister, cold weather and multiculturalism. Only rarely will you find much attention to its historic and contemporary genocide of Indigenous peoples, enslavement of descendants of African peoples, and rampant anti-Black racism.

I am part of the first generation that was born and raised outside of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) within my family. As a result, I am out of place in the DRC.

A consequence of this (dis)placement is that I am a visitor in all places. In Canada, I experience overt and implicit anti-Black racism daily. While in Congo, I am labeled mundele (white person/foreigner). These experiences concretise why I am too Black for Canada and too white for Congo – why I am foreign in all places.

The production of knowledge unhumans those deemed marginal figures, flattening us to be orators of trauma and funneling us into ‘cradle’ roles.

On the production and consumption of knowledge

When I was asked to write about overcoming challenges with knowledge production within my own research, I thought it a rather simple task. I was angry and I knew that I could channel that rage to write about my experience with structural inequities, institutional violence and anti-Black racism. The moment for pen to paper arrived and I was aghast – all my fire was gone.

I realised I was not able to write about these obstacles because I did not think that there were any answers. At least none that avoided the need to demolish violent structures. Moreover, I did not feel that I had ‘overcome’ any challenges except for unlearning a lot. I am still sitting in the messiness of that unlearning.

I eventually understood that these ceremonial and informal performances within academia of violence and unhumaning were vestiges of colonisation, anti-Blackness, and enslavement. Still I questioned my place, why here, why now?

The normalisation of knowledge as a commodity to be produced and consumed is inherently capitalist, imperialist and colonial. This regularisation encourages the unhumaning of those deemed marginal figures, flattening us to be orators of trauma and funneling us into ‘cradle’ roles. Academia has regularised this harm.

Marius Kothor, a Black African PhD student at Yale University, discusses the experience of Africans and Afro-Diasporans within the white-dominated African Studies discipline in their recent article ‘Race and the politics of knowledge production in African Studies’. Kothor posits that the typical erasure of Africans in African Studies maintains the belief that “Africans can be informants and subjects of study but never theorists of their own cultures, analysts of their own politics, or historians of their own pasts.” It also displays the white supremacist violence within the production and consumption of particular narratives.

Much of my work has been against the essentialisation and homogenisation of narratives around Black African girls in the DRC as well as in African and Afro-diasporic contexts. These neo-colonial accounts unambiguously fuel the academic-media-aid complex.

Conditions such as these make me hesitant to disclose that my work is concerned with girlhoods, justice and violence in the DRC. When I am asked about my research, I always make sure to emphasise that it is not on sexual violence – a common colonial and imperialist storyline. Even violence as a standalone topic, especially within the African context, makes me angry and uncomfortable. These single story narratives focus on trauma and horror while making African and Afro-diasporic peoples unidimensional.

When I am asked questions like ‘how can we make academia and knowledge production equitable and ethical’? I think we are asking the wrong questions.

When I returned from Kinshasa after five exhilarating albeit challenging months working with adolescent street-connected girls, civil society workers, and community stakeholders, and started writing my thesis, I was completely misplaced and unable to articulate all that I had (un)learned. I had to do all of this emotional work whilst conducting the emotional labour of being a Black African woman in the ivory tower. In other words, I was figuring things out internally – reckoning and attempting to heal from the multiplicities of violence experienced in Canada and Congo, while charged with the responsibility to heal and help others in Congo and Canada.

African Diasporic women scholars and Black Africans from the global south were incredibly valuable in grounding my concerns across and through race, sexuality, gender, class, etc. Of particular assistance was Yolande Bouka’s piece ‘Researching violence in Africa as a Black woman: notes from Rwanda’. While her research experiences were the closest to mine – she is a Black African diasporic woman of Togolese origins conducting research in Rwanda – I still felt like my encounters – Black African diasporic woman of Congolese origins conducting research in Congo – were not captured adequately, if at all, by what I found in the literature. This is a result of the construct of knowledge and how it is produced and consumed – importantly what is viewed as factual, relevant and useful.

Consequently, when I am asked questions like ‘how can we make academia and knowledge production equitable and ethical’? I think we are asking the wrong questions. We should instead ask why academia and knowledge production are inequitable and unethical? Why are my respondents’ knowledge and even my own not considered knowledge? Why is my (dis)placement not regarded as significant to the work I do?

Being out of place has influenced how I move in the academy – how, why and which questions I ask, and what methods and praxis I use.

I deeply care for the people I work with. There is a care in my work that is unacademic. My (dis)placement excludes me from the mainstream ‘centre’. But for me, the margin is my centre and the ‘centre’ is marginal.

African and Afro-diasporic people critically working on issues affecting African and Afro-diasporic communities are actively engaging in what I call ‘ancestral care work’ – the spiritual relationship between you, your ancestors, the work you do, and your purpose. I am constantly moving to the vibration of other people who are also moving in non-linear ancient and contemporary patterns. Our ancestors communicate with each other and that is the positionality we work from, whether we are cognisant of it or not. Engaging in ancestral care work is antithetical to the manufactured and consumable ‘knowledge’ necessitated by the academy because it rejects coloniality et al. and is rooted in care.

Importantly, (dis)placement is grounded in this work – why we are in, out, in-between, and beyond. Why we find home and place in sites of homelessness and placelessness that details so many of our lives. When trivial questions like ‘overcoming challenges’ becomes the crux of critical thinking we cannot and will not move beyond the current climate. To do so puts these challenges within a vacuum and disconnects them from larger local and global structures of power.

Interrogating knowledge production and consumption has allowed me to recognise that (dis)placement was and is a viable space to operate from.

I am here. You are here. We are here.

I am still thinking through and healing from what I experienced. I am still worrying with (dis)placement and (de)constructing what re-searching and research can look and be like.

What writing this piece has shown me is that (dis)placement is the authentication of memory. It corroborates our histories, contemporalities, and guides the imaginations, present and futurities of African and Afro-diasporic ancestral care work.

Although, I do not have answers now (and may never) I will not remain hushed. So much of the academy reckons on our silences.

Presently, I find solace in the words gifted from my ancestors. Although the re-searching survives in, for and by (dis)placed bodies—Nazali áwa (I am here), Ozali áwa (You are here), Tozali áwa (We are here).

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