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Introducing Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni and African epistemology: incorporating Black Thought to re-examine the case of Bobby Seale

(Bobby Seale during court proceedings via Wikimedia Commons)

Article Summary

Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni is a Zimbabwean scholar and Professor, and Chair of Epistemologies of the Global South at the University of Bayreuth, Germany. He published his article: ‘The Cognitive Empire, Politics of Knowledge and African Intellectual Productions’ 2021. It was first published in Third World Quarterly, the leading Global South studies journal which has an anti-racist and anti-imperialist agenda, and seeks to provide alternatives to dominant ideologies. By centring the ‘often-ignored contributions of African intellectuals’ in this article (882), Ndlovu-Gatsheni expands upon the field of postcolonial and decolonial scholarship and concomitantly pushes forward the agenda of the journal it inhabits. 

Below, I will summarise Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s article in detail and highlight its most important points. To conclude this summary, I will then reflect on the implications of this article, noting its connections to other Black thinkers’ works, and suggesting how its concepts can be utilised to rethink instances of racial injustice. 

This article begins with reference to Bhambra’s omission of African and Black thinkers in post- and decolonial scholarship in her broadly cited article: ‘Postcolonial and Decolonial Dialogues’. Responding to this exclusion, Ndlovu-Gatsheni here contributes to African politics of knowledge by delving into the work of key African thinkers involved in the decolonisation project. This article carries out this task across 4 distinct sections: 1) it explains how epistemology frames ontology; 2) it introduces and defines the concepts of the cognitive empire and epistemic freedom; 3) it historicises African decolonisation efforts through the struggle for epistemic freedom; and 4) it reflects on the resurgence and insurgence of decolonisation in 21st-century South Africa.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni first establishes that epistemology (the theory of knowledge) is a creator of ontology (the study of being). He details how epistemology was politicised and deployed by Euro-American colonisers in order to place Europe and North America at the world’s centre while subjecting its Indigenous populations to colonisation. Upon establishing that ‘economic, ontological, and epistemological extractivism coalesced’ (885), Ndlovu-Gatsheni thereby asserts that empire and imperialism are central to the contemporary politics of knowledge. 

In this article’s second section, Ndlovu-Gatsheni further elucidates the politics of knowledge and decolonial dynamics via the introduction of various concepts. He first discusses the ‘cognitive empire’ (885), drawing on Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s work to define it as a ‘metaphysical empire’ (28) that invades the ‘mental universe of the colonised people’ (21). Ndolvu-Gatsheni uses this concept to demonstrate how colonialism and imperialism have repressed Indigenous ways of knowing, language, culture, and sense of self. On this basis, Ndolvu-Gatsheni asserts that the cognitive empire has committed ‘cognitive injustice’, which he defines as ‘the failures in the domain of knowledge to recognise the different ways of knowing by which diverse people across the human globe make sense of the world and provide meaning to their existence’ (887). He then uses the cognitive empire’s crime of cognitive injustice to justify and introduce the important concept of ‘epistemic freedom’ (886). He illuminates this concept when he claims that its assertion is ‘the recognition that all human beings were born into valid and legitimate knowledge systems’ (886-7). He thus asserts the centrality of epistemic freedom to the African decolonisation project, which he subsequently exemplifies through an examination of the historical struggle for epistemological decolonisation. 

Focusing on university spaces, Ndlovu-Gatsheni then illustrates the African struggle for epistemic freedom in response to Clapham’s question: what does that ‘quest actually involve’ (187)? He does this by tracing efforts born of the 1860s and 1870s to transform universities in Africa into ‘African universities’ (888). Here he draws on Blyden’s pioneering work to move African universities away from colonially imposed Euro-American knowledge systems and towards African ways of thinking and being. He details how these decolonisation efforts continued both within and outside of university spaces beyond the 1960s establishment of a politically independent Africa. Finally, he examines the 1980s and 1990s collapse of ‘African university’ creation projects in the face of the forces of ‘the Washington Consensus, neoliberalism and global finance’ (894). This leads Ndlovu-Gatsheni to detail the crises of hegemony, legitimacy, and institutional character that have catalysed the present-day resurgence and insurgence of decolonisation in Africa.

In this article’s fourth and final section Ndlovu-Gatsheni optimistically highlights South Africa’s 21st-century Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements as symbolic demonstrations of revived and increased commitments to decolonisation within Africa and across the world. These movements demand free education, the removal of colonial/apartheid iconographies, universities’ restoration of Indigenous languages, and the overhaul of oppressive institutional cultures and labour practices. They thus emblematise a charged commitment to cognitive justice and epistemic freedom, and concomitantly the re-humanisation of those dehumanised by the Euro-American colonisers and their enduring cognitive empire.

Throughout this article, Ndlovu-Gatsheni demonstrates the decolonisation project’s complexities. He successfully centres the African genealogy of post- and decolonial scholarship omitted by Bhambra and others, thereby revealing how the cognitive empire continues to restrict epistemic freedom through the domination of global academia. He effectively responds to Clapham and illuminates what the quest for epistemic freedom looks like by detailing decades worth of efforts to create African universities. By concluding with reference to contemporary decolonisation efforts he highlights the endurance of coloniality, subsequently inspiring readers to recognise the cognitive empire's persistence and advocating the continuation of the struggle for decolonial change. Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s text, then, furthers Third World Quarterly’s aim to provide alternatives to Western ideologies and reveals space for their continued refusal.

Reflecting on Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s article allows connections to be drawn between his work and that of other Black thinkers. Indeed, his ideas speak to thinkers like Mignolo who emphasise that ‘coloniality is not over, it is all over’ and encourage the search for its endurance in unexpected places. Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s specific focus on how coloniality has shaped epistemology also interacts with those who, like Myers does in his book Of Black Study, seek to re-examine the academy and challenge how Western knowledge has presented the reality of Black life. 

Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s article also inspires new ways of engaging with racialised power structures and oppressions both historically and in the present. His concepts can be used to rethink cases of injustice seemingly born of racism. By searching for the cognitive empire’s presence and drawing on the concept of epistemic freedom, one can re-analyse specific cases with colonialism and its legacy in mind.

Critical Case Study 

In the following critical case study I will incorporate Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s article to explore how Black Thought illuminates and complicates a philosophical examination of the treatment of Bobby Seale in the Chicago 8 trial. First, I will outline the context of this trial and detail the events upon which this essay will focus. Then, I will introduce Fricker’s philosophical work and the concept of epistemic injustice, before applying this concept to my case study to analyse the Judge’s treatment of Seale. I will then engage Black Thought in this case study by applying Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s ideas to my preceding analysis. This engagement will constitute 3 sections. First, I will seek to reveal that this case is an example of the cognitive empire’s endurance and its material effects. I will then examine how Seale’s case engages with notions of epistemic freedom and challenges Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s suggestion that this concept alone can be successfully deployed in the decolonisation project. Finally, I will develop Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s argument by employing other Black Thinkers’ work to suggest that epistemic freedom has a place in a wider decolonial world-building exercise. 

In 1969, the U.S. federal government charged Robert George (Bobby) Seale – a Black man who was the National Chairman and Co-Founder of the Black Panther Party – with conspiracy, crossing state lines with intent to incite a riot, and other charges related to protests at the time of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Seale was charged alongside 7 others, and together their widely publicised court case was known as the trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ (Epstein 2016). It is relevant to note that except for Seale – the Judge, lawyers, and all other defendants in this trial were white men. The trial began on the 24th of September and was presided over by Judge Hoffman. Seale’s intended lawyer in this case was Charles Garry. However, Garry was unable to appear in court as planned due to his need for surgery, and Judge Hoffman denied Garry’s request to postpone the trial start date. On the first day of the trial Defence Attorney Kunstler signed an appearance for Seale, and despite Seale’s submission of a motion declaring that he had fired Kunstler and intended to defend himself in court, Judge Hoffman decided that Kunstler was Seale’s counsel in the trial. 

This decision prompted a series of conflicts in the courtroom which will be the focus of this case study. On the 26th of September Seale addressed the court and asserted his “constitutional right to defend [himself] and to have a lawyer” of his choosing (Epstein 2016). Despite the requirement of U.S. Judges to allow such requests, Judge Hoffman refused to grant them. Instead, throughout the trial he demanded that Seale “remain quiet” and asserted that he had a “lawyer to speak for [him]” when he repeated these requests (Epstein 2016). Seale stated in court that Judge Hoffman refused to acknowledge his words and denied him his constitutional rights because of his being a “Black man” and a “Black Panther”, denouncing these as “acts of racism” by a “blatant racist” (Epstein 2016). This ongoing conflict escalated in a court session on the 29th of October, during which Judge Hoffman responded to Seale’s assertions of his rights by ordering that he be ‘bound, gagged, and chained to a chair’ (Epstein 2016). Seale appeared before the jury bound and gagged for 3 days while the other 7 defendants sat unrestrained in court. Shortly afterwards, Seale’s case was declared a mistrial and the ‘Chicago 8’ became the ‘Chicago 7’ (Epstein 2016).

Before explicitly engaging Black Thought by tying Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s article to this case study, I will first draw on contemporary philosopher Fricker’s work to aid an examination of Judge Hoffman’s treatment of Seale. Fricker analyses how social power operates in epistemic interactions. She theorises the concept of ‘epistemic injustice’ and claims that its cause is ‘structures of unequal power and the systematic prejudices they generate’ (8). Here she argues that epistemic injustice takes its primary form in testimonial injustice, which she defines as ‘the injustice that a speaker suffers in receiving deflated credibility from the hearer’ (4). She argues that testimonial injustice ‘wrongs a speaker in his capacity as a giver of knowledge’ (5), thereby denying him the capacity for reason that is central to one’s humanity. Concluding this examination, she links such epistemic injustice to ‘other forms of social injustice that the subject is likely to suffer’ (4). 

Fricker’s theory of epistemic injustice can be applied to this essay’s case study. It is evident that there is unequal power that exists between Judge Hoffman and Seale, both in their roles as Judge and Defendant and in their racial identities. This latter inequality is illustrated by Seale’s own references to his being Black, accusations of racism, and highlighting of the pictures of the “slave owners” and U.S. founding fathers “George Washington and Benjamin Franklin” behind the court bench. Judge Hoffman’s ignoring and silencing of Seale can thus be read as an exercise of power, and of racialised power specifically. Incorporating Fricker’s analysis here reveals that before Judge Hoffman silenced Seale by demanding he “remain quiet” and ultimately binding and gagging him, the Judge committed epistemic injustice against Seale. Indeed, Judge Hoffman asserts power over Seale by refusing to hear and grant Seale’s assertions legitimacy. He thus commits testimonial injustice by giving Seale deflated credibility and wronging him as a giver of knowledge and consequently denying him humanity. This evidently fits within a broader pattern of social injustice as Fricker claims. Indeed, while this epistemic injustice renders Seale less than fully human in the context of the courtroom, it also denies him his constitutional and thus human rights as a U.S citizen. Furthermore, this denial is also enacted physically when he is subjected to the injustice of a gag and chains. 

I will now engage Black Thought by combining Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s concepts with Fricker’s philosophical work to elucidate this case study as an example of the cognitive empire’s endurance. Most useful in this task is Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s assertion that the Euro-American colonisers utilised ‘epistemological extractivism’ to establish global dominance and repress alternative knowledge systems (885). In light of these claims, the power that Judge Hoffman enacts over Seale is emblematic not only of the specific 20th-century U.S. context, but also of racialised Western empire building efforts to build in unequal world. These assertions also illuminate this instance of epistemological injustice as a repression technique central to colonial efforts to privilege Eurocentric knowledge and delegitimise the episteme of the racialised other. These efforts are also recognisable in Judge Hoffman’s insistence that the white lawyer Kunstler “speak for” Seale rather than hear from Seale himself. Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s work thus allows us to read the epistemic injustice suffered by Seale as empirical evidence of enduring coloniality and its expression at the epistemic level despite the anti-colonial efforts contemporary to the case’s events. This notion also enables an analysis of the consequent broader injustice Seale suffers through a colonial lens. Indeed, the image of Seale gagged and chained while positioned beneath pictures of notorious slave owners thus becomes an evident emblem of the enduring power relations that characterised U.S. slavery and the concomitant Euro-American social order. This too characterises Judge Hoffman’s courtroom as symbolic of the unequal colonial world. Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s article thus reveals that the epistemic injustice Seale endures here as evidence not only that the cognitive empire did not end with colonialism, but also that this empire recreates coloniality at a material level. 

Further engagement with Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s work reveals that the epistemic injustice prevalent in this case is an act against Seale’s ‘epistemic freedom’ (886). Ndlovu-Gatsheni defines this freedom as the ‘recognition that all human beings were born into valid and legitimate knowledge systems’ and argues that this is central to combatting the cognitive empire and thus to decolonisation efforts (886-887). However, while it is evident in Seale’s case that access to epistemic freedom would render available to him his constitutional rights, bodily autonomy, and consequent humanity on epistemological and ontological levels, it is also clear that epistemic freedom cannot be achieved in a one-sided manner. By asserting his “constitutional right to speak out on behalf of [his] constitutional rights”, Seale articulates his capacity to possess and express valid knowledge (Epstein 2016). Nonetheless, Judge Hoffman does not grant Seale’s words full credibility, subjecting Seale to epistemic injustice and thus denying him epistemic freedom. African philosopher Mudimbe’s concept of ‘epistemological ethnocentrism’ is useful here (15). He defines this as the Westerner’s ‘belief that scientifically there is nothing to be learned from “them”, where ‘them’ refers to Black subjects (15). The denial of Seale’s epistemic freedom, then, reflects Judge Hoffman’s epistemological ethnocentrism. This suggests that the eradication of unequal power systems in which an othered ‘them’ are deemed inferior is required in order for all knowledge systems to be recognised as valid. This would ensure that epistemic injustice cannot stand in the way of epistemic freedom as it does for Seale, thus enabling the successful combating of the cognitive empire and realisation of decolonisation.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni ends his article by advocating for the continuation of decolonisation work at the epistemic level. However, as Ndlovu-Gatsheni himself writes, colonisation was a project in which ‘economic, ontological, and epistemological extractivism coalesced’ (885). Thus, as is revealed by Seale’s case study, decolonisation cannot be an epistemological project alone. Here, the work of other Black thinkers provides ideas as to what a study of Seale’s case can mean for the decolonisation project. Black feminist Lorde famously claimed: ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’ (27). It is evident that due to epistemic injustice, Seale was not able to use the master’s tools – here interpreted as the U.S constitution and the rights it affords – to dismantle the master’s house – the cognitive empire and coloniality. This raises the question of whether in a U.S. court, a place fundamentally shaped by the colonial encounter as demonstrated by Judge Hoffman’s court room, Black subjects can ever receive a fair trial. Indeed, what Seale’s case suggests is that for epistemic freedom and decolonial efforts to be realised, both a new legal system and social structure are required. Speaking to this notion, many Black thinkers advocate forcing decolonial change by abandoning colonial tools and instead building ‘the world of you’ (Fanon 207). This promotes building a new world based on lived Black experience, thereby restructuring the economic, ontological, as well as epistemological orders that characterise colonial inequality. Reflecting on Seale’s case, the treatment of decolonisation as a world-building exercise would hope to provide Seale – and other Black subjects – access to a legal system and courtroom in which the absence of a racialised power structure would ensure that any hearer lent their words full credibility. This would thus afford them both humanity and liberty from other forms of social injustice. Consequently, the epistemic freedom that Ndlovu-Gatsheni promotes could be fully realised to the effect of tackling the cognitive empire and coloniality itself. 

Engaging Black Thought in this case study by incorporating Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s article explicitly links the epistemic injustice Seale endures and consequent denial of his humanity with colonialism and coloniality. Indeed, colonial power dynamics and techniques of epistemic repression are evident in both Judge Hoffman’s treatment of Seale and at the symbolic level in his courtroom. Furthermore, Seale’s inability to realise the epistemic freedom Ndlovu-Gatsheni advocates in the face of these inequalities illuminates that the overturn of such power systems is simultaneously essential to the decolonial project. Thus, a study of Seale’s case reveals that epistemic freedom is both co-constitutive and an outcome of comprehensive decolonial efforts to dismantle unjust legal and social structures and ultimately rebuild the world. This conclusion exposes room for further exploration of how the quest for epistemic freedom can extend beyond the bounds of academia and the university. Ndlovu-Gatsheni begins this work in his examination of the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements, prompting further questions of how focus on epistemology can interact with broader efforts to re-humanise those colonialism and its legacy have denied humanity. 

Works Cited

“A Special Supplement: The Trial of Bobby Seale by Jason Epstein | the New York Review of Books.”, 7 Mar. 2016, Accessed 20 Jan. 2024.

Bhambra, Gurminder K. “Postcolonial and decolonial dialogues.” Postcolonial Studies 17 (2014): 115 - 121.

Clapham, Christopher. "Decolonising African Studies?" The Journal of Modern African Studies 58.1 (2020): 137-53. ProQuest. Web. 23 Jan. 2024.

Edward Wilmot Blyden, and Samuel L Lewis. Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race. Baltimore, Black Classic Press, 1994.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Cape Town, Kwela Books, 1961.

Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007.

López-Calvo, Ignacio. ““Coloniality Is Not Over, It’s All Over.” Interview with Dr. Walter Mignolo (Nov. 2014, Part II).” TRANSMODERNITY: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World, vol. 6, no. 2, 2016, Accessed 18 Jan. 2024.

Lorde, Audre. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. London, Penguin Books, 1984.

Mudimbe, V Y. The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge. Bloomington, Indiana University Press; London, 1988.

Myers, Joshua. Of Black Study. Pluto Press, 2023. JSTOR,  Accessed 20 Jan. 2024.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Sabelo J. “The Cognitive Empire, Politics of Knowledge and African Intellectual Productions: Reflections on Struggles for Epistemic Freedom and Resurgence of Decolonisation in the Twenty-First Century.” Third World Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 5, May 2021, pp. 882–901, Accessed 17 Jan. 2024.

Ngũgĩ Wa Thiongʼo. Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance. New York, Basiccivitas Books, 2009.

Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ wa. Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing. Columbia University Press, 2012. JSTOR, Accessed 17 Jan. 2024.

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