The Work Before the Work

Yayra Sumah

Yayra Sumah is a PhD candidate at Columbia University. She researches Congolese (DRC) history, the politics of decolonization, and the ontology and epistemology of Central African healing. Her interests include poetry, art, activism and cultural criticism. She has written for Borderlines (CSAAME), SUNU: Journal of African Affairs, Critical Thought + Aesthetics and Paletten Art Journal.

Embroidered Kuba raffia cloth from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo
Image: courtesy of the author © Yayra Sumah

“Her labor is as necessary as it is unwelcome. The university needs what she bears but cannot bear what she brings. And on top of all that, she disappears. She disappears into the underground, the downlow low-down maroon community of the university, into the undercommons of enlightenment, where the work gets done, where the work gets subverted, where the revolution is still black, still strong.”

Stefano Harney & Fred Moten
The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study

Any institutional matrix-space we may find ourselves in, no matter how tightly woven its web, is an opportunity and a place for study. ‘Study’ is the private, meditative process of learning what is needed to create “the conditions of possibility”[1] for a sustainable (non-exhausting), liberatory and pleasurable activist practice. Study is the introverted, small-scale effort of daily reflection which leads to a larger, external manifestation of a plan, action or collective process. To do “the work before the work” means: to unlearn patriarchal modes of being and relating to oneself and others. It means learning how to rest, overcoming fear, and cultivating empathic discernment and judgement in order to courageously intervene on and change oppressive dynamics.

The image of a ‘web’ or of ‘weaving,’ is a powerful and evocative metaphor which has circulated promiscuously in the repertoire of concepts intellectuals have used to theorize human organization. For example, Brinkley Messick in his anthropology of (North African) Berber culture, theorizes weaving as a “women’s discourse” and as a “ritual of reproduction.” To weave is to “give birth” to the “soul” (ruh) of a textile, a being possessing male and female qualities, which is also connected to the spirits (jinn) of the earth.[2] From another perspective, Karin Barber in her anthropology of (West African) Yoruba culture, theorizes weaving as orality and aurality – which are “texts” in the sense of the Latin word textere, meaning to “weave, join together, plait or braid.” [3] Oral poetry, oral history and song therefore form part of the “universal human work of weaving or fabricating with words.”[4] From an artist’s perspective, Filipa César theorizes Cape Verdean textiles as a “code” of political and social resistance, as a mode of creolizing colonial language, and as a form of digitization avant la lettre. In this meditation however, weaving is being used to theorize a process of inter-subjective formation, of the making and re-making, or habituation[5] of oneself to the values that support sustainable activist and social justice work.

In this essay, weaving theorizes “the work before the work” as a process of study and self-transformation and as a craft. It pulls from the anthropology and art history of (Central African) Kuba culture, where, as in other contexts, weaving is a multi-layered process that involves the acquisition of skill – a slow process, which demands much patience and commitment. In this essay, readers will see an image of a pattern of a Kuba raffia cloth that I recently acquired in Congo-Kinshasa. Kuba raffia cloth is a cultural product stemming from the Kuba Kingdom – a 17th century political community formerly located in the central region of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Raffa fiber is made from the dried leaves of the Raphia vinifera palm tree and is traditionally woven by men into a basic material, which is then followed by ornamentation and embroidery done by women.[6] Kuba raffia textiles are majestic testaments to the power of Kuba cosmology (expressed through its sacred geometries and shapes) as well as artistry[7]. But the cloth is not just born out of a transmitted body of knowledge, it also comes out of months, if not years, of painstaking manual work. The idea of the manually hand-woven fabric then, is an apt metaphor for understanding the slow nature of study and self-habituation as a process of unlearning colonial modes of relation, which is the foundation for any activist work. To creolize Kuba and Cape Verdean discourse then, weaving as inter-subjective formation forms the ‘basic material’ of the self, upon which then the ‘code’ of social and political resistance may be embedded. To weave, one must pass the weft (the horizontal fiber) through the warp (the vertical fiber) of the loom over and over again, in a recursive and meditative manner, until the object of the craft emerges from the structure. Decolonizing oneself is a process of weaving the basic fiber, is a process of spinning around, past and through colonizing matrices of alienation and domination, seeking out the “threads of connectedness [against] artificially separated/segmented reality, striving to put the severed parts together.”[8] This ‘work,’ which is the prior affective and psychic labor of activist work, is necessary before taking on the task of organizing and trying to transform our dying world. Doing the work of habituating or re-socializing oneself to non-patriarchal (dare I say, feminist)[9] modes of inter-subjective relation is important. By practicing courage, integrity or an ethics of care and love, activists can develop both the emotional and psychic resources within themselves, individually and collectively, to challenge the necrophilia of “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”[10] – that is, the “matrix of domination”[11] which promotes subordination based on race, class, gender and geopolitical status. The deadness within (that is, the fatigue, self-loathing and fear harbored in the psyche which is the product of patriarchy) conforms to the deadness without – the destruction of the planet. Without the work of self-transformation while collaborating across race, gender, class, ethnicity and geopolitical boundaries, activists often very quickly reach those familiar roadblocks commonly known as burn-out, sell-out, self-sabotage, cynicism and hurt. When activists reach that point, they can neither journey together nor to use Mary Daly’s metaphor of feminist decolonization, “spin on, in [new] directions/dimensions”[12] towards decolonial Be-ing.

Over the course of four days, from January 7-10, 2019, I participated in a program hosted by one of Berlin’s most prestigious cultural institutions, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of the Cultures of the World, HKW). The program was called “(Un-)Learning Place” and aimed to “unlearn established modes of referring to the world and to rethink methods of constructing, situating and criticizing reality.”[13]I had applied to participate in a workshop called “Things Fall Apart—How to Implement a New System of Thinking Within the Context of the Library,” which was organized by the Afro-German activist collective, Each One Teach One (EOTO). Built in 1957, HKW was a gift from the United States President John F. Kennedy and designed by the American architect Hugh Stubbins as a symbol of the alleged ideological triumph over East Germany in the Cold War fortress of West Berlin.[14] Not only that, the assertion by the institution to document the “cultures of the world,” – a universalizing epistemic move – was also inseparable from the legacies of 19th colonial knowledge production which aimed to be totalizing in its scope precisely to subjugate ‘native’ peoples.[15] The heaviness of this historical ideology formed an invisible ‘web’ in itself, within which all participants, unwittingly or not, were moving. There at HKW, I spent time studying this inertia of an institutional space laden with the weight and architecture of imperial and colonial histories. I watched how it bore down on the people who were walking and working in the House, albeit working towards a decolonial imagination. This ‘web’ manifested itself in the patriarchal ways some of us began to interact with each other. Gathered together, we were an international group of intellectuals with various class positions, professions and levels of mobility – some of us were in the arts, others in academia, and others in education, science and technology. We had convened, many of us traveling from places which academic discourse has often (contentiously) theorized as the “Global South”[16] to a space called “(Un-)Learning Place,” a series of workshops led by local artist-run research platforms, academic communities, and activist organizations in Berlin. The aim was to enable the participants to share their ideas and intertwine strategies for unraveling colonial modalities, epistemologies and languages. Very soon however, it became clear that instead of an emergent and co-creative process of discussion where “international participants [would] work with curatorial, artistic strategies in close collaboration with self-organized research collectives,”[17] we found ourselves trapped within a historical pattern of institutional paternalism which was colonizing us. This pattern emerged when for example, within the workshops I participated in, power struggles and conflicts began to take place between workshop leaders, administrators and participants. For example, I watched as several bonds of communication began to fray between the participants and workshop leaders of the groups I was in, both within and across workshop groups, about the honesty of the institution’s agenda and what was really at stake. In a startlingly moment, we suddenly realized that not all of us were on the ‘same page.’ Meaning, our bonds were fraying both because of the institutional paternalism, but also because many participants had not un-learned patriarchal modes of relation. In brief, we had not all worked to unlearn patriarchal modes of relation in order to form a starting point or common ground from which to build our collaboration.

We had stepped into the arena of collaboration ready, but in reality, unprepared to do the work. We did not recognize that much of the work of decolonizing one’s mind, body and soul, should have actually already taken place before we had entered into the arena attempting to work collaboratively in an international context which required the formation of cross-cultural bonds. Such a situation was fertile ground for the reenactment of scenes of domination and before we knew it, the critiques of the project started to make their rounds: We had been subjected to rigid presentations by workshop leaders which did not allow space for discussion nor for our own ideas; We had been immobilized and bound to a pre-made order (that is, a tight sequence of presentations and workshops) which had been planned out for us through a controlled allocation of time; We were experiencing anger in the face of the age-old patriarchal classroom politics where some male participants repeatedly dominated or interrupted conversations; We were experiencing disappointment that our workshop leaders saw themselves as authority figures and felt threatened by any critique of the way in which the workshop had been organized, or of the ideas they were presenting.

For many participants then, the dream of horizontal participation with international peers and workshop-leaders during the events of “(Un-)Learning Place” at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, was very quickly shattered. Instead, in many of the workshops we were confronted with hierarchical dynamics which suppresses the emergent process so elegantly conveyed by Stefano Harney’s and Fred Moten’s words:

“It’s kind of like that thing where you walk into class, you’re the teacher and you get there a couple minutes early and there are people milling around and there’s a conversation already going on…what I am supposed to do is at a certain point become and instrument of governance. What I’m supposed to do is call that class to order, which presupposed that there’s no study happening before I got there, that there was no study happening, no planning happening.”[18]

As one of my colleagues at the workshop commented, it seemed that we had arrived at this state of affairs due to a lack of imagination and creativity on the part of our workshop leaders and institutional conveners. Nonetheless, my colleague argued that the onus was on each individual to recuperate their right to the time, labor, money and energy spent, and to take what they could get out of the workshop and “make it work for them.” Through I agreed with my colleague, I took a slightly different perspective. I agreed that, in order to move out of the space of complaint, it was necessary to find an element of value for myself in what seemed to be a debacle of a program meant to promote ‘un-learning.’ However, I also felt that this idea of taking fragments of value out of the program as a whole, was a process of an individualist salvaging or privatizing of something which should have been held in common – that is, although participants were to collectively share in the same valuable experience, we could only leave with the shards of our own disconnected, private experiences. Since we had been unable to collectively ‘un-learn,’ we had also failed to build a common ground. Thus, the idea of a ‘commons’ which would have been that shared experience of unlearning, had now been fragmented and privatized – to each their own. This privatization was for me a neo-liberalizing process. More fundamentally however, I reasoned that in fact we had arrived at this situation not only because of lack of creativity, but for lack of having collectively done the work before the work.

Having been part of a student feminist movement during my years as an undergraduate college student, I had the opportunity to profoundly re-shape my subjectivity according to feminist ethics. I was part of a feminist collective. We were a small group, mostly women-identified or queer, but committed to learning anti-oppressive models for interaction and behavior. We did this through self-reflective group discussions, book clubs, consciousness raising events, and ‘anti-oppression’ training workshops. This seemingly unremarkable and ephemeral student formation allowed me to have the experience and skill needed to forge meaningful ties with co-organizers by learning to resist acts of domination, the avoidance of accountability, or the cowardice which would have led to feelings of abandonment, betrayal of trust or fall-out. We learned how not to take up space, we learned to be aware of class, race and gender biases and microaggressions, we learned how use better language – for example, using gender-neutral pronouns or avoiding the use of sexist profanity. In fact, this was a process of learning and simultaneous un-learning of old habits. This un-learning was an uncomfortable but indispensable, conscious and active process. Furthermore, it gave us the opportunity to unlearn passivity in the face of violent or confrontational encounters between activists or organizers. All this was a dialectical process of exchange within a small community and it required the patience and willingness of keeping one’s palm open to the possibility of re-connection after conflict. Indeed, conflict was part of our community because invariably someone would always fall short and reproduce one of the many forms of biases rooted in sexism, racism, homophobia or other forms of domination and exclusion.

To my dismay however, during (Un)-Learning place, I found myself, as one of the only three black women attending the workshop, doing the labor of ‘righting wrongs’ within the groups whose dynamics of communication and collaboration (which were supposed to be pluralistic) were going, or had already gone awry through dualistic power struggles. In one example, I intervened in a confrontation between two individuals in a hostile argument which had been creating a dyad of mistrust and power struggle – an escalating and tense argument was taking place exclusively between two people. This was creating tension and anxiety for the rest of the group who had been reduced to spectators. As spectators of this moment, no one spoke, seemingly paralyzed to interrupt the conflictual dynamic. I felt strongly that patriarchy was shaping the nature of the interaction I was witnessing, and that it needed to be shifted. The patriarchy of the moment lay in the fact that it was a dualistic power struggle where one wanted to subordinate the other. It took affective, spiritual and intellectual resources for me to change, redirect, and de-escalate the energies of fear and hostility which had been marginalizing and disempowering all of us. But I had these resources precisely because I had done “the work before the work.” So, after analyzing the situation, I summoned my own courage, as well as the hope and trust in a positive outcome, gave voice to the emotions I (and everyone) was feeling, and asked for a change. Though I was the only person who intervened, my labor was necessary, and thankfully it was welcomed. Yet I had done an act which, repeated across multiple arenas, would no doubt have led to my burn-out and to the reproduction of a pattern of historically oppressed, feminized and racialized bodies being asked to ‘pick up the slack’ on behalf of others. My burn out would have meant, as Harney and Moten write, my “disappearance” – that is, the erasure or invisibility of my labor. It would have also cost me my psychic, emotional and mental health. This kind of continuous intervention would have been unsustainable.

Before one enters into an organizing field, before one commits to a project or leadership position, before one sets out to collaborate, we must ask ourselves these questions: Are we truly a community? Where do we come from in terms of experience and positionality? What is our approach or perspective? Do we actually agree that we have a shared future – that is, an end to which we are collaborating and journeying together?

As artists, activists or cultural workers, most of the kind of ‘work’ we do in our daily lives, we do for others within contemporary capitalism, but study and self-transformation is the only kind of work we do for ourselves, weaving and braiding into our beings the affective resources needed to create the world we want to live in – co-created through diversity in imagination. Not only that, although the events, meetings, projects and activist actions may only last a moment, remaining ephemeral and un-institutionalized, the work we do for our being lasts a lifetime.

First published in Paletten Art Journal #321-322 2020, paletten.net

[1] Emmanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[2] Brinkely Messick, “Subordinate Discourse: Women, Weaving, and Gender Relations in North Africa,” American Ethnologist, Vol. 14, No. 2 (1987): 210-225.

[3] Karin Barber, The Anthropology of Texts, Persons and Publics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.1-3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 1.9.

[6] Monni Adams, “Kuba Embroidered Cloth”, African Arts Vol. 12, No.1 (1978): 24-39+106-107; 34-35.

[7] For further reading on Kuba textiles and sacred geometry see Marie-Thérèse Brincard, Kuba textiles: geometry in form, space, and time. New York: Neuberger Museum of Art, 2015.

[8] Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, Boston: Beacon Press 1978, Preface.

[9] Given the co-optation of feminism by neo-liberal, carceral and imperialist politics, as well as by a corporate ethos the meaning of “feminism” as a political praxis of ending domination has been diminished. See Beth Richie, Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation. New York: New York University Press, 2012. Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: women, work, and the will to lead, New York: Alfred Knopf, 2013. Roxanne Gay, Bad Feminist: essays, New York: Harper Perennial, 2014. Jacqui True, “Mainstreaming Gender in Global Public Policy,” International Feminist Journal of Politics, Vol. 3, No. 3 (2003): 368-396.

[10] bell hooks, Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice, New York: Routledge, 2013, pp.4. For a similar concept, see the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw on “intersectionality.” Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalising the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracial Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum, Vol. 1 (1989): 139-167.

[11] Patricia Hill Collins, Black feminist thought: knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment, New York: Routledge, 2000.

[12] Mary Daly, Gyn/EcologyPreface.

[13] “(Un-)Learning Place,” New Alphabet School, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, https://www.hkw.de/en/programm/projekte/2019/unlearning_place/un_learning_place.php

[14] For further reading about this history see Valerie Smith, Between Walls and Windows: Architecture and Ideology, Hatje Catnz Verlag, 2012.

[15] For a theorization of this see example, Edward Said, Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books, 1994; Anthony Pagden, Lords of all the world: ideologies of empire in Spain, Britain and France c. 1500-1800.

[16] Jean Comaroff, Theory from the South: or, How Euro-America is evolving toward Africa, London: Paradigm Publishers, 2012.

[17] “(Un-)Learning Place,” New Alphabet School, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, https://www.hkw.de/en/programm/projekte/2019/unlearning_place/un_learning_place.php

[18] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, pp.125-126.