Mbembe’s Matrix and the Matri-Archive

‘The Little Secret’ to Conjuring Away the Postcolonial Spell

In: Journal of Religion in Africa
Laura S. Grillo Department of Theology and Religious Studies, Georgetown University Durham, NC USA

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Achille Mbembe shows how the West’s denigrating projections on Africa as a chaotic void perpetrated a founding epistemic violence. The matrix of Black Reason, Blackness, and The Black worked systematically to justify colonialism and undermine African subjectivity. By maintaining its grip over the psyche, the postcolonial commandement effortlessly and indefinitely sustained subjugation. This is its ‘little secret’. Mbembe suggests that liberation may be possible by appealing to an archive from the ‘underside’ of African history to retrieve a self that is not constituted by toxic colonial projections. Drawing on my work An Intimate Rebuke: Female Genital Power in Ritual and Politics in West Africa, I argue that the traditional appeal by postmenopausal women to their ‘bottom power’ is just such a living matrix – a ‘matri-archive’. Performing this ritual in the context of public protest, the ‘Mothers’ deploy their own ‘little secret’ with the capacity to break the hold of the postcolony’s spell.


Achille Mbembe shows how the West’s denigrating projections on Africa as a chaotic void perpetrated a founding epistemic violence. The matrix of Black Reason, Blackness, and The Black worked systematically to justify colonialism and undermine African subjectivity. By maintaining its grip over the psyche, the postcolonial commandement effortlessly and indefinitely sustained subjugation. This is its ‘little secret’. Mbembe suggests that liberation may be possible by appealing to an archive from the ‘underside’ of African history to retrieve a self that is not constituted by toxic colonial projections. Drawing on my work An Intimate Rebuke: Female Genital Power in Ritual and Politics in West Africa, I argue that the traditional appeal by postmenopausal women to their ‘bottom power’ is just such a living matrix – a ‘matri-archive’. Performing this ritual in the context of public protest, the ‘Mothers’ deploy their own ‘little secret’ with the capacity to break the hold of the postcolony’s spell.

Achille Mbembe’s now classic work On the Postcolony (2001) begins with a devastating indictment: for the West, ‘speaking rationally about Africa is not something that ever comes naturally’ (2001, 1, emphasis mine). Instead, Africa has been systematically portrayed as ‘a bottomless abyss where everything is noise, a yawning gap and primordial chaos’ (2001, 3). In the Western imaginary the cultures, history, and politics of Africa were equally reduced to ‘Blackness – a gaping void, without a recoverable archive or redeeming value. Colonialism was justified as a means of filling that void. The tyranny of the colonial commandement, exacted both through overt terror and more-subtle forms of psychological subjugation, was a ‘founding violence’ (2001, 25). Its legacy is perpetuated by the postcolonial African state.

In Critique of Black Reason, the recent tour de force by one of the most significant thinkers of our time, Mbembe shows that the fantasy of Africa’s Blackness functioned not only to justify the West’s political imperialism, but also as the fundamental ground of the continental philosophical tradition of ‘pure reason’. What Mbembe calls ‘Black reason’ is the distorting logic by which Europe defines itself in contradistinction to Africa. It is predicated on the dark fantasy of Africans as ‘beings incapable of acting on their own behalf and in their own recognized interests’ (2007, n.p.). ‘The Black’, a being without feature or agency, is imagined in contrast to the individual European man, presumed as uniquely endowed with the free will to chart a self-conscious course.

The denigrating portrait of the Black and the void of Blackness, so integral to the logics of Black Reason that sustained the project of colonialism, was consistently held up to Africans as a distorting mirror and cast an undermining pall over subjectivity. Mbembe shows how Black Reason, Blackness, and the Black worked systematically as a matrix ‘to annul the possibility for the emergence of an autonomous subject’ (2017, 107). Today Black Reason continues to perpetrate this epistemic violence on its subjects. Like a witch’s spell that works its devastating magic invisibly from within by eating at the victim’s soul, the racist image of the Black does its damage subtly. This subjugation effortlessly and indefinitely sustains a persistent grip over the psyche of its subjects. It is the ‘little secret’ of the postcolonial commandement.

I contend that there exists a more profound, extracolonial African matrix that has the capacity to counter the bewitchment of Black Reason. It is an embodied ritual tradition grounded in a principle that undergirds African civilization: that postmenopausal women bear the innate spiritual power to enforce the moral mandates that are the fundament of a just society. In a spectacular rite, female elders, known as the Mothers, strip and make appeal to their genitals to curse those who violate the moral order. This ancient and widespread practice is an act of anti-witchcraft but is also deployed in collective action to assert women’s overriding political agency. Drawing on my own book that details the phenomenon, An Intimate Rebuke: Female Genital Power in Ritual and Politics in West Africa, I argue that it represents a critical African archive – a ‘matri-archive’ – that embodies a more authentic ‘founding power’. The women who perform the ritual act today deploy that power to counter the ‘little secret’ of the postcolony with a little secret of their own. The Mothers’ curse commands accountability and stirs collective conscience to righteous action. It is an actual act of conjuration whose performance wields the capacity to break the hold of the postcolony’s spell.

1 Mbembe’s Matrix: The Accursed Network of Power in the Postcolony

For Mbembe the dark spell of Black Reason was cast as soon as Africans internalized the image of the Black. It produced a fundamentally alienating split in both the individual psyche and the collective social imaginary. That split manifests as ‘something uncanny that determines [the] existence [of the Black] unbeknownst to him [and] that confers a nocturnal, even demonic character on certain aspects of his psychic and political life’ (2017, 105, emphasis mine). Fighting against this denigrated double, the Black lashes out in rage but is caught in a matrix of perpetual violence. The humiliation and terror through which the colonial potentate exercised its control is thus sustained long after the formal end of its reign. Following Aimé Césaire, Mbembe calls this heritage ‘the accursed share’ (2017, 106).

The epitome is civil war, an actual death-dealing split of the communal body fueled by the demonization of compatriots. It accounts for the horrific violence perpetrated on the civilian populace and especially on the bodies of women. The matrix of violence recapitulates the colonial wound to an ever more intimate degree as perpetrators enact their rage in the heart of ‘home’, torturing, mutilating, and murdering civilians, helpless villagers, and especially targeting women. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, throughout the decade of strife and civil war (2002–2011), rebels and government forces alike enacted grotesque, sadistic violence. Rape, gang rape, sexual torture, and slavery became commonplace weapons. Helpless family members were forced to witness or even participate in barbarities. For Mbembe such voluptuous cruelty is not just a Dionysian frenzy but a darkly reasoned strategy by which the postcolony aims to break its subjects and bring them into utter subservience (2017, 109).

The other mechanism by which the colonial potentate exercised control and is perpetuated by the Black is more subtle than brutal force. Domination is achieved by creating desire, a dynamic that Mbembe calls ‘fantasia’. The state ‘dazzles the colonized with the possibility of unlimited abundance of objects and goods’ that will supposedly flow from the nation (2017, 115). The enchantment with ‘vain chimera’ subdues the populace by drawing them into a dream world that estranges them from their authentic selves. Maintaining the thrall of this spell requires an ongoing performance that Mbembe calls ‘brutality as workmanship’ (2006, 151). Therefore the state regularly enacts extravagant spectacles of its power to exact adulation from its subjects. Moreover, it makes itself a fetish, compelling onlookers to participate in ritualistic performances and ratify its ‘theatricality and excess’ (2006, 161). Think of long lines of schoolchildren standing in the sun, singing praises to the greatness of the nation while a lavish presidential motorcade passes them indifferently. Idolatry robs the subject of agency, displacing it onto the potentate.

Mbembe portrays these dynamics in terms of toxic masculinity. The state’s fetishized power especially takes phallic form. The African ruler is commonly fabled to have excessive sexual prowess and the ruling elite extract favors from young women as their right. Even popular commentary that mocks the commandement makes use of phallic imagery, most notably in ‘frequent references to the genital organs of the men in power’ (1992, 8). However, Mbembe argues that the occasional outbreaks of parody and ribald derision of the state’s gross excesses cannot qualify as resistance because they only bring on the same kind of delirium that occurs ‘when the discourse of power penetrates its targets’ (1992, 16). His description of an illustrative scene is as common as it is vivid:

Wearing the party uniform with the picture of the head of state printed on it, women followed the rhythm of the music and swung their torsos first forward, then back; … [they] thrust out their bellies, their undulating movements evoking as usual the slow, prolonged penetration of the penis and its staccato retreat. Yelling and ululating, gesticulating with bodies contorted, everyone cheers the cavalcade of cars. (1992, 20)

By imitation, denunciation becomes flattery. An invisible matrix entraps the colonized in a cul-de-sac of subservience and brutality, disguised as something to be desired.

2 Seeking a Liberating Archive

Despite these insidious, pervasive, and enduring mechanisms of subjugation, Mbembe suggests that liberation from the spell is nevertheless possible. In his early work he asserts that a rich archive exists in African ways of knowing but remains obscure, buried in ‘the local’ and the ‘ethnographic’ (2006, 147–148). A decade later he suggests that by excavating and drawing on an archive from the ‘underside of [African] history’, the Black might retrieve an authentic Self, one that is not constituted by toxic colonial projections (2017, 181). This archive is not identical with ‘tradition’, however.

Mbembe makes clear that any prescription for recovery through a return to precolonial ways as an untainted preserve is nothing more than an alluring fantasy. The articulation of this secretly harbored hope reads almost like an incantation:

To escape this (the colony as a figure of intrusion and discord) requires that an original symbolic matrix (tradition) – capable of preventing the division of the Black body – be restored to the subject. The ex-colonized will henceforth be able to be born into themselves and the madness to which the mirror leads will finally be conjured away. (2017, 105)

But the experience of colonialism cannot be so easily exorcised because the trauma of the psychic split inflicted on the collective imaginary by the distorting projections of Black Reason continues to work its damage. In fact, such nostalgia actually reinscribes the colony. It makes it the central player in the narrative of African self-understanding, privileging it as ‘the scene where the self was robbed of its content’ (2017, 105). From that perspective, there is no escape. The colony remains the mirror reflecting the abyss of loss.

For Mbembe the turn to tradition also sidesteps the deeper psychic work necessary for the integration and recovery of African subjectivity. What is required is that Africans first unburden themselves of another little secret. They must confess that Africans ‘allowed themselves to be had’ by the bewitching chimera offered by the colony – from material goods to the promise of citizenship (2017, 120). They must take responsibility for ‘convivial participation’ in the coercive processes of the state and their complicity in conferring grandeur on it (2006, 160). Denial only furthers entraps Africans in the undermining grip of Black Reason by failing to acknowledge the fact that, even under conditions of subjugation, Africans can and did exercise moral deliberation and deliberate action.

There is another reason that Mbembe refuses to turn to tradition as the source of a liberating archive. The symbolic repertoire that he calls ‘the occult’ grants the invisible world supremacy and construes it as ‘the secret origin of all sovereignty’ (2017, 117). Like the founding violence of colonial sovereignty, the occult denies individual autonomy and agency to anything but itself. He therefore considers that the religious arts, and especially rituals of appeal to actual ‘fetish’, to be another form of subjugation that ‘turned human beings into the puppets of forces beyond their comprehension’ (2017, 117). To the extent that one ascribes power to that object of veneration, the practitioner relinquishes the self-conscious processes – reason, choice, deliberate action – that define personhood and subjectivity. This plays into the originating violence of Black Reason, allowing a mirrorlike operation to seize control.

Finally, for Mbembe traditional ritual is fixed in and fixated on the present (the ‘mere event’). It neither offers nor invites commentary on its situation or the condition of its practitioners. Ritual offers no epiphany, and therefore has no potential to awaken the participant or free him or her from the subjugated state. Mbembe turns instead to the African literary archive. For him the contemporary African novel, a genre ‘celebrating the demise of the postcolonial nation-state’s claim to stand for the Father’, provides the most promising wellspring for the recovery of African dignity and empowerment (2006, 151). Only novelistic narrative transcends the fixed anchor of the present that he imagines inhibits ritual as a medium of revelation, and allows for ‘hidden possibilities’ for the future, ‘without which there can be no redemption of the real’ (2017, 122). The written text, not the mute inchoate archive of ritual, has such liberating potential. This creative work emerges from a self-conscious gaze on the world and its creative transmutation of time. It ‘conjures’ the colonial past in order to imagine African futures that neither surrender to despair nor enter the cul-de-sac of violence envisioned by Fanon: liberation at the cost of ‘death as the condition for becoming human’ (2006, 156). Ironically, what Mbembe most appreciates is that the novel draws on the ‘universe of the senses’ and ‘demonstrates how remembrance is activated through dance and music, or disguise, trance, and possession’ (2017, 121). I will argue that these actual rituals draw their transformative power from the sensorial archive even as they seek to reactivate significant experience and deploy its knowledge toward creative ends.

In Critique of Black Reason Mbembe suggests that other Black aesthetic traditions may also open the way to do the liberating work. Interestingly, he singles out the arts, especially those produced through the work of conjuring, as those that offer ‘the final defense against the forces of dehumanization and death’ (2017, 173). Through such classic arts ‘hidden or forgotten energies’ can be released to reaffirm the dignity of all humanity (2017, 174). However, since he maintains that African ritual traditions only reinforce subjugation, Mbembe turns instead to ‘Afro-American and South African political, religious, and cultural traditions’ whose Christian prophetic roots supposedly provide a revolutionary and liberating impulse (2017, 173). While the move might come from a longing for ‘black solidarities to emerge across nations’ (2006, 152), it sidesteps the actual ground on which Black Reason was forged and exercised: the indigenous realities of Africa.

I contend that the liberating African archive for which Mbembe longs is not irrecoverable. It is embedded in a subjugated history, inscribed in indigenous African ritual. Its significance extends beyond the obscure and esoteric confines of ‘the local’, and its import remains a vital means of attending to the contingencies of contemporary African realities. Ritual is not only an inarticulate or nostalgic rehearsal of the past; its spectacles are designed to be revelatory disclosures that cause its participants to critically evaluate experience. This embodied archive, drawn from the ‘underside of [African] history’, offers just as eloquent a commentary state of affairs as literary creations (2017, 181). From this corpus of knowledge the Black might retrieve an authentic self, and one that is not constituted by toxic colonial projections. The living archive of African religious and aesthetic traditions do, in fact, offer the kind of revelatory epiphany that can free Africans from their spellbound state of denial and ‘awaken the slumbering powers’ of conscience and agency (2017, 174). The ritual appeal to the traditional rite that I call Female Genital Power (FGP) is a striking case in point.

3 The Matri-Archive: Matrifocal Morality as a Founding Moral Power

In many societies across West Africa female elders have been understood to be the living embodiment of the ancestors and guardians of the moral order. As the original progenitor, Woman embodies ‘firstness’. Even in patriarchal societies respectful duty is owed to a mother and to maternal kin. However, women gain their full spiritual potential after menopause, when they cease their reproductive social roles and transcend gender. Known as ‘the Mothers’, postmenopausal women are widely considered to bear an innate spiritual power to enforce adherence to those founding moral mandates that are the fundament of a just society. The locus of this ultimate power is the female genitalia, and the women treat the vulva as a living altar.

For centuries and in societies across the continent, whenever calamity threatens, women elders protect society by deploying their innate Female Genital Power in a ritual of anti-witchcraft, undertaken at night under the cover of darkness, performed to expel evil and death from the midst of the community. The women strip and slap their genitals to curse any who violate the moral order. It is taboo, especially for men, to look on their naked performance since it is an act of conjuring thought to be so potent that those who defy their sanction risk death. The rite of Female Genital Power unleashes the lethal force of retributive justice.

Women also enact FGP in daytime public protests as a political mechanism to censure rulers who violate the fundamental moral mandates of society. Traditionally the women elders come out to check abuses of power by chiefs and kings, executing their FGP as a vehement veto for which there was no appeal. In other words, there is a critical difference between ‘Woman as mother’ and ‘The Mothers’ as women who embody the essential values and moral mandates on which all legitimate authority rests. I call this widely shared understanding of the inviolable spiritual primacy of female elders ‘matrifocal morality’. This principle is so fundamental to local African epistemes that adherence to it transcends differences of ethnicity, polity, national identity, or ‘religious’ affiliation.

During the era of colonialism in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, and elsewhere in West Africa, multi-ethnic coalitions of women regularly engaged in struggles for national liberation by marshaling their forces and deploying FGP as a spiritual weapon. Brandishing branches and pounding the ground with old pestles, they would expose their breasts and genitals and dance to curse the injustices of the commandement. The colonial potentate, generally ignorant of the significance of the rite, dismissed the women’s naked manifestations as madness. Their menacing processions, seemingly lewd nakedness, and obscene gyrations were deemed just another form of delirium that, according to Black reason, confirmed the necessity for colonial subjugation.

Scholars who noted the phenomenon generally minimized the deeper significance of the women’s regular and persistent manifestations of FGP during colonialism. Even notable instances of its enactment as political resistance, such as the infamous ‘Women’s War’ in Nigeria in 1929 and the celebrated Women’s March of 1949 on Grand-Bassam, the colonial stronghold in Côte d’Ivoire, have been largely interpreted merely as symbolic auxiliaries that lent support to the nationalist efforts essentially led by men. However, failing to appreciate the appeal to the ritual rhetoric of FGP as a religious act offers a merely political rendition of these interventions and misconstrues their true significance. The Mothers wielded their embodied power to curse evil as an effective spiritual weapon even as their brave performance of moral might stirred the public to defend justice.

Moreover, this history testifies to the fact that even under conditions of abject subjugation the women marshaled innate power and exercised agency in their own terms. The ritual rhetoric of female nudity as a weapon is a profound and eloquent tradition that counters the capacity of the commandement to silence the native. Rather than being reduced to ‘something emptied of content, whose life, bereft of any significance except that granted by the master’, the naked spectacle of the Mothers is a fearsome assertion of potent resistance (Mbembe 2017, 109).

Aware of the ritual potency of their nudity and the conjuration of their sex, contemporary women continue to exploit this strong rhetorical form. Today African women execute the rite of FGP against the immoral postcolonial state, especially to condemn its intolerable violence. For example, during the civil wars in Côte d’Ivoire women regularly rose up en masse to protest the crippling injustices and barbaric violence committed by forces on both sides of the warring factions. On these occasions their righteous indignation mounted to utter condemnation, erupting as spontaneous acts of FGP. Their genital exhibition deploys their ‘bottom power’ as a mighty invisible weapon, capable of confronting evil. Their demands must not go unheeded. Belief in the Mothers’ supremacy and the efficacy of their curse is still potent. Confronted with the spectacle of their nakedness, even armed forces have been known to flee (Grillo 2019, n.p.).

Franz Fanon, from whom Mbembe consistently draws insight, claimed that the ‘muscular orgy’ of possession and dance, key features of the repertoires of African traditional religions, serves essentially as a cathartic release that can only reinforce the actual subjugation of the potentate. However, it would be a mistake to interpret the rite of FGP as just another ‘phantasmagoric mechanism’ of this kind (Mbembe 2017, 106). Far from entertaining a futile frenzy that discharges frustrated rage, the women who execute FGP energetically condemn the state of affairs. The elders forcefully exert their duty as moral guardians, not as tender representatives of fecundity or mild-mannered mothers but as warriors whose ‘spiritual combat’ is conducted in a domain in which ‘the strength and the power belong to woman’ (Le Mandat 2011).

The Mothers’ agitation is therefore more than an orgiastic frenzy and also more than mere politics. The Mothers counter the little secret of the postcolonial matrix with that little secret of their own – that the most intimate (secret) core of their bodies is the seat of formidable spiritual power. Their naked genitals are the emblem of a world-making moral authority. The repeated rehearsal of FGP sustains seminal values of African tradition and re-energizes the hidden transcript of the matri-archive. Precisely because it draws on this deeply grounded resource, the rite of FGP has the capacity to cut through the madness of the postcolony, the hallucinatory cul-de-sac of terror and fantasia.

4 Phallocentric Pagentry and the Spectacle of Female Genital Power

As we have seen, the postcolony makes obscenity ‘an integral part of the stylistics of power’ (Mbembe 2017, 14). With their transgressive – some say obscene – acts, the Mothers’ public performance of FGP counters and interrupts that phallocentric pageantry. Where the power of the potentate consists in the power ‘to see or not to see, to remain indifferent, to render invisible what one wishes not to see’ (Mbembe 2017, 111), the Mothers demand to be seen. Naked or semi-naked, wailing, cursing, and slapping their breasts and crotch, the Mothers literally make a spectacle of themselves. Their gyrations and chants may demonstrate ‘obscene’ defiance of womanly decorum, but these gestures are far from mere parodies of state licentiousness that reinforce its potency. The female elders’ belligerent intrusion onto the political scene is a jolt that visibly challenges immoral rulership and contests the legitimacy of immoral governance. While the postcolonial African states typically attempt to co-opt women by representing them as the ‘mothers-of-the-nation’, the Mothers willful defiance of decorum throws off that officially sanctioned role. Their brazen display is a decidedly uncivil form of civil society. Instead of authorizing the state, the Mothers turn themselves into the dreaded fetish that demands respect and obedience.

Unlike the ceremonies, pageants, and calendrical rituals that are performed on regularly scheduled occasions and that serve to reinforce social structure and rulership, the rite of FGP is a performance that arises spontaneously in moments of crisis to challenge the status quo. The Mothers intercede as self-conscious moral agents to unmask evil-doers and throw off villainy. The performance of FGP is therefore revelatory. When they strip in public, the Mothers inflict their own kind of epistemic violence. The stark visual assault of FGP shocks the viewing public into awareness of the source of their bewitchment, and condemns those who are blindly playing out the script of savagery. FGP is an ‘intimate rebuke’ (Grillo, 2018) not only in its reference to private bodily parts. It is also intimate because the women’s condemnation is no longer aimed at the injustices, indignities, and violations of foreign colonials, but at contemporary African society and their own postcolonial states that exercise their power without moral compass. The Mothers expose the vile sham of the postcolony’s excesses. The Mothers literally strip away all concealment of their contempt for the postcolonial potentate, rejecting the spell of adulation. The performance of FGP is a form of disenchantment – both in the sense of an expression of disappointment with the state and a release from its thrall.

Following Fanon, Mbembe entertains the idea that revolutionary violence is emancipatory, moving from the mere reactivity of the man with his ‘back to the wall’, the knife ‘at his throat’ to a gesture endowed with the moral reason (2017, 166). The key ingredient is righteous indignation that stirs action for the sake of the good. Only the radical rejection of victimhood can release the colonized from the chain of violence and give rise to an energetic society whose ‘work’, even if it involved force, was ‘to produce life’ (2017, 166). This exercise of freedom, drawn from the ‘hidden resources’ of the people is what gives ‘the violence of the colonized its ethical dimension’ (2017, 157). The rage of the Mothers who deploy FGP as an act of spiritual warfare is salubrious in this way. The ritual exposure of the Mothers’ naked genitals in the context of politics is an aggressive assertion of righteousness. It is a self-authorized act of moral conscience. The women’s public rebuke of evil awakens the slumbering conscience of the African populace from the stupor of enchantment, restores moral reason, and ignites a necessarily indignant response. The spectacle makes visible the hidden resources that are still available to fight injustice. Where the state works perpetually to maintain a bewitchingly unattainable dream world, the Mothers’ antiwitchcraft pierces through that madness. Where the state’s hypnotic delirium is deathdealing, the Mothers’ conjuring is emancipatory and life-giving.

5 Genital Amputation and Restoration of Humanity to Wholeness

According to Mbembe, the virulent racism of colonialism and its humiliating objectification of the Black symbolically ‘amputated’ the genitals. He states, ‘No longer do we see the black man, we see a penis; the black man has been occulted…. He is a penis’ (2017, 113). It is no surprise then that the damaged Black caught up in the matrix of the postcolony rehearses this role with brutal phallic aggressions. For Mbembe the humanity that was stolen by abstraction and objectification can only be restored through the healing power of a mirror capable of reflecting a more authentic image of the colonial subject.

From the work of Suzanne Preston Blier on Vodou tradition in Benin (1995), Mbembe learned that reference to the vagina ‘could be used as an insult’ (which, incidentally, would elicit the rebuke of the Mothers who would threaten the offender with FGP), and he noted that the local term for women’s genitalia was also the name of ‘a powerful deity of both witchcraft and motherhood’ (Mbembe 2006, 164). Unfortunately he made no further investigation into this unique African conception of the female genitals or how it might counter or even supersede the representation of the phallus as the privileged organ of power. In his brief reflection on the significance of the vagina in that essay, he rightly condemns the ‘womb-focused cliché’ of the African woman as procreator, recognizing that although motherhood could be a powerful female office the ‘invisible architecture’ of African societies allowed women to bear that office irrespective of whether she actually gave birth (2006, 165). As I demonstrate in An Intimate Rebuke, that ‘invisible architecture’ is the principle of matrifocal morality. No matter whether the formal structure of a given society was matrilineal or patrilineal, what supported it was the allegiance to the spiritual (invisible) world and the Mothers who sustained this vital moral bond. Therefore, as Mbembe also rightly notes, actual motherhood was less consequential to self-understanding and status than ‘social motherhood’, and this is especially true in domains in which spiritual matters are attended (2006, 165). This is why a female elder could be appointed as the head of a male secret society, while it is never the case that a man would rule over a women’s secret society. These ‘autonomous, exclusively feminine spheres beyond the world at home’ are the special preserve of FGP (2006, 165).

It is therefore all the more ironic that Mbembe focuses so exclusively on the Black Man and the phallic dynamics of colonial subjugation that he fails to see women or the potent healing potential of a matri-archive represented by the honor accorded to female genitals. In Critique of Black Reason Mbembe mentions women only three times: the image of the Black Woman as the object of erotic fantasy, as prostitute, and as victim of rape. In the first instance he pauses on ‘the figure of the Black Woman in French literature and colonial photography, a figure that played a key role in the articulation of racism, frivolity, and libertinage’ (2017, 68). As the object of erotic fantasy, the Black Woman is naked, sensual, and servile. It is a stereotype that ‘destroys in advance any possibility of an encounter and a relationship other than one based on violence’ (2017, 70). She represents Africa as an exotic terrain destined to be taken by force and possessed. Mbembe’s second reference to woman is a meditation on the prostitute, trading life for trinkets. It represents the fantasia of desire to which Africa succumbed. The third mention of women is the briefest but perhaps most significant. Following Fanon, Mbembe ruminates on the bestial impulses that animated colonialism and their genocidal intent. He notes that after being raped by French colonial forces ‘Algerian women [had] gone mad’, a condition that he likens to death (2017, 163). It is one of the only instances in which actual women are the subjects of Mbembe’s meditation, yet they remain nameless and faceless. Their total erasure in this meditation on the brutal force of Black Reason seems to multiply their victimization. The perpetual violence of the accursed share continues in phallocentrism. By relegating women to the Blackness of obscurity the legacy of African women’s liberating power remains a subjugated archive. The black Woman is reduced to an orifice to be penetrated with sadistic pleasure and the violent frenzy to possess power. From this view it is the female genitals that are the amputated parts.

The public performance of FGP counters this amputation of the genitals from humanity with an alternate spectacle of the potent Black body – the denuded body of old women defiantly exposed in activism. Their naked ritual rebuke confounds the state’s self-legitimating pageantry of phallic power. It restores to view the image of the vulva as the symbol of the preeminence of woman as moral guardian and righteous warrior. Unlike the phallus-as-weapon that can only destroy a woman and assault her community, the deployment of FGP as a spiritual arm restores social integrity by demanding moral accountability. The Mother’s intimate rebuke is the longed-for archive that can awaken the slumbering power of moral conscience and recall to the collective consciousness a vision of spiritual power as the legitimate foundation of governance.

Reclaiming this matri-archive may well be the means to break free of the legacy of the ‘accursed share’ and to heal the psychic split inflicted by the potentate. The manifestation of FGP holds up an alternative mirror to African civilization, reflecting the values on which it was founded. It is an active recollection of the past that critiques the present, and offers a flickering glimpse into the possibility of the restoration of wholeness to humanity. FGP is ‘the little secret’ drawn from a profound African archive of moral reason that can counter the madness of Black Reason. It is the original symbolic matrix by which society can re-member itself and with which the postcolonial spell can be conjured away.


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