In celebration of spring equinox decolonize your pleasure with Dr. Zelaika Clarke
Audre Lorde once told us that the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. No one understands this better than, Dr. Zelaika Hepworth Clarke, she is constantly deconstructing and reconstructing the way that we think of sexuality, and challenging traditional power structures through her work as a sexuality educator and sexologist. Dr. Clarke has been studying human sexuality for over a decade and is one of the leading experts in Osunality, having spent time in Brazil conducting interviews and direct observation of ceremonies for Oshun, the Yoruba deity of sensuality and sexuality (among other things). We asked her all about Oshun and sexual decolonization.
Q: Your work has centered on afro-indigenous spirituality, black femme sexuality, and sexual decolonization. Can you talk a little about this and how you’ve found it comes into play for Black femmes now?
A: Thank you for that thoughtful question, and kind of starting off by acknowledging our ancestor's strength and the power of melanin and surviving and being, and living truth. And I think that there's so much magic that can be conjured when tuning into our embodied wisdom.
It’s a type of acknowledgment and the type of awareness that is not based on western, white, capitalistic, cis-heteropatriarchal, mentalities and philosophy and structures and systems. And remembering or going back, and fetching work and information that is still available or needs to be revived or has been hidden. This can offer us liberation, transformation, and a progression, towards remembering our power. I think we're conditioned to not be aware of our power, our healing modalities, and our inherent wisdom and beauty just because of how we've been conditioned or programmed or how we've been surviving.
Acknowledging diversity is important because there's no one way to be Black or femme. There are many ways to unlearn, decolonize, heal and utilize spiritual forces that we may not be able to see. For Black femmes now, I think it's a special “herstoric” time to be alive and manifesting a collective healing, loving, unlearning and reminding ourselves of our embodied wisdom. I think it's inside of us. We are our power and our magic, and making space to recreate a just world that we can live in peacefully. Those are the kind of things that I think of when it comes to spirituality, sexuality, and decolonization.
I also can't forget about land, sovereignty, reparations, sustainability and the importance of community and self-determination.
Q: What did Black femme sexuality look like when it wasn’t under the gaze of western patriarchy?
A: I’m still not 100 percent sure, but I can begin to imagine. I don't want to romanticize the past and say that there was no patriarchy before colonialism, but I believe that it looked very different.
Having a different way of understanding what it means to be human essentially and our energies, and our ways of understanding how we can contribute to society and our role in society. So there's a lot of unlearning that has to take place to begin to reimagine what it could be. Because we've been conditioned in a certain framework, the automatic patriarchalization through speaking English. So Yoruba, for example, is a genderless language, they don’t have pronouns. God is understood to have both masculine and feminine and probably beyond conceptualizations of gender. When we translate to English, you have an automatic male pronoun assigned to a higher being which has implications. I think a key piece is an abundance paradigm as opposed to a scarcity model, which is western, the abundance paradigm isn’t hoarding love or limiting ourselves. I think it was understanding ourselves and contributing to our community in a different way. Being happy and having pleasure and fulfillment in your life was important for the family system and was important in bringing peace to the community. I think even eroticism, beauty, power and community was understood in a different way that wasn't necessarily relying on the penis, or relying on certain power structures that inform our ways of knowing.
So all that to say, different ways of knowing who we are, different ways of experiencing pleasure, different ways of understanding, beauty, eroticism, power, pleasure and desire and it not being derived within the context of imperialistic racialized sexuality.
Q: You came up with a healing model that you coined “the auto-sexual decolonization model”? Can you break this down and talk about how this has had an impact on your life?
A: I was really interested in unlearning patriarchal white colonial mentalities of sexuality, so I began doing neuro decolonization which is decolonizing your mind. One way of doing that is through the practice of mindfulness, really being in the moment, focusing on your breathing. I started studying Oshun breathing techniques. So, I'm tuning into my embodied wisdom all while surrounding myself with a non-western patriarchal framework. For me, this was a community in Brazil that just reminded me that there are multiple worlds that can exist simultaneously without hierarchy.
This was a process of radical self-acceptance, love, and using mindfulness and self-reflectivity, thinking critically and moving towards intersectional mindfulness, sensual liberation and creating intention. I have the intention of creating a euphoric, joyful, pleasurable life. I have the intention of creating an empowering self-determined, self-actualized form of pleasure and eroticism with the assistance of nature and years of wisdom from my ancestors.
And so the first piece was to recognize colonialism, recognize problematic systemic injustices, and then deconstructing those things, breaking it down. Breaking down, what is sex? What is gender? Does sex really require a penis going into a vagina? When you really break that down, no it actually does not require that. I'm not saying it's wrong or right, I'm just saying it's a limited view that may not foster liberation.
Then I reconstruct it, so now what does this look like for me? What does sex mean for me? I'm trusting my embodied wisdom to create my own meaning and my own ways of experiencing that without shame, without judgment. All of this is a spiritual process for me.
It took me to a place of praxis where theory met action. After I conceptualized it in a different way, I was actually able to manifest that in my body. So now I'm having erotic experiences and pleasure. The example I give is a moment in time when I was really appreciating and loving nature and understanding how connected we all are. We being human but also a connection to nature, earth, and the sun, thinking about the importance of the sun. Then I felt the sun loving on me and I was in the most peaceful, beautiful place. It definitely helped to be on a warm beach in Brazil. I felt pleasure, joy, and euphoria at that moment, things that would be manifested through a sexual act, sensual act, a spiritual act and not judging my experience, and feeling really empowered and then having a type of rebirth. Once your mind is expanded, it's hard to go back to old dimensions.
Q: Over the past couple years we have seen a lot of Black millennials leave Christianity and embrace traditional African religions like Ifá. The orisha Oshun, the Yoruba deity of fertility, love, and sensuality has seen a resurgence in popularity (See: Beyonce’s Lemonade). Oshun is this amazing example of the influential black femme, talk to me about her?
A: I can’t begin to do her justice, but I can attempt to shed light. Oshun, the river goddess of fertility goddess was also known as a warrior as well as a peacemaker. She has an ever-renewing source below the surface to make renewable possible but seeking to define Oshun is as fluid as grabbing water. I think that everyone can get something different from learning about orishas and Oshun.
When you look at some of the stories, she’s known as the original feminist. There are so many beautiful and powerful stories that speak to how Oshun liberated and if it wasn’t for the things she did, we would be in a very different place. So definitely thinking about fertility, wealth, joy, sensuality, Oshun is associated with childbirth, the protector of women, the giver of children to barren women. She's known as a vital source of life. The archetypal female conduit through which all life flows, and is the epitome of sensuality and sexual pleasure.
I think that learning about Orishas provides a more expansive understanding of arc types that are not stereotypical. And there are so many stories, the stories I hear in Cuba are different than the stories I hear in Brazil, and are different than the stories that might have gone to Trinidad or Puerto Rico.
This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.
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