By Jesse McCarthyJuly 20, 2020
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Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it, in relative opacity.
— Frantz Fanon
THE MEMOIRS OF Black revolutionaries have been, almost by definition, exceptional in their narratives, exemplary in their aspirations, and dispirited in their conclusions. Traditionally, the disappointment of unfinished and unrealized ambitions is mitigated by a rhetorical appeal to continued struggle and hope for a future Black liberation that the memoirists themselves will not live to see. They look to the future to say: One day. In time we will find our way to freedom, equality, self-loving, and self-respecting — to fully enjoying whatever the best of the human condition ought to entail. But what if the condition of being human is so thoroughly racialized that even appealing to it only further distances them from the possibility of its realization? What if, moreover, the destruction of Black people is not a contingent difficulty that can be corrected, but a necessary fate because the very category of “the human” is premised on their negation? As Frank Wilderson puts it, what if “Human life is dependent on Black death for its existence and for its conceptual coherence”?
Understanding how Wilderson has come to such a conclusion requires a glance at his own exceptionally restless and revolutionary life. Frank Wilderson III was born in New Orleans but grew up primarily in Minneapolis, where his father was a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota and his mother worked as a school administrator. The family was part of the generation of Black middle-class folk that strived to integrate the world of their white counterparts, making upwardly mobile incursions across the color line in the workplace and in housing. The Wildersons were the first Black family to move into the exclusive neighborhood of Kenwood. One senses in his writings the painful alienation and racial isolation of a Black boyhood in a white suburban world. Wilderson’s parents hoped their son would take advantage of their social gains, but it was the revolutionary turbulence of the 1960s that impressed the young man who, even as a teenager, had already thrown himself into the whirlwind of the standoffs in Berkeley, the militancy of the Black Panther Party, the world of SDS, Kent State, the murder of Fred Hampton, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Afropessimism, Wilderson’s philosophical memoir published this year by Liveright, is full of extraordinary portrait miniatures, fragmented scenes of the American leftist underground recollected from the point of view of one of its survivors, the souvenirs of an elder revolutionist for whom the battle scars of yesteryear are still fresh as yesterday.
For Wilderson, the energies of the revolution never fully dissipated. He enrolled at Dartmouth in 1974, took up and then abandoned the idea of being a football player, and quickly gravitated back to politics, involving himself in organizing immigrant workers on campus, activities that eventually got him expelled for two years, during which time he led an itinerant life before returning to finish his degree in 1980. Fellow students recall visions of a handsome and charismatic man striding across the campus wearing a military-style vest and sporting a beret. During the 1980s, Wilderson spent a period he dismisses as “eight ethically bankrupt years” working as a stockbroker for a string of prominent firms that included Merrill Lynch and Drexel Burnham Lambert, the latter made infamous for its junk-bonds business. In 1989, he got out of finance by going to Columbia University to get an MFA in fiction writing. He used a summer research grant from the Jerome Foundation to go to South Africa, a voyage that would prove a decisive turning point.
It was a propitious time and place for an ardent militant determined to wage war against white supremacy. F. W. de Klerk’s apartheid regime was beginning to buckle, as the heinous and increasingly desperate campaign of state terrorism it had ramped up throughout the 1980s failed to dissuade the African National Congress (ANC) from its contrasting mission to liberate the country from white rule. The leaders of the ANC had established a military wing known as Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), “The Spear of the Nation,” in response to the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, which taught them that the regime would respond to the nonviolent civil disobedience championed by Robert Sobukwe with violent repression and indefinite detention. By the late 1980s, when the apartheid regime was struggling against MK, it suffered a death blow as a result of its involvement in the Angolan Civil War, with the South African army losing to Cuban and Angolan independence fighters at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988. When Wilderson arrived the following year, the revolution was by no means completed, but the endgame was essentially in sight. Much of the tension now centered on what the political transition from a white to a Black state would look like and how it would be carried out.
For Wilderson, the choice was clear: either the state would transition to a compromised liberalism under Nelson Mandela or a Marxist socialist regime quite possibly headed by the charismatic ANC party leader, and favorite among MK’s militants, Chris Hani. In the end, that choice would be dictated by bloodshed, with Hani’s assassination in 1993 followed by Mandela’s historic election in 1994, which also led to the disbanding (on Mandela’s orders) of MK’s military brigades. Wilderson is unapologetic and explicit about his anger at Mandela, who he believes betrayed the revolution and more or less personally forced Wilderson to leave South Africa in 1996 by declaring him an individual threat to national security. Chris Hani’s murder was a pivotal moment in Wilderson’s life; it marked the death of his faith in a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary politics and the birth of the thinking that would come to replace it — a theory elaborated over roughly a decade of doctoral studies at UC Berkeley after his return to the United States, a theory he developed with other scholars and academics including Saidiya Hartman (his advisor at Berkeley), David Marriott, and Jared Sexton, and of which he is sometimes called the godfather: the theory of Afropessimism.
Despite its forbidding allure, the term Afropessimism does not designate a philosophy or a doctrine; nor, in spite of some of its more histrionic critics, does it describe some nefarious sect. It is, more modestly, an ongoing conversation among people interested in a set of interrelated questions, a conversation that has aroused particular interest primarily within the Black American intelligentsia, among whom it began to gain a wider hearing sometime during Obama’s second term. It has chiefly preoccupied scholars working within Black Studies, as well as circulating in certain networks beyond the academy, garnering notable interest among Black high school debate teams. Sexton, one of Afropessimism’s most brilliant exponents, describes the improbable origins of its discourse as “a highly technical dispute in a small corner of the American academy.” As Sexton rightly points out, a natural question that needs to be asked is why such a seemingly arcane argument should gather as much attention as it seemingly has today.
A sign of its success was the announcement of Wilderson’s Afropessimism. The book appeared poised to fill the gaps in the many scattered journal articles that treated the subject and to explicate, for a more mainstream audience, what the thrust of this intervention into conversations on race is meant to achieve and how its ideas work; to serve, if not as a manifesto for a wider movement, then at least as a guide for the perplexed. Instead, Wilderson proposed what he himself calls a “hybrid seed,” one that “weaves the abstract thinking of critical theory with blood-and-guts stories of life as it’s lived.” Put differently, Afropessimism is a memoir that would like its life lessons to serve as both occasions and exempla for expounding Wilderson’s adopted philosophy. There’s nothing wrong with this so far as it goes; some of the most extraordinary works in Black Studies function this way. One thinks of Saidiya Hartman’s magnificent memoir Lose Your Mother, of the autobiographies of Du Bois, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and Assata Shakur, among many others.
The deeper root of this genre is, of course, the slave narrative. There is a complicated sense, as we shall see, in which Wilderson has written a slave narrative in the present, insofar as it is his contention that he actually is, under the terms of his philosophy, a slave right now. Even more provocative (if that’s possible) is his claim that, unlike the traditional author of a slave narrative, Wilderson not only has not, but cannot ever, escape the state of bondage.
Needless to say, these are difficult views for most people to accept, or to even begin to comprehend. To understand them, and to arrive at a reaction to them, requires clambering up the imposing theoretical scaffolding that supports the Afropessimist thesis, a hurdle that immediately raises questions for those invested in touting its popular reach. That doesn’t mean a vulgarization isn’t possible, but it does confirm the accuracy of Sexton’s description of Afropessimism’s “technical” origins and suggests only technicians with advanced degrees will really ever be in a position to elucidate it. I will hazard my own reconstruction of the argument, but I don’t pretend to any ex cathedra authority. These concepts — and Wilderson’s role in suturing them together — are still actively debated in many quarters.
“Black people in the United States differ from all other modern people owing to the unprecedented levels of unregulated and unrestrained violence directed at them.” This is the opening sentence of the 2001 preface to Cornel West’s Race Matters, originally published in 1993. It is a strong assertion, one that insists the situation of Black populations in the United States is exceptional in important ways that make any understanding of race subject to special scrutiny — and any analogy fallacious by default. As a shorthand, we might think of this simply as the “exceptionality thesis” with respect to Blackness. Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1992) notoriously proposed that the time had come to accept the premise that “Black people will never gain full equality in this country.” Call this the “immutability thesis.”
Yet another key formulation from the 1990s — making its mark in the academic field of Black Studies, but not as a popular best seller like the two books just mentioned — is Lewis Gordon’s Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism (1995). While Gordon did not coin the term “antiblack” or “antiblackness,” he was the first to theorize and to use it in a rigorous and systematic way. His pioneering work on the life and thought of Frantz Fanon, as well as his own original contributions to formulating a philosophy of black existentialism, are widely credited with popularizing the use of the terms within Black Studies and those limited elements of the academy that engage with its precincts. In this literature, “antiblackness” is a technical, not a subjective or impressionistic, term. It does not refer to prejudice or dislike, as might easily be supposed. Rather, it is used to capture the idea that an underlying racial antagonism can come to structure the social fabric of a given society. Race, in this description, operates like a function that overdetermines outcomes and relations between people regardless of any particular actor’s personal disposition or attitudes. It says that there are disparate and antagonistic sets of what Durkheim would call “social facts,” matters of objective analysis about the relative position of power, and more importantly even, of value, that inhere in populations that are racially marked and bounded. The racial fault line is therefore not a regrettable by-product of behaviors that can be reformed or improved over time; it is not like a tumor that can be excised from the body politic. On the contrary, it is a necessary and even vital ingredient of the social order, a division that pulls two socially defined groups apart but simultaneously binds the larger edifice of society together like mortar in between bricks, holding them in place. Let us call this the “structural antagonism thesis.”
Finally, although chronologically prior, Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death (1982) is a comparative study of slavery across recorded history, examining its institutions, its economics, but most importantly of all its ideological justifications. Patterson argued that slavery in all times and places can, in fact, be shown to bear a common underlying ideological framework, which he called “social death.” This term is intended to convey the way slavery imposes “the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons.” When slaves are stripped of access to their own heritage and to the normal rights of kinship over their offspring and thus their future, they are natally alienated. This is compounded by the mark of social dishonor resulting from slavery’s profound connection to warfare. Patterson finds that slavery is almost universally understood as an outcome reserved for the defeated in war who have not died (honorably) in battle. In other words, slavery can be conceived as essentially a suspended death sentence — hence the notion of existing in a suspended state of “social death.” This we might refer to as the “abjection thesis.”
Racial exceptionalism, political immutability, “antiblackness” as structural antagonism, and abjection in the form of “social death”: each of these concepts predates Afropessimism, and as I see it, together they form its foundation. Indeed, it is the synthesis of all of these ideas into one purportedly coherent worldview that I take to be the innovation of Afropessimism. I have deliberately chosen the writers, scholars, and thinkers cited above, however, precisely because they do not come to the same conclusions as Wilderson. Several could be said to be strongly opposed; even Derrick Bell (whom Wilderson might have suggested as a predecessor but does not cite in Afropessimism) ultimately counsels in his book’s epilogue that we move “beyond despair” and calls on us to “fashion a philosophy that both matches the unique dangers we face and enables us to recognize in those dangers opportunities for committed living and humane service.” Part of my point here is that those who disagree with the Afropessimist worldview cannot be simply dismissed as “soft” or naïve. Nor should anyone infer that simply because one critiques the Afropessimist synthesis, one cannot also hold strong views in agreement about any number of more specific points of analysis.
To what extent will Afropessimism ultimately be comprehended as something of a historical “mood,” related in ways to the underlying dynamics of our historical epoch that we are still unable to fully elucidate? Like the related terms “affect” or Raymond Williams’s “structure of feeling,” a “mood” is notoriously difficult to analyze. We grasp it only indirectly, like the sounds from a party in the building next door. It circulates in the hyperactive synapses of our society where different registers of language agglutinate into shorthands and neologisms — “doomscrolling,” “cancelled,” “triggered,” “killing it,” “I’m dead” — that suggest some of it just by association. Every once in a while, a handle comes along that electrifies a whole swath of experiences at once, moments of rupture when a philosophy, a political slogan, or even a bit of jargon throws the table over, gathering all those affective undercurrents under a single collectively recognized shout.
There is, of course, precedent for this, both within and without the tradition. For at least a decade after Stokely Carmichael’s emblematic use of it in 1966, the slogan Black Power became the rallying cry closely associated with the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party. One can wonder if, retrospectively, Afropessimism, Black Lives Matter, and the Obama presidency will be similarly linked. Then there is European pessimism, refined into philosophical discourse by Schopenhauer, and more generally understood as a distinctive angst that swept through fin-de-siècle Germany, becoming especially fashionable among elites who called it Weltschmerz, literally a “worldpain.”
The psychological woundedness implied in the compound “worldpain” reflects the intensity of the role that injury plays in these theories. It helps us to understand why Wilderson narrates his journey into the bondage of his pessimistic worldview by using an approach that strongly resembles talk therapy. Indeed, Afropessimism wades into what sometimes feels like the very frightening quagmires of an extremely intelligent and also deeply unsettled psychological state of mind. This is not entirely unfamiliar terrain. Wilderson has written intimately about his inner and outer turmoil before. His previous book, Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid (2015), is a riveting account of his time working as a militant and intelligence liaison for the ANC in South Africa at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle there. But Afropessimism feels much more scattered in its composition and, at times, even alarming in its confessions, which begin in the opening sentences and essentially never let up. Wilderson appears to believe this rawness strengthens and clarifies the stakes of his philosophy (which I wish he had given to us straight), and maybe for some readers it does. But his need to perform his own suffering for the reader’s instruction persistently undermines the lucidity of his arguments, and his caustic tone bears the impress of an auto-da-fé, the book offered up as an act of sacrificial martyrdom. I have to say shocking things out loud that all Blacks think but are afraid to say, Wilderson implies, and it becomes clear that he has in mind, in particular, the political correctness of the academy.
Indeed, one of the most frustrating aspects of Afropessimism is how much of it is devoted to recounting scenes of conflict that occur in, or very near, to academic campuses, when one might have expected mass incarceration, police brutality, and unfair hiring practices, to be the crises most urgently representative of its thesis. Yet there is very little this book has to say about the prison abolition movement, labor organizing, or even specific cases of brutalization and lethal instances of racial violence. This turns out to be consonant with the theory, though, since the activism around these issues is, from its own point of view, both pointless and beside the point. The actual scenarios we get instead are drawn from the interstices and banal marginalia of academic life: roommate situations, sharing a car with people of different ethnic backgrounds on your way to the airport, attending awkward racial sensitivity training exercises, going to conferences in foreign countries.
In a scene bordering on satirical farce, Wilderson agrees to travel to a small leftist conference in Copenhagen, only on the condition that the organizer find Black participants for his workshop. When the Danish organizer is only able to come up with a few non-Black people of color, Wilderson accepts this compromise, flies to Copenhagen, and proceeds to scold them for disallowing a real discussion of Black suffering by insisting on what the participants have in common. Wilderson is scornful and admonishing, but also insists they leave the room understanding that in a sense nothing at all has been achieved since “there is no coherent form of redress” for Black suffering. The value of the workshop is at best therapeutic at some unresolvable distance. The participants have learned the incommensurability of their own sense of plight with that of the Black. “Your participation in this workshop with the Black people in Marronage is an act of solidarity,” Wilderson tells them. Who these “Maroons” are, and what that term actually represents in this context — African immigrants living in Copenhagen, Black Europeans in general, Black Americans visiting Denmark — is not clear.
Wilderson moves on to a conference in Berlin, where he presents a paper demonstrating his thesis that the obscure docudrama Punishment Park (1971), a film by the English director Peter Watkins, thinks of itself as a leftist critique of creeping Nixonian fascism when it is in fact unconsciously a narrative vehicle reinforcing antiblackness. Things don’t go well in the Q-and-A and Wilderson loses his temper. “My presentation shits on the inspiration of solidarity,” he tells a white woman described as “an Oxbridge-educated don” who he believes had been flirting with him before his talk. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about solidarity,” he insists as the woman absorbs his comments in shock and dismay. As he tries to leave the conference, she blocks his passage and demands that he consider his audience next time he’s invited to give a talk. “I’m not even talking to anyone in this room. Ever. When I talk, I’m talking to Black people. I’m just a parasite on the resources that I need to do work on behalf of Black liberation,” he retorts.
Does giving papers on the limits of interracial solidarity in activism and film theory in Copenhagen and Berlin qualify as “talking to Black people”? Is this what working on behalf of Black liberation looks like today? “Afropessimism is not an ensemble of theoretical interventions that leads the struggle for Black liberation,” Wilderson observes in an aside to his Copenhagen lecture. “One should think of it as a theory that is legitimate because it has secured a mandate from Black people at their best; which is to say, a mandate to speak the analysis and rage that most Black people are free only to whisper.” To claim a “mandate” is a grave and inherently political pronouncement. I certainly do not, and frankly cannot conceive, claiming a mandate to speak on behalf of anyone, let alone “Black people at their best.” In democratic discourse, “securing a mandate” is, of course, a phrase invoked to assert that one’s ideas, decisions, and actions, are justified as the direct translation of the popular will. But how plausible is it that what Black people want from Frank Wilderson, or from any Black intellectual for that matter, is for him to fly to Europe and tell non-Black activists and white academics about our suffering and how nothing can change it? The language of a “mandate” strikes me as revealing an anxiety rather than asserting a self-evident, and conveniently unverifiable, truth.
Wilderson’s preoccupation with the academy as a site of antagonism is of a piece with his protracted insistence on the problem of what he calls “the ruse of analogy.” This deception is particularly noxious, he argues, because it is deployed not by the enemies of the Black freedom and equality, but by non-Black people of color who purport to be its allies. Wilderson warns:
The antagonism between the postcolonial subject and the settler (the Sand Creek massacre, or the Palestinian Nakba) cannot — and should not — be analogized with the violence of social death: that is the violence of slavery, which did not end in 1865 for the simple reason that slavery did not end in 1865. Slavery is a relational dynamic — not an event and certainly not a place in space like the South.
As an example, Wilderson recounts an interaction with his friend Sameer, a Palestinian from Ramallah whom he meets during a spell working as a guard at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Wilderson believes they share a revolutionary worldview and solidarity, until this sense is shattered when Sameer casually remarks in passing that being searched at an Israeli checkpoint is more shameful and humiliating “if the Israeli soldier is an Ethiopian Jew.” Wilderson is plunged into existential shock as he must come to grips with “the realization that in the collective unconscious, Palestinian insurgents have more in common with the Israeli state and civil society than they do with Black people.” The scene is modeled on the famous moment of racial hailing in Black Skin, White Masks, in which Frantz Fanon finds himself seized by the white gaze: “Look, a Negro!” It’s a powerful moment, and Wilderson has a point: the fact that someone is oppressed due to their race does not make them impervious to antiblack racism; and, if you agree with Wilderson, then you see evidence in this anecdote that it could not be otherwise. Palestinians cannot fail to be racists since their humanity is premised, like all non-Black peoples of the world, on denigrating Blackness. Afropessimism, says Wilderson, “allows Black people to not have to be burdened by the ruse of analogy — because analogy mystifies, rather than clarifies, Black suffering.”
Analogy does not mean equivalence, however, and among the important notions that the word “analogy” conveys is that two things can be comparable on the basis of an underlying proportionality. For instance, two extreme events like the Jewish Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide, though very different in countless important ways, still might be said to share the underlying similarity of intent and even, to a certain extent, scale (though not the technology of killing or its method). Analogy and metaphor are also constitutive of our cognitive processes: without them there is no possibility of producing theory, no production of thought. The question is not whether analogy should be allowed, but what constitutes a good analogy as opposed to a bad one: to what extent does an analogy work.
A major problem with Wilderson’s inveighing against the “ruse of analogy” is that his book routinely deploys analogies and metaphors that are at least as questionable as the ones he denounces. What are we to make, for example — keeping in mind Sameer for a moment — of Wilderson’s description of telling his mother that a white neighbor had asked him how it felt to be a Negro. Wilderson says that this was a learning moment for his mother about the lengths whites might go to injure a Black person, in this instance by psychologically attacking their children. “She knew now how it must feel to be killed by a guided missile,” Wilderson comments. I don’t doubt the psychological violence of the incident in question, but that doesn’t make moving into Kenwood like having a Hellfire missile hit you in the Gaza Strip. Why does Wilderson reach for this hyperbole at all? If he wanted to make the point that housing integration involved terroristic violence, there are plenty of data and events to point to. Black homes in cities across the country were bombed and burned throughout the 1950s and ’60s. But instead of marshaling the historical facts of racial oppression, we get a distorted rhetoric that has to stretch the boundaries of reality in order to justify the theory.
The most troubling aspect of Afropessimism, however, may be its treatment of slavery. Despite the fact that Wilderson knows this is one of the most fiercely contested components of his worldview, he treats it as if it were a minor point, relegating an important statement of his position to a footnote: “It is worth reiterating that, through the lens of Afropessimism, slavery is, essentially, a relational dynamic, rather than a historical era or an ensemble of empirical practices (like whips and chains).” I submit that there is something deeply troubling about a casual parenthetical that proposes to evacuate the significance of the entire material history of antebellum slavery. It’s also logically bizarre, since it seems constitutive of the entire project that slavery have been real at least at some point in order for the relation to obtain in the first place. But these issues are brushed aside, since this erasure is necessary for the theory to do what Wilderson wants it to do; slavery must be transformed into a portable and fundamentally psychological relation untethered from historical memory and founded purely on the basis of melanin and the antagonism that an all-encompassing and all-powerful “whiteness” poses to it.
For many of us, such a leap is neither ethical nor comprehensible. But for Wilderson the portability and paradoxical fungibility of slavery fits perfectly with his interest in film and his Lacanian and Fanonian readings of it. How else to explain passages in Afropessimism in which incidents involving a terrible white roommate situation he and his girlfriend find themselves in circa 1979 are, for Wilderson, obviously comparable to Steve McQueen’s 2013 film, 12 Years a Slave, which was based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative. This is not a jest, but a sustained and intensely explored analogy, in which the whipping of Patsey (played by Lupita Nyong’o in the film), descriptions of the cool sadism of Mary Epps (the slaveowner’s wife) from Northrup’s 1853 narrative, and Wilderson’s troubles with a batty white roommate all share the same stage. We are asked to imagine them as coequal and even coeval psychological theaters of cruelty, whose mise-en-scène simply involves different props. The plantation is everywhere and all the time. It is ontological, which means that it attaches trans-historically to all Black persons regardless of their social position.
How far does this go? In his academic monograph on film studies, Red, White & Black (2010), Wilderson forthrightly asserts that Black academics are not subalterns in the academy but “Slaves of their colleagues.” Is being talked down to in the faculty lounge really the same as being whipped at the post, or slinging rock on the corner, or being placed in solitary on Rikers Island as a juvenile? Is working at Merrill Lynch in New York as a Black woman really the same as working shifts as a Black gay man in a McDonald’s in Alabama? Is it ethical or desirable to confound all of these into a tortuous equivalency while telling those who propose to fight at your side to shut up because you don’t like the analogies they are using to connect themselves with your suffering?
It is fair to ask of a “lens” whether it actually sharpens our view and, if so, to perform demonstrations of clarity? A major problem for Afropessimism is that its claim to revealing the underlying structural truth seems to repeatedly require abandoning any significant contact with historical reality. With social categories like class, gender, and material facts made irrelevant, the theoretical work is forced to concentrate itself in rhetorical aphorisms that seem to be slouching their way toward slogans. “The antagonist of the worker is the capitalist. The antagonist of the Native is the settler. But the antagonist of the Black is the Human being,” Wilderson tells us. The problem with this, apart from its faux-syllogistic form, is that human identities are not fixed and rigid boxes, but dynamic rings of change that merge and overlap. The Black Americans involved in the colonization scheme of Liberia in the 19th century were both Black (formerly enslaved on US plantations) and also settlers. Obviously, there are Black capitalists just as there are Black workers. Is there a double-jeopardy principle for antagonisms or some calculus by which they can be selectively negated?
“Blackness and Slaveness are inextricably bound in such a way that whereas Slaveness can be disimbricated from Blackness, Blackness cannot exist as other than Slaveness,” Wilderson assures. Was Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the first president of Liberia, not capable of really being a settler or a capitalist because of the inescapable “Slaveness” of his Blackness? How should we evaluate the categories, both legal and political, that Black people themselves brought into world history? The only antagonists Jean-Jacques Dessalines recognized in 1804 were the French, whom he violently reviled, refused to grant any rights to, and often cruelly put to death (in the context of what is arguably the most just war ever fought and the only successful example of a slave revolution in history) — while simultaneously decreeing that all citizens of the Republic of Haiti henceforth would be considered Black, even the small Polish population on the island which had joined forces with the slaves against the French slave power. Dessalines also believed that a convergence of interest and identity with the “native” population was both possible and desirable, which is why he called his forces L’Armée Indigène and changed the name of the island from the colonizer’s Saint-Domingue to Haiti, a word from the language of the indigenous Taíno people.
What are we to make of the Blacks who owned slaves themselves, the imbricated weave that historians Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark describe in their classic study, Black Masters, and that Edward P. Jones meditates upon in his great novel, The Known World? What of the fact that Black and white laborers banded together and fought against the planter elite during the years leading up to and including Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676? And if the categories of racial Blackness and whiteness are so crucial to Wilderson, why is none of the scholarship on the historical production of “whiteness” (Theodore Allen, Noel Ignatiev, Nell Irvin Painter, David Roediger) cited in either Afropessimism or Red, White & Black? Where do the unique polities of the Jamaican Maroons and quilombos of Brazil fit into this picture? Can it really be true in the full light of history that there is no Blackness at all that is not Slaveness? Is a flat reductionist dichotomy really capable of comprehending the truth of human history? I understand Wilderson’s point about his Palestinian friend, but what does his theory clarify for us about that Ethiopian Jewish soldier?
Carter G. Woodson, in The Mis-Education of the Negro, said that “to handicap a student by teaching him that his Black face is a curse and that his struggle to change his condition is hopeless is the worst sort of lynching.” There is no reason to think Afropessimism is anything that severe. But I invoke Woodson here to remind us that more pragmatic points of view are neither new nor the product of superficial analysis. They cannot simply be breezily dismissed. Let’s not pretend that there are no voices that represent the best of Black folk as much as anyone else, and yet take a radically different point of view on race, racism, and what to do about it. Whatever position one eventually comes to, they are owed some serious account, not consignment to the oubliettes of history, as if intelligent thinking on the positionality and politics of Blacks in the United States only began yesterday.
No serious Black intellectual today thinks antiblack racism is not a matter of life and death. The question is still the old one: what is to be done? There has to be room for a serious debate and the flexibility of open-minded conversation on that score. It’s simply implausible that the answers are easy, obvious, or one-dimensional. The fact that Black Lives Matter has done more to explode the Overton window in American politics than any movement since the 1960s has to be fully and duly appreciated for the extraordinary achievement that it is. But Adolph Reed Jr.’s countervailing contention that Black Lives Matter is merely a rebranding and retreading of Black Power for millennials is a barb nonetheless worth reflecting on seriously.
Reed has been right before, most famously about Obama whom he crossed paths with in Chicago in the mid-1990s when he diagnosed him as “a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics.” The ease and celerity with which multinational corporations and political elites rushed to eulogize George Floyd, instantly adopting the performative repertoire of genuflection and the mimeographed consultancy lingo of McKinsey et al. through the issuing of carefully worded “statements,” should give us pause. It is possible for a nominally leftist rhetoric, especially one that is explicitly ethno-nationalist and directed by actors professionally linked to the governing class, to weaponize superficial and symbolic gains in ways that serve to advance their own professional and middle-class interests. This work happens at the expense of broadly based and genuinely popular political strategies that could have otherwise advanced the interests of the Black poor and working classes who are most vividly affected by the forces that the movement alleges it is dismantling. Everything in Black political history suggests that the danger of this kind of cooptation is very real. As Imani Perry observes, a robust Black feminism is critical at this juncture precisely because it is so uncompromising vis-à-vis “the self-congratulatory posture of the neoliberal state” and its constant attempts to funnel the energy of righteous discontent back into market-driven and customizable “lean in” conceptions of activism.
At the same time, it seems clear that whatever its eventual failings and misfires, the spectacular and urgent appeal of BLM among the younger generation (not just in the United States but around the world) is a rational response and rejection of the style of racial politics that wound-licking left-liberals fashioned in the late Clinton and Bush years, and that reached its apogee in both the persona and policy offers of Obama’s presidency. That generation’s rose-tinted conception of politics as the transactional but egalitarian rule of the demos by the best and the brightest was enshrined, as the commentator Luke Savage cannily pointed out, in the sanctimoniocracy of Aaron Sorkin’s television show The West Wing (1999–2006). The main threat in that world was understood to be the crude morality and venality of Republicans and the threat of terrorism emanating vaguely from the Middle East. But the real Vietnam that threatened this new breed of “whiz kids” (whose failures and educational pedigrees uncannily resemble those of David Halberstam’s famous book on Kennedy’s “Best and Brightest” men) was not brewing in the (undeniably real) quagmire abroad, but in the neglected quagmire at home, one that was captured in the other signal television show of that era, David Simon’s The Wire (2002–2008).
These two shows represent the schizophrenic, split-screen personality of the governing elites in the United States at the dawn of the new century: on the one hand, a sunny republic governed with the best of intentions and yielding the best of all possible worlds as it checks religious fanaticism and regressive social views with perfectly timed quips and Lincolnian citations; on the other, the entrenched poverty of a gutted and deprived racial underclass mired in a violent web of drugs and deindustrialization overseen (quite literally in the show) by a hapless and hopeless police force given the cynical task of “managing” its casualties for periodic and parasitic gains by the nasty, brutish, and often short lives of the most ruthless operators patrolling its wastelands. Yet both shows were popular and aimed at the same demographic. This incoherence and paralysis — liberalism as optimism of the intellect and impotence of the will — white people making the world a better place and Black people dying in a pointless inferno, finally became untenable under Obama. There are arguments to be had over whether the response of this new activist generation got the analysis entirely right, but they cannot be faulted for throwing the emergency brake on a ruling-class consensus that had presided over decades of dysfunction and despair, being ping-ponged back and forth between two political parties that had nothing to offer, while the basic minimums for social cohesion were being repeatedly breached.
The question of the responsibility of Black intellectuals with respect to this ugly stalemate is a heavy one. There are those who believe the verdict of history will look very unfavorably upon the ultimate balance of accounts. I tend to think that this is ungenerous given the enormity and complexity of the challenge. Either way, it cannot change the fact that the situation of Black America is unacceptable and that the debates over race versus class, structure versus culture, statism versus market liberalism have all led us to where we are today, which is to say that there is no agreement that any policy has worked, nor any theoretical view prevailed. The only consensus across all political factions is that the country is adrift and disoriented on the question of how to realize the fullest aspirations of a racially integrated democracy.
It makes perfect sense that pessimism, whether of Wilderson’s variety or some other, should seek to fill this vacuum. And yet beyond the noise of social media and well outside of academic groves, the Black working and middle class has little interest in seminars about the power of whiteness or its fragility. It is looking for tangible, pragmatic answers and solutions in the present that will enable people to protect Black boys and girls from being mowed down without a chance; to exercise control and agency over police, schools, courts, and prisons that act with indifference or hostility to their humanity. There is frustration at the lack of consistency and depth in institutions; decline and corruption within HBCUs, traditional civic organizations, and religious leadership. There is a simmering class hatred and material envy fueled by the conspicuous consumption of those who have hustled their way to riches and flaunt them in the hood, and those who, having secured the bag, resent the rest. There is a deep moral insecurity and confusion about the legacy of a Civil Rights movement and affirmative action, which gave some a foot in the door but often not the means to secure and reproduce security for their children. There are deep and traumatic histories of violence that have never been addressed as issues of not only individual, but communal mental health.
In this context, a theory of Afropessimism still holds an understandable appeal to those of us who for whatever reason hold positions of greater social security and standing. Who feel ambivalent and insecure about the balance of power in our lives between Black and non-Black friends — and who can thus find in Wilderson a language that speaks to our survivor’s guilt. It feels good to suture your identity back to the collective, to pronounce that you share in equal measure the plight of all Black people throughout history. But that doesn’t make it so. This doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the impulse; nor should the pain of an alienated bourgeois intelligentsia be dismissed. Indeed, if history is any guide, it is always out of this very class that important revolutionists from Robespierre, to Trotsky, to Che, to Wilderson himself, have always emerged. If Afropessimism does end up provoking factions within the Black post-graduate body to radicalize and take up political projects that advance the interests of Black folk generally, then I will stand corrected and simply be shown to have been shortsighted and mistaken in my analysis. This would be a most welcome outcome.
Nonetheless, the fact that the main current of Afropessimist thinking runs counter to all of Black political history and tradition thus far; the fact that the foundational thinker for this perspective, Frantz Fanon, came to completely opposing conclusions with respect to the nature of politics and solidarity in struggle; the fact that the theory often appears to evade scrutiny or contestation by proclaiming itself “meta-theoretical” and “ontological”; the fact that it asserts a “mandate” for which no empirical evidence is provided and in the face of overwhelming evidence that it constitutes at best a minoritarian and class-specific position — all of this has to be reckoned with by those who want to take Afropessimism to heart.
Perhaps it’s worth reminding ourselves that when he was murdered, Fred Hampton was encouraging poor whites to analogize their position to that of poor Blacks. At the time of his assassination, Malcolm X was embracing and actively seeking to incorporate a cross-racial coalition into his new organization. Ella Baker actively encouraged the deepening of organizational ties and activist links across different communities by emphasizing common struggle and common oppression. What evidence do we have, on the other hand, that the power behind the status quo is quaking at the thought of Black folk gathering in isolation to mourn the end of the world?
If the challenge is more narrowly intellectual and what is needed are correctives to white Marxist hubris, Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism (1983) already exists. Black feminist thought offers its own counternarratives. Of course, Wilderson doesn’t have to agree with Robinson or the Combahee River Collective. But isn’t it a problem that they aren’t cited even once in his books? Are we to jettison our entire tradition? Were all those who came before us so hopelessly naïve? Are we going to cast aside Vincent Harding’s There Is a River and read nothing but Fanon, Lacan, and Heidegger? Is Bantu philosophy overdetermined by social death even if its worldview was constructed in the absence of the white gaze? Afropessimism has yet to tackle these questions, to take its opponent’s counterarguments and positions seriously.
David Marriott, who is cited by Wilderson as a fellow Afropessimist, asks in his own work: whither Fanon? I wonder this, too. Wilderson says he is the figure he modeled himself on as a young man. Clearly Fanon is central to all of his thinking; indeed, all Afropessimist theorists consider Black Skin, White Masks (1952) a cornerstone text. It is an extraordinary philosophical work, and they are right that it is too often underappreciated. But it is also an extremely complicated intellectual experiment. The third sentence of that book is: “I’m not the bearer of absolute truths.” Fanon proposes to work through the problem of the abjection of Blackness, and that process extends beyond the book into the engaged existentialist revolt and the analysis of colonial relations that he explicitly argues involves the colonized subject, regardless of their race, in The Wretched of the Earth (1961). But even if one were to read only Black Skin, White Masks, it is impossible to miss the humanist assumptions that it opens onto in its conclusion. What else can one make of Fanon stating that “I am not a slave to slavery that dehumanized my ancestors,” and that “the density of History determines none of my acts. I am my own foundation”? How can one miss the assumption of a shareable humanity when he insists that “at the end of this book we would like the reader to feel with us the open dimension of every consciousness.” How can Fanon’s trajectory into the Algerian War of Independence be reconciled with the null trajectories that Afropessimism proposes?
If Afropessimism pushes us to pose harder and sharper questions as Fanon prayed his Black body always would, if it serves to break the shallow cant of the media class and its operatives — then certainly it will have done some good. But on the terms of its own presiding genius it needs to be understood as a waystation and not a terminus on the road to disalienation that Fanon argued is the only path to freedom for Black people in the modern world. That path, which he described in terms of building a “new man,” required him to first understand the depth of abjection that Blackness had been cast into, and then to undo that abjection by mobilizing its ejection from the political order of the West in a grand historical struggle to reconstruct that civilization from the side of the oppressed, an embrace that clearly involves a radical solidarity with non-Black people. This was the mission Fanon was on when he died, and it was a mission he believed Black peoples would have a special, indeed, foundational role in ultimately seeing through.
Realizing these goals does not mean adhering to a formulaic principle or that Black people need to think, act, or speak as a monolith. Fanon and Wilderson are both fond of citing Aimé Césaire’s phrase about “the end of the world” from his poem Notebook of a Return to the Native Land:
One must begin somewhere.
The only thing in the world worth beginning:
The End of the world of course.
These lines do not appear at the end of the poem, however, but roughly halfway through it. The interjection, “of course,” stands in here for the French word “parbleu,” which, even in the late 1930s when Césaire was composing his poem in Paris, carried a folksy and bathetic ring that is only dimly captured in the English but is easier to hear if you imagine these lines as having strayed from a play by Samuel Beckett. Wilderson intones this phrase repeatedly in his book, wielding it like a totemic hammer portending world-destroying events that, in light of the commitments of his own theory, seem to suggest, and possibly wish for, a zero-sum war between the races. But Césaire’s usage is far more ambivalent and ironic, the cry of a man whose revolutionary action must first and foremost be directed inwardly toward a poetic reconstruction of the self, a liberation that requires a self-determined and self-realizing pursuit of truth.
Fanon admired and respected no other intellectual more than Césaire. We know from his letters to his French publisher François Maspero that he imagined his writings as adressed, in no small part, to and for him. The idiosyncratic prose style of Black Skin, White Masks is Fanon’s way of signifying upon a correspondence with Césaire’s poetics. Both writers are acutely aware that the Black thinker is poised precariously between the poles of reflection and action. But both are committed to a humanistic pursuit of truth and both believe in the promise of a radiant Blackness whose time is not yet come. This is why, even as the Algerian War raged around him, Fanon continued his psychiatric research, convinced that understanding the traumas of war and torture would be necessary for healing the postrevolutionary body politic. He wrote for the present and for the future in pursuit of an understanding of himself and of human nature, and for the cause of a political independence and freedom that he hoped would set the entire African continent on a new course. Had he lived, he would have persevered until every colonialist regime from Algiers to Cape Town (the title he had in mind for his last book was Alger-Le Cap) had been driven off the continent. Fanon was no pessimist: true revolutionaries never are.
But must we revolve around Fanon in the first place? Today many activists are more inspired by Fannie Lou Hamer. The US context has its own problems that Fanon only barely understood and addressed. Why not return instead, in this hour of national contestation, to a figure like David Walker and his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World; But in Particular and Very Expressly to those of the United States of America from 1829? We still underappreciate the importance of this text, one of the seminal documents that captures the first great Black intellectual debate in the United States, which was an argument over whether or not we ought to stay in the country at all. Walker believed we should, and he was the first to define and defend the monumental implications of that choice. He attacked the mighty lobby of the American Colonization Society, which included the powerful senator Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, and many leading Black intellectuals of the day, who were convinced full equality for Blacks in America was neither possible nor desirable and advocated emigration. Their plans revolved around evacuating the Black population to the Pepper Coast, now the country of Liberia, which emerged from colonial schemes like “Mississippi-in-Africa” that the American Colonization Society founded in the 1830s.
We could have abandoned the country. History could have taken a very different course. American slaves could have returned to Africa and the United States could have become a white ethno-state, a second Europe. The 1820s and ’30s were the last possible moment of undoing or preventing the existence of a Black America. But Black American intellectuals made the choice to stay — to hold this ground and make something new here that the world had never seen. As the political scientist Melvin Rogers points out, Walker’s Appeal not only staked this argument in terms of a principled Black nationalist claim based on the enormous sacrifice of “blood and tears” in slavery; the rhetorical address of the text was also intended to awaken Black Americans to their own potential as a nationally self-consciously political community with a global outlook. “[F]or [Walker],” Rogers writes, “African Americans did not need a prophet to whom they should blindly defer. Rather they needed a community willing to confront practices of domination, capable of responding to their grievances, and susceptible to transcending America’s narrow ethical and political horizon.”
Wilderson’s Afropessimism insists that we are still slaves. Walker insisted in 1829 that the slaves are (and were even then) “colored citizens” of the United States and of the world. That if we are oppressed it is only because we are ignorant of our true strength, because we have been taught to disbelieve and disavow our worth to the world, to the nation, and to each other. Which of these two views is the correct one? I think the historical record and the present state of our politics tells us all we need to know on that score. For it is no coincidence that today it is Black Americans who are once again trying to save the country, to invest in finishing the work of making this place a home that we can live in. In what is a long-standing pattern, the “coloured citizens” of this country are at the forefront of practicing civics. Indeed, what could be more republican than risking one’s health to restore the health of the body politic? To ensure that one of the most basic promises of the state is properly fulfilled: that it apply its law enforcement equally, humanely, and in a manner accountable to the people it serves.
As in past struggles, our principled defense of an ethical civil code has attracted others with its moral force. We have seen a massive response, including from sources traditionally opposed to these concerns, who recognize the profoundly dysfunctional culture of US policing, prisons, and courts. Even many of those who do not agree that these are the result of actively racist policies and attitudes no longer deny that our exceptionally poor record cannot plausibly be unrelated to a long history of antiblack violence and antagonism. For this same reason, likeminded people around the world are hoping for a decisive break with the past‚ taking to the streets across the globe to demand that state actors acknowledge that there really is a history of injury that needs to stop being denied, and that we can and should work together to design a new social contract that will restore the perceived legitimacy of law enforcement and criminal justice in the eyes of all citizens and not just some.
The generation undertaking these endeavors does not seem to require a narrative of optimism in order to take the great risks they have incurred. They have a healthy indifference to both optimism and pessimism alike. Perhaps it results from the demands of carrying out politics in the real world. The incredibly difficult task of organizing and strategizing in order to elevate and amplify the best responses and to rein in and temper the counterproductive ones that delay and diminish a good cause. That’s hard to do in the best of cases: in a turbulent, paranoid, and instantly videotaped public sphere, it’s a Sisyphean task that bad-faith commentators take advantage of.
None of this diminishes the fundamental need for greater self-capacity of the kind Walker called for 200 years ago. Much of the work ahead will necessarily involve a growing capacity for self-reflection, self-criticism, irony, and joy in our politics. It will require acknowledging that struggles against white oppression will never be successful without deepened self-healing in our communities: repairing the relations in families, between men and women; ending the violence directed at trans, queer, and otherwise non-conforming people in our neighborhoods; ending the heinous blood feuds between rival gangs and sets; restoring education and communal trust as our highest priorities and most cherished aspirations. These will always remain preconditional to the realization of freedom and autonomy. It is pursuing these aims as an ongoing collective activity that will make unavoidable the realization as Walker said, that this country is “more ours” than anyone else’s — that we are a historic people with a world-historical destiny that understands our suffering as endowing us with both the right and the responsibility of civilizing the United States in such a way that it reflects the values that our historical experiences bring to it, the freedoms, equalities, and cultural pluralisms that we have made vital and central to its identity.
One doesn’t need to hang on desperately to a mirage of hope. If we look to history, we can see more than enough concrete evidence and example to support the conclusion that a racially defined caste system is unlikely to ever again prevail. Of course, that doesn’t mean history is a smoothly upward-trending curve. We have known terrible setbacks. Yes, the violent defeat of Reconstruction was successful. But the building of Black institutions and the Niagara Movement proceeded anyway. Tulsa was burned to the ground. But its Black citizens turned right around and rebuilt it out of the ashes. The Civil Rights movement was checked by the forces of reaction and the assassin’s bullet; but the world of unquestioned white superiority and authority that George Wallace hoped to preserve is reduced now to a twinkle in David Duke’s blue eye. Yes, creepy white supremacists still crawl out from under mossy stones at opportune moments to wail about their Nordic fantasies in their over-sized khaki pants. Yes, like the militants of the Islamic State, they are capable of carrying out horrific acts of terror and violence. But like that barbaric and fanatical sect, white supremacy is permanently confined to such rear-guard actions because it has already lost — it is trying to reverse a clock going forward — which explains the virulence and incoherence of its outbursts of spastic violence.
We are not at the end, but near the beginning of something new. The pandemic and the multiple underlying crises and fractures it has revealed make vivid that one need not wait so very long for “the end of the world.” The problem, as generations of millenarians have discovered, is that it turns out there’s a morning after the end of the world. And one after that too. The hardest truth is that all the uncertainties that govern the question of what can be done, what will be done, and the difference between the two, remain in our hands. What would Frantz Fanon, or David Walker, or Ella Baker tell us if they saw the streets today? Surely, not that we are at an impasse against an implacable enemy. They would insist that we lift each other and rise together with the spirit of history at our backs. We have done it before. Every time we do it’s a new day.
Jesse McCarthy is an assistant professor in the departments of English and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. His first book, Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul?, a collection of essays, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton & Co. in spring 2021.
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