The Greeting Card as Poem: Frank Wilderson and the Refiguring of a Genre

By Marjorie PerloffMarch 30, 2023

The Greeting Card as Poem: Frank Wilderson and the Refiguring of a Genre
THE BEST NEW POEM I’ve read this past year is not, strictly speaking, a poem at all, but a New Year’s card sent by Frank B. Wilderson III, the author of Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid (2008) and Afropessimism (2020). I have never met Frank, but we share an editor, who put us in touch last year with one of those emails that say, “You two should get to know each other.” I live in Los Angeles, and Frank in Irvine, where he is Chancellor’s Professor of African American studies at UC Irvine. Because of the pandemic and various illnesses, it has been impossible to meet, but Frank suggested that we Zoom, and this past November, I spent a delightful hour online with him and his wife, the poet Anita Wilkins.

I read Afropessimism when it was published with great fascination. Part theory, part autobiography, part polemic, its powerful argument, derived in part from Frantz Fanon and Orlando Patterson, is that Blacks always hold, in the eyes of whites, the position of slaves—that is to say, not merely exploited people but beings essentially robbed of their personhood: “Blacks are the sentient beings against which Humanity is defined.” One of the foundational stories Frank tells in Afropessimism is that of a Palestinian friend, Sameer, who describes the horror of being frisked by Israeli soldiers, only to add, “But the shame and humiliation runs even deeper if the Israeli soldier is an Ethiopian Jew.” Whether consciously or not, Sameer, Frank realizes, is positioning himself and his fellow Palestinians as whites vis-à-vis the identity unconsciously felt to be the lowest, the one distinct from all others—the Black.

It follows from this, then, that such designations as BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color) are always problematic, there being no necessary solidarity between Blacks, who remain the despised Other, and the various communities of color to which they are regularly linked. BIPOC is a convenient myth that allows, say, universities to be satisfied with their “diversity,” even though Blacks may constitute no more than four percent of the student body, as is the case at UCLA and UC Berkeley. Indeed, the utopian “solidarity” ideal raises the expectation that Blacks will behave like “good,” hard-working immigrants from around the world, when in fact they have been present on this land for more than four centuries.

If this sounds hopelessly negative, Frank reminds us of Antonio Gramsci’s dictum that the “pessimism of the intellect” must be countered by “the optimism of the will.” To face the truth of one’s situation is the first and necessary condition for working to change it. And the change must be wholesale, not just cosmetic.

Here Wilderson’s own story comes in. The son of two highly educated Black psychotherapists, (his father was a professor at the University of Minnesota), young Frank grew up in an all-white suburb of Minneapolis (Fritz Mondale was a neighbor), where he found himself being asked by his friends’ mothers such questions as “How does it feel to be a Negro?”

Both Incognegro and Afropessimism tell the story of Frank’s full-scale teenage rebellion against the progressive and ameliorist values of his parents. From eighth grade, when he led a civil disobedience campaign against the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at his parochial school, to the 1990s, when he spent five years in South Africa serving as an underground guerrilla for the African National Congress (ANC), Frank has fought for revolution. In South Africa, he came to feel that Nelson Mandela’s tactics were too moderate to effect the systemic change necessary to mark the end of apartheid, so he turned to the communist wing of the ANC for support instead.

That effort, sadly, was aborted by the assassination of ANC leader Chris Hani and by Mandela’s own denunciation of Frank, as well as by his divorce from his Black South African wife Khanya. Back home, Frank enrolled in the PhD Program in theory and film at UC Berkeley and taught as an adjunct at various colleges, including Cabrillo Community College near Santa Cruz, California, where he fell in love with a white poet-professor he had first met in Johannesburg in 1992. He and his wife Anita Wilkins, 22 years his senior, have now been together for 25 years. Over the past two decades, the adventures of Frank’s youth have become the material for critical thinking in his books and articles, especially his adoption and refinement of the concept of Afropessimism.

But Frank’s official curriculum vitae, dutifully recited by those who introduce him at lectures and conferences, tells only part of the story; his has been a life of startling contradictions and tensions. For starters, this Black radical is a graduate of Dartmouth, perhaps the most snobbish—and WASPy—of the Ivy League colleges. For eight years after graduating in 1978, he worked as a stockbroker in Minneapolis. He then moved to New York and earned an MFA in creative writing at Columbia. Indeed, Frank considers himself first and foremost a writer, and it is, to my mind, autobiographical narrative rather than theory that makes Incognegro and Afropessimism so special. As a storyteller, Frank is notable for his startling candor, his willingness to engage in self-criticism and to laugh at himself. A picaresque hero of sorts, Frank pulls no punches, arousing the reader’s sympathy even as one also sympathizes with Frank’s parents, who have tried so hard to raise him to become a Good Citizen.

It is against this challenging background that the recent New Year’s card sent by Anita and Frank takes on such piquancy. For here, the choice of images and captions—juxtaposed as in a collage poem—creates a challenging and poignant story of love, pain, humor, and survival in the recent pandemic years. Understatement, irony, mystery, and frequent non sequitur combine with a chosen musical score to produce a tense and ambiguous verbivocovisual surface—one that calls for careful reading on our part.

Greeting cards provide a fixed form that functions as a frame or container for individual words. Moreover, the card is merely chosen, not self-designed, which provides a critical distance as well as a set of fixed limits. This particular e-card is a fairly simple commercial slideshow made by Smilebox. To customize one, you choose from a set of greetings for the occasion (in this case, the New Year), upload your background music of choice, and then tip in a set of photographs with short captions. There were, in fact, three cards included in Frank’s email to “Dear Friends”—2020, 2021, and 2023—with the explanation that 2022 is missing because they “didn’t get it together” to send out a card that year. All three cards use the same “gold cursive” cover page, reading “happy new year” in some variation against a plain white and gold background, with “Anita Delores Wilkins & Frank B. Wilderson III” printed in burgundy or gray-green below the greeting. The Smilebox model does not allow much room for captions, and the slides are timed to proceed pretty quickly, although one can, of course, pause one’s cursor and read more slowly. Each card (A has 11 pictures; B has 19; C, 21) plays in about three minutes. There are no overt rules for the photographs included, but a Happy New Year card is not likely to convey a predominantly sad message or include one’s own childhood pictures or, for that matter, photos from 20 years ago. Holiday cards typically document recent events: a wedding, a new baby, trips to exotic places, honors received. Snapshots of one’s children and pets are the number one feature. Then, too, there should be some relationship between message and music: at the most basic level, for the New Year, we hear “Auld Lang Syne” or, if the sender is more religious, “Joy to the World.” E-cards by Jacquie Lawson, a very popular design brand, may feature reindeer or rabbits in a sylvan landscape or a piper playing “Auld Lang Syne.”

Frank’s own cards are immediately distinguished by their defiance of these rules. No children or pets are depicted or even mentioned. The music is neither seasonal nor in any way “cultural”: it is Norman (“Norm”) Geller’s piano and orchestral arrangement of “Theme from Picnic”—a 1955 Hollywood film, based on the 1953 William Inge play, which tells the story of a young drifter (William Holden) who comes to a small Kansas town and shakes up the lives of its citizens; in the end, he runs off with the town’s prettiest girl (Kim Novak). Everyone in the film is white. The jazz piano arrangement is highly melodic and warm but with a bittersweet edge: one might hear it in a cocktail lounge or at a dance.

And so, the first surprise of Frank’s New Year’s card is that its music is so unexpected in the context of the argument of Afropessimism and the macabre, sometimes tragic stories told in Incognegro. Indeed, the full-bodied musical theme—accompanying the erotic dance of Holden and Novak at the titular picnic—conveys a strange nostalgia for an era of “Good Feeling”: I can remember dancing to songs like it in my college days in the 1950s.

The images seem, at first glance, to have little to do with their musical accompaniment. The first three in the 2020 card are not at all unusual: Frank and Anita, both dressed for the occasion, at the opening reception of the Broad Museum exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983, followed by a snapshot with Frank’s younger brother Wayne, a Hollywood actor, and Wayne’s friend. This event was a landmark showcase that would be of obvious interest to Frank; in fact, he gave a lecture as part of the program.

The transition to the next set of pictures is abrupt: “Nurse Alma and Katherine the Chemist, with Anita & Frank at Sanoviv Medical Institute,” and then Anita on their hotel balcony at Rosarito Beach, Mexico. The occasion, the caption tells us, was Frank’s stay at the Sanoviv Institute, where he was treated for prostate cancer with “immune system building alternatives to radiation and pharmaceuticals.” We don’t yet know the outcome of the treatment, but the next slide records an even worse blow: we see Frank with a dignified white-haired gentleman, both seated in armchairs and dressed in dark suits and white shirts, with a caption reading “Frank Jr. & Frank III at a gathering of family and friends, following Dr. Ida-Lorraine Wilderson’s funeral.”

We know from the final scene of Afropessimism how heartbreaking the death of his mother, Ida-Lorraine, was for Frank, how he and she had come together after 40 years of “cold war.” Take the moment toward the end of the book when Frank and Anita are dining with his parents in Newport Beach, the mood somewhat strained between the senior Wildersons and Frank’s white wife:

The main plates were cleared and we ordered coffee and dessert. We were down to brass tacks, my mother and I.

She said, “What’s the use of Afropessimism? What practical use does it have?”

I said, “It’s not a tractor, it can’t mow your lawn, if that’s what you mean. But it makes us worthy of our suffering.”

She said, “How’s suffering going to make me a good citizen?”

I said, “I can’t believe you’re a Black psychologist who’s read Fanon.”

She said, “I read the funnies, but I don’t quote the funnies.”

I said, “Don’t patronize me.”

Dad tried to change the subject by noting how lush and green the headland looked.

All of us have experienced moments like this with our well-meaning but uncomprehending parents. But in the card, the flat caption is merely factual, the “cold wars” having become the unstated occasion for the unsayable—the pain in Frank’s eyes, which stare into space, and the contrast in body language with his father, who seems quite poised and in control of the social situation. It’s a deeply moving moment, even as the next image is of the book jacket of Afropessimism, captioned:

There was more to 2019 than prostate cancer and the death of Frank’s mother. Anita turned 85 and continued writing poetry, attending book clubs, going to yoga four days a week and pumping iron at the senior center gym three days a week. Frank finished his new book, which will be on sale in April. You can preorder it on Amazon.

The precision of these numbers and dates reminds me of the poetry of Susan Howe, especially her 2003 book The Midnight, which sets up precise references to time and place as scaffolding for enticingly indeterminate events and relationships. We think we know what happened, but the signals are intentionally conflicting so that we have what John Ashbery once called, with reference to Gertrude Stein, “an open field of narrative possibilities.” And I am reminded of Wittgenstein’s great admonition, in Zettel (1967), “Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not [written] in the language-game of giving information.” Thus, what matters is not whether Anita goes to yoga three times a week or four—Frank’s is not a survey of exercise habits—but rather that routine continues despite family deaths or the diagnosis of prostate cancer, and that there are also things to look forward to, such as the publication of Afropessimism. And so, we have pictures of Anita on the “Top of the World” hill above Laguna Beach and Frank down below on Little Corona Beach, both smiling. Normality has returned.

But then, quite irrelevantly, the card introduces a class picture of school children with the caption, “How’d a 7th grade homeroom photo get in here? Betcha can’t find Frank. (Jefferson Jr. High, January 1969. Mpls., MN.)” Again, numbers and place names. More to the point, we do find Frank immediately because only one of the 28 children shown is Black—a boy in the third row. Here, in a nutshell, is the situation that gives rise to Frank’s future activism and the themes of Afropessimism. Going to school in a wealthy white suburb, the only Black child in his seventh-grade class—the daily pain and humiliation must have been enormous. But Frank doesn’t spell it out: the picture, in this case, is worth a thousand words, especially when he juxtaposes it with a snapshot of Anita, shown in 1936 on her second birthday in “Alzada, Montana 1936. Population: 29.” Why does Anita get “the last word” here? Because she did not have Frank’s childhood problems? Because she helped him surmount them? Because her own childhood in rural Montana produced such different difficulties and pleasures? The poem-card ends on an interrogative note, the irony being that the Anita who gets the last word never speaks for herself in this card; it is always Frank who speaks for her.

In Card B, the plot thickens. The news from 2020 is hardly cheerful: the first picture, which shows a masked Anita, reads “To be honest, people, 2020 was not a good year.” The reader nods and thinks immediately of COVID-19, but it is not clear whether Frank or Anita actually came down with it and, if so, how bad a case it was. We only learn that the couple “travelled … nowhere,” and so “we reminisced about journeys we took together in the past.” And now we are treated to some intriguing surprises. First, Anita in 1998 (the precise year again!), smiling and lovely with long hair, is shown holding a camera at Blue Mountain Artist Colony in the Adirondacks, which the couple attended that year. “Anita wrote poetry. Frank […] worked on fiction and memoir.” It seems a happy memory, as does the next: “Guatemala. Summer of 1999,” which shows Anita in jeans and flip-flops and Frank all in black, sitting on a park bench, the caption reading “We studied Spanish and engaged in political dialogue with activists who’d survived the last junta.”

This registers as slightly tongue-in-cheek for those who have read about Frank’s radical activities in South Africa just a few years earlier, especially since the park looks quite peaceful, with a group of schoolgirls in uniform at center-left and an elegant white building (a museum?) in the rear. In the next slide, of Genoa, Italy, in 2001, we are told that Frank and Anita “studied Italian and ran with comrades from Autonomia.” The photo shows a huge explosion and unidentifiable people in helmets below. The caption continues, “On this day, during the anti-G8 demonstration, ‘ran’ is meant literally.” The reference is to the 2001 G8 summit, in which nearly 250,000 people protested globalization, sparking violent scuffles with the police.

What were Frank and Anita doing in Guatemala and Italy? From Incognegro, we know that Frank was at this point a graduate student at Berkeley and evidently needed to satisfy his language requirement. The turmoil of the South African years was behind him, but it would persist always in the background of his thinking, although the memories are now relived with equanimity and even humor—a happy contrast to pandemic lockdown days. And the next two images create a further contrast: here are Frank and Anita, elegantly dressed, on shipboard, with a caption reading “Summer 2007. A ten-day cruise from SF to Alaska, in search of sunsets and glaciers,” followed by a scene in the ship’s dining room, captioned “Not to mention all the lobster you can eat in one sitting.”

How are we to take these pictures? What do the dates mean? Have the young radicals of the 1990s changed? Or is it just a matter of growing up, getting older? For the moment, these pictures of affluent travel remain a mystery, as do, in a slightly different way, the following seven pictures, taken during the 2013–14 year when Frank was a Humboldt Fellow in Berlin. We begin with a standard image of the Brandenburg Gate, followed by a reception held by German president Joachim Gauck, in a big public plaza, for the 200 fellows. Frank and Anita are in evening dress while Gauck himself is just wearing a dark suit and some of the others are dressed even more casually. A smiling Frank in tuxedo looks very happy as he chats with the president and other dignitaries.

Contrast these reception pictures with the following one, which depicts Frank and Anita sitting in a lecture hall, with the caption, “And we listened to intellectuals who’d come from all over the world to present the findings of their research.” This sounds innocuous enough, but readers of Afropessimism will recall the comparable scene where Frank gets into a huge argument with his foreign colleagues over the issue of possible solidarity between the various underrepresented groups at the conference—a solidarity he rejects as specious. And the image here is revealing: Anita listens quietly, but Frank, surrounded as he is by white and Asian academics, has an expression of barely concealed hostility, as if to say, as he does in the book, “I don’t give a rat’s ass about solidarity.” The body language is striking, and we recall, from the previous slide, that Frank began to write Afropessimism during his Berlin year.

Context is the key to these slides. If I hadn’t read Afropessimism, the picture above would be merely documentary: here we are attending a conference in Berlin. But if you know the book, the picture immediately resonates—a duality that is, I think, one of Frank’s themes in this tense and terse card game. In the next picture, Frank and Anita are dining in the Berliner Fernsehturm, the tall television tower with fabled view above the Alexanderplatz in the former East Berlin. A final memory of the couple’s year in Germany, the place is remembered with evident fondness, however problematic some of the rencontres may have been.

Further tourist travel is recalled—“Christmas 2015. For Anita’s 80th birthday we went to the Bahamas and then toured the Everglades”—and finally, social life and professional activity come together in August 2017: “A day on the Thames [we see the London Eye Ferris wheel across from Westminster Abbey] after Frank spoke at the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Arts] and led workshops on Afropessimism at the Tate Modern Museum with Dr. Selamawit D. Terrefe.” Terrefe is a young professor at Tulane whose work on the legacies of slavery is closely associated with Frank’s. So, the card is now recalling professional success coupled with the happy travel that is often the perk accompanying it.

Again, Anita gets a last word: the next slide brings us back to 2020, the year of lockdown, showing a smiling Anita in an elegant purple top and black trousers. Her eyes are sharp and sparkling, her white hair neatly coiffed. The caption reads, “But lockdown had its upside. Anita rediscovered 170 poems that she’d written but had not published in journals or in her five books. She spent 2020 revising them with new eyes.” Meanwhile, Frank is promoted to Chancellor’s Professor of African American Studies and his book long-listed for the National Book Award. The final slide shows the wistfully smiling couple with the caption, “2020 was the year we survived, thankfully, with grace.”

“Grace to be born and live as variously as possible,” as another Frank, Frank O’Hara, put it. That grace and good humor come to the fore in Card C. A card for the year 2022 has been elided; in his covering email, Frank says, “We didn’t get it together” to write, and we soon learn why. According to the 2023 card, the only visitors (“new friends and old relations”) who come to visit in 2022 are “Auntie Pneumonia, Cam and Karen COVID, Sara Shingles, and Old Uncle Prostate Cancer.” We don’t know whether it was Frank or Anita who had the COVID, the pneumonia, or the shingles. Did the COVID cause the pneumonia? Did Frank have it on top of the recurrence of the prostate cancer? The news is devastating, but in selecting and organizing the images, Frank takes the high road. Why grouse about the horrors of pandemic plus lockdown when one can use the occasion to experience something beautiful and inspiring? In the slides that follow, “[n]ecessity being the mother of invention, we rediscovered the world where we live.”

What follows is an ode to the natural world. There are marvelous images of “[w]ild succulents and wind bent trees by the ocean”; the “cormorants rock at Laguna Beach”; Crystal Cove State Park, which “[w]e made […] our weekend retreat”; and a visit to a restaurant along the coast called “Mozambique,” which reminds Frank of meeting Anita in Johannesburg during “Apartheid’s turbulent times” 30 years ago. “Anita,” Frank recalls, “was on sabbatical. Frank was a cadre in the ANC.”

In the slideshow of Card C, we focus on no human beings other than Frank and Anita: most of the images depict rocky cliffs and ocean, sky and birds. Nature rules. And what glorious nature! It is never said directly, but consider the contrast between the stunning geography of the Pacific Coast and the Minnesota where Frank grew up, or, again, the South Africa where he lived in poverty and turmoil for five years. Crystal Cove State Park is minutes away. Illness notwithstanding, the splendor of sky, sand, rock, and ocean are there.

The sequence culminates in three surprising images. In the first, Frank asks Anita “to walk hand in hand up to Top of the World, and renew our marriage vows at 1,000 feet above sea level.” In the second, an image of the sea at sunset, with a small sailboat in the distance, “Anita was too moved for words. So, she gave him a sign from her tender heart.” And in the third, Anita, ahead on the path, turns to look back at Frank, the caption reading “How romantic.”

An open field of narrative possibilities indeed. The captions seem at first too sentimental, too sweet to be real. But look again: in the third picture, a smiling Anita playfully gives Frank the finger. How romantic is that? The two share Anita’s little joke and can smile wryly at Frank’s posturing in the second slide. It’s one of those rare moments of understanding and love.

The language and imagery are at once concrete and indeterminate. We never know the whole story behind these pictures, but something special seems to have happened. And the intense moment of love is now juxtaposed with a turn to action: a second course of immunotherapy, this time at the City of Hope hospital, followed by a ride in the “Grateful Patients Balloon.” A smiling Frank is wearing his Dartmouth T-shirt, an emblem of continuity with his past, with the palm trees and orange balloon, bearing the letters HOPE, at his back.

Only after this episode can a “normal” life begin again. Frank returns to teaching and working on his new novel, he organizes humanities department programs—for example, on the autobiography of the Black Liberation Army’s Assata Shakur, a mysterious woman long exiled in Cuba—and he sympathizes with teaching assistants on strike at UC Irvine in the final months of 2022. Meanwhile, Anita is said to be revising her poems and working with her private trainer to get “stronger.” And on that note, followed by an image of the cormorants and their shadows on the beach and a final portrait of the couple, the story ends. The cormorant card is left unfinished, completed only in the caption for the final portrait of the couple. And that unfinished quality haunts the whole card set, which is as mysterious as it is evocative.

There is no moral here: all we can do is surmise that, between 2021 and 2023, long months of pain and isolation were overcome by courage and good humor. The pandemic is only one figure in the carpet. The elegiac note throughout also reminds us of the mere passage of time, a time that leaves nothing unchanged.

How, I found myself wondering, does the powerful assertion of love made by the images themselves and the comic-elegiac mood of the captions square with the angry and bitter fervor of the Frank Wilderson we know from his books, his lectures, his interviews? How does the uniqueness of Black suffering—a suffering that, according to Afropessimism, cannot be squared with human suffering in general—relate to Frank’s particular situation in 2022–23, the time between New Year’s cards? And how has the Frank of the wild days of Incognegro changed?

“We make,” said Yeats, “out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” The latter quarrel is unique to each person, which is why every authentic poet has an identifiable voice. Rhetoric, on the other hand, is a public art, a public discourse. Rhetoric can move us to action, but it cannot convey the complexities and contradictions of pain and pleasure as they are experienced by the narrator. Rather, the “city of hope,” as embodied in the orange balloon and Anita’s hand signal, is to be entered by means of art—in this case, given the major role that music plays, in the verbivocovisual art of the bittersweet card game.

On the closing page of Afropessimism, Frank writes:

On the way to the airport for my flight back home [after Ida-Lorraine’s funeral] I don’t know why, but I bought a blank card. It lay open on my tray table for the entire flight. I didn’t know what to write. Who buys a greeting card for the dead? The Newport Beach coast, where we had dined al fresco, was coming into view. I looked down at the card. It was wet with tears. Now the flight attendant told me, again, to stow my tray table. As the plane surrendered to the pull of the earth, I wrote what time allowed.

His message:

Dear Mom,

I don’t know if you’re in heaven with your Jesus, or sailing the cosmos with Shango, or if your soul has gone to rest in the consummate hands of gifted musicians. But wherever you are please wait for me, that we might spend eternity as we spent the last ten years. I miss you so much.

Who buys greeting cards for the dead? Who writes elegies in the third person for their former selves? From 2020 to 2023, greeting card morphs into valentine, morphs into elegy, with bits of comedic epigram tossed into the mix.

Happy New Year!


Marjorie Perloff is the author of many books on modern and contemporary poetry and poetics. She is professor emerita of English at Stanford University.


Featured image: Walter Quirt. Happiness in Fast Tempo, 1940. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Walter Quirt Family. Image courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Accessed February 3, 2023.

LARB Contributor

Marjorie Perloff is the author of many books on modern and contemporary poetry and poetics, including The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage, The Futurist Moment, Wittgenstein's Ladder, and Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century. Her memoir The Vienna Paradox was published in 2004. She is professor emerita of English at Stanford University.



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