It is difficult to imagine a new world that holds anything as promising as the smiles of Jacob Blake and his children. The summer is hot and long. I hear a story of a young woman in Portland who joins others on the streets late at night. She keeps going back even though what she sees makes her suffer. The gas and abductions are constant. Throughout the country, protesters vow to block major roads until federal agents leave. The arrests drain and renew them. The violence against them regenerates without curing. Every solution that has been peddled is palliative.
Beyond comparisons to 1918 and 1968, this year has some of the nauseating qualities of 1962 and 1983, when the US was pushed to the nuclear brink. This malaise is felt in the intervals between blaring sirens.
In 2015, the publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me renewed interest in an idea that had mostly eluded public discussion: Afropessimism. Before the early 2000s, the word usually referred to the stigmatization of the African continent that followed a set of disastrous, Eurocentric economic development efforts in the 1970s and ’80s. People like Greg Thomas and Kevin Ochieng Okoth have argued that this version of Afropessimism—the notion of sub-Saharan Africa as the “lost continent”—is a creation of the racist West that overshadowed hopeful political projects led by Africans themselves.
A 2003 conversation between two African-American academics, Saidiya Hartman and Frank Wilderson III, is generally cited as the start of a second wave of Afropessimist thought. Wilderson, a professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine, tends to be singled out as the most controversial element of a cohort that includes academics like Jared Sexton, David S. Marriott, and Fred Moten.
If you wanted to divide a room of Black activists and intellectuals who consider themselves part of a Black liberation struggle, you can walk in and ask what they think about Afropesssimism.
“Action cannot resolve the fact of Black abasement.” “Action is all we have.” “We have not understood the full extent of Black suffering.” “We do not have the luxury to meditate on Black suffering without action.” “Afropessimism may or may not inform action on the streets.” “Afropessimism is a privilege Black middle-class academics have allowed themselves.” “Despite my personal affection for friends and lovers, all non-Black people unfortunately contribute to Black abjection.” “We must not alienate committed allies, especially if they are people of color.”
Frank Wilderson has been at the center of these arguments for nearly two decades. At a moment when theories of social revolution are being pushed into once-busy streets, Afropessimism seems poised either for broader acceptance or forceful rejection. My sense is that November 2020 will be a crossroads. I spoke with Wilderson earlier this month about his new book, Afropessimism, a memoir with bouts of theory. The book came out shortly before George Floyd’s murder.
A couple of things to note before reading the interview: There is strong racial language at certain points. One example is the term “niggerization,” a word that has circulated at least since the 1960s to describe various forms of Black psychological subjection.
Wilderson and I also make reference to a “Slave/Human paradigm.” This is at the heart of Afropessimism, the theory and the book. It uses historian Orlando Patterson’s idea of social death to make what is arguably Afropessimism‘s most controversial claim: Black subjection is so unlike horrific experiences any other group of people face that one must think of Blackness as inseparable from slavery (or “slaveness”). The Human is a communal being that defines itself against the Slave, the Black person, the non-human.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Aaron Robertson: I wanted to ask you about your ideal reader. In reading reviews of the book, what struck me is that many of the Black reviewers were most upset by, I’d say, the first three-quarters of the book, but then there’s this turn toward the end that struck me as almost confessional. I wondered whether your own Catholic background was coming up there. . .
There’s a passage where you say, “As I write, I am more aware of the rage and anger of my reader-ideal, an angry mob of readers, than I am of my own desires and strategies for assembling my argument.” Who comprises this angry mob?
Frank Wilderson III: That’s a very good question. You actually spoiled me because your review was so engaged, so understanding of the assumptive logic. I would say there’s a difference between the ideal reader and the reader-ideal. Normally when we’re talking about that, we’re talking about the ideal reader, which has to do with the author’s intentionality, who you’re writing to and for, which is a legitimate question.
One of the things I’m pilfering from David Marriott in that sentence is that it is impossible for the Black unconscious to have a Black ideal. What Marriott has shown, and what Frantz Fanon has shown, is that everyone’s unconscious aspires toward the light, toward whiteness. It’s just that what we mean by whiteness/Humanness can contract and expand over time but it can never incorporate Blackness.“There are a lot of Black people who write about absolute abjection, then can turn around and write about the possibilities of being.”
What the Black unconscious is constantly faced with is this phobic relation to its own imago. The unconscious is constantly garrisoning the psyche against the threat of Blackness, which is in the mirror, and trying to struggle toward a white ideal. The white ideal is something that happens in the unconscious. The ideal reader is a proclamation, a statement from the conscious mind.
It’s really impossible to celebrate the actions of the Black Liberation Army in New York with the same kind of abandonment and joy that you celebrate the actions of a soldier in Iraq. When the Black mouth starts to speak, there’s all sorts of hesitation, there’s all sorts of anxiety. The world will not accept the Black Liberation Army as legitimate. Even to write an article or this book, which celebrates the BLA, I’m really always thinking about what the white mob is going to think of me. I dare anyone Black to say to me, “I’m free of that. I don’t think like that.” Especially if they’re college-educated.
AR: You go even deeper, writing, “The Black psyche is in a perpetual war with itself because it is usurped by a white gaze that hates the Black imago and wants to destroy it.”
If that is the basis of any attempt to, as Saidiya Hartman writes in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, to imagine otherwise, if it ultimately starts at the attempt to destroy this Black image, how were you grappling with that while you were writing this book? Did you feel that writing it was a futile project?
FW: No, I don’t feel it’s futile. There are a lot of Black people who write about absolute abjection, then can turn around and write about the possibilities of being. I think that’s a contradiction, unless you make the following caveat: Labor toward the possibility of being operates at a scale of abstraction that is important, and the absence of the possibility of being labors at a scale of abstraction that is essential.
People harp on me about being fatalistic. I write poetry and I write fiction and I’ve written two memoirs. I’m completely emotionally seduced by narrative denouement. Most of my diet is stuff from the 1950s and what could be more sappy and melodramatic than that? On the other hand, I wouldn’t send my horses to war on that. It just says that I’m as complex as anyone else. I look at 1950s films, I don’t drink a lot of alcohol so I smoke a lot of reefer (it’s perfectly legal here in California)—I do shit to get me out of having to think about this all the time.
If someone says we can imagine other worlds within the dome of social death and the plantation, then I would say yes, of course! Let’s do that because that could be a way toward getting rid of social death. But getting rid of social death doesn’t mean on the other side having Black existence that is whole. On the other side, it means something more catastrophic and renewing, which is having no Black existence because there will be no Black people. And having no Human existence, because there will be no Humans. There will be sentient beings who are on the cusp of a new episteme.
You cannot imagine another world inside of the episteme in which you live. That’s where I differ from the Afrofuturists. They’re using linguistics and semiotics to say that we’re out of the realm of absolute abjection, and that’s just religious thinking. It moves from analysis to idealism without showing the move.
AR: I was reading Afropessimism side by side with Wayward Lives because they’re interesting companion projects. I’m not sure they always agree. Hartman is not making the claim that these Black women at the turn of the 20th century thought they could be otherwise necessarily (confined, as they often were, to stigmatized ghettoes). But in small acts of subversion, turning against Victorian morality… as futile as it was and as little as it would change the Slave/Human paradigm, there was still something attractive about it, something that got them through the day.
This is why I think Afropessimism is not as far as people would say it is from something like Black Liberation Theology. I think someone like Albert Cleage, someone like James Cone, even, I think they were pessimistic about this paradigm shifting. What sets them apart from an Afropessimist, maybe, are the ways in which they tried to sustain their day-to-day living. Do you think that’s right?
FW: On the head. I would have liked to have met James Cone and have a conversation with him. I think there are strains of Afropessimism, it’s just that at the end of the day he’s a Christian and I don’t have any use for Christianity. But by the same token, his explanatory power about how Black people suffer is really simpatico with Afropessimism.
The real estate of my writing chooses not to focus on how people make it through the day. I want to be as scorched earth as possible with the stuff I leave behind because I think, to quote Jared Sexton, if you look at the archive of Black writing there’s just too much writing about our plans, not enough writing about our pain. The conversations get so quickly turned to how we live through the day or celebrate the fact that we made it.
What we have is people writing about, in the main, how Black people made little incursions, found happiness, found ways of being among each other, and then they make a move toward shaming Black youth for wanting to burn everything down or saying that we can make it if we just persevere or saying we’ll get to heaven without realizing that all those compensatory statements are also symptoms of a suffering. Symptoms of a mind taking in a suffering that is too big to contemplate.
I want to be one of those people who is known for just staying in the hole of the ship. Even when they open up the gate and say, “You can come on up and get some air,” no, no, no, no. I’m gonna stay right down here with all the slop and the shit and the oatmeal and the dead bodies and the chains, and I’m not coming up because we haven’t done enough work on this. I think that’s where our power is too. I think it’s my job to make sure that I do not pay attention to all those other forms of possibility so that at least I’ll leave behind something that celebrates the absoluteness of the rage.
AR: Let’s talk about the end of the world. Afropessimism is not trying to articulate what it looks like to create something new, but there are points where you do gesture at the first steps of dismantling social death, which you say is possible. One part is assuming the paradigm, accepting it, but along with that, “niggerization” has to stop as a process. Where do you see these in relation to one another?
FW: There is the real, which in Lacanian terms is phenomena, and then there is reality, which is the cut into the real to create a world. I think a lot of people don’t make that distinction. The world is not real even if it feels real.
This problem we’re having is a problem of language, but it’s also something that starts with direct relations of force. Social death emerges internal to Blackness. Blackness and social death are coterminous. That is a new phenomenon in the theory of social death. It makes Patterson completely uncomfortable, which is why he calls our adoption of his work “ironic,” because he’s faced with having to explain the origins of Blackness.
There are no origins. It emerges with the paradigm. There is no Black plenitude, Black community, Black language, Black anthropological accoutrement. . .
AR: What are some areas of Afropessimism you would like to see explored more?
FW: There’s a second wave of Afropessimists that I’m very much aware of because they’re graduating with PhDs. Their books are in dissertation form and it’s going to be very fascinating. I hope you’re one of them. Even though you haven’t shown your hand, it doesn’t matter, you know so much!
Here’s what I want. I want us to be able to assume our position. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I know what it doesn’t mean. What it doesn’t mean is the first few pages of this book, where I’m having a psychotic episode on a gurney and the only thing I can worry about in my own psychic meltdown is what do white people think about me? If we could not be in that space—which is to say, worry about us, don’t worry about them. . .
I don’t think I will ever get there myself. It’s like a knee-jerk reaction to worry about what everyone else is thinking about me and what everyone else needs. You and I are even worse off for having gone to Ivy League schools because all they do is teach us to do as Black people is self-surveil and be tic-tac-toe. If Afropessimists can contribute to assuming the antagonism, which is not celebrating but certainly not having an aversion to it, then that would be a great step forward.
Leave the tactics to the people in the streets. If we could get there, then we would be closer to the end of the world.
Frank B. Wilderson III’s Afropessimism is available now.