Afropessimism and Its Discontents

Afropessimism and Its Discontents

A guide for the perplexed, the puzzled, and the politically confused.


Afropessimism is all the rage among millennial Black academics and activists—most notably among Black feminist critical race theorists, who themselves are now the prime targets of the MAGA crowd. Black intellectuals haven’t enjoyed this much pop currency among the right wing since Black Power took over buildings to demand Black studies in state universities and the Ivies 50 years ago.

Afropessimism’s recent emergence in the mainstream of Black political conversation could not have been better timed. Particularly for that critical race sistren group, given their issues with suddenly woke white America—especially their bête blanche, white academic feminists. Here the grounds for suspicion are not gratuitous but experiential and statistical: 48 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump. Beyond that tempestuous internal struggle between feminists of different hues, though, just what is Afropessimism? And why should you, dear Nation reader, even give a good goddamn?

The titular Godfather of Afropessimism, Frank B. Wilderson III, states the case best in his 2020 book Afropessimism. In a nutshell—and consider this nutshell more kola-sized than pecan—Wilderson believes that the binary frame for the world’s pathological anti-Blackness shouldn’t be whites vs. Blacks but “Slaves” (Blackfolk) vs. “Humans” (white dudes, mostly). In that construct, the structural violence legally inflicted on Black flesh on the antebellum plantation has been sustained into the 21st century. According to Wilderson, Blackfolk have never transcended slave status to become human in the eyes of the law, and are therefore still subject to routine systemic violence by various white authorities—not just the police—and routinely treated as a population who have no constitutional or human rights.

As The New York Times’ special issue “The 1619 Project” revealed, anti-Black outcomes remain algorithmically inscribed in every dominant American institution—legal, medical, economic, educational, cultural, scientific—anywhere the power of life and death is held over Black bodies by anti-Black institutional authority. Hence not just police brutality but mass incarceration, medical racism, infant-mortality-rate racism, environmental racism, cyber-surveillance racism, etc. Malcolm X may have most succinctly defined and caught the spirit of AP when he told a 1960s Black audience:

You don’t catch hell because you’re a Methodist or Baptist. You don’t catch hell because you’re a Democrat or a Republican. You don’t catch hell because you’re a Mason or an Elk. And you sure don’t catch hell because you’re an American, because if you was an American, you wouldn’t catch no hell. You catch hell because you’re a black man…. So we are all black people, so-called Negroes, second-class citizens, ex-slaves. You are nothing but an ex-slave. You don’t like to be told that. But what else are you? You are ex-slaves. You didn’t come here on the “Mayflower.” You came here on a slave ship, in chains, like a horse or a cow or a chicken, and you were brought here by the people who came here on the “Mayflower.” You were brought here by the so-called Pilgrims, or Founding Fathers.

Where Wilderson has proven most controversial, however, is not in ID’ing the usual pale-skinned-male suspect and source of global oppression, but in his opposition to what he describes as “mystifying analogies” drawn in multiethnic coalitions between Slaves and every other oppressed group we may find ourselves allied with. These include Indigenous folk, non-Black feminists and non-Black queer folk, Asians, even Palestinians. (Wilderson tells of a young Palestinian named Sameer he worked with at a security job who fell out of favor when he made a shocking revelation: In Palestine, there was nothing more disgusting for his brothers than to be stopped and frisked by Israeli police when the cop was an Ethiopian Jew. Wilderson’s realization that Native Americans could be anti-Black came when his father met with a group of tribal leaders to help resolve a dispute with his university employers. During the meeting, a Native man shouted at Wilderson’s dad, “We don’t want you, a nigger man, telling us what to do!”)

As Wilderson sees it, our movement allies’ negotiations with the Humans never start with the assumption that they are nonhuman or slaves. To Wilderson, all non-Blackfolk—even those he personally loves, partners with, and politics with—are “junior partners” of the Humans. Not least because Wilderson sees the junior partners’ oppressions as resolvable by a restitution of rights that we Slaves, still being legally violated as nonhumans, have never had. Most resonant is the point he makes that non-Blackfolks’ oppressions have a transactional potential to be remedied through wealth redistribution or restitution of land.

Whereas anti-Black violence, Wilderson argues, has since the plantation always been and remains gratuitous: random, reflexive, and providing no benefit to the Humans other than to reproduce the slave status of Blackfolk by feasting on Black flesh. And it is this bloodfeasting that Wilderson, in his most zombie-apocalyptic mode, argues that the rest of global society—Humans and junior partners alike—are dependent on for their own psychic and hierarchical coherence and continuation. In other words, nobody wants to be the nigger no matter how oppressed they are, though as Mama Tate so eloquently liked to put it, “They want everything about being Black but the burden of being Black.”

Wilderson both critiques and refuses the critique of an alleged “Oppression Olympics” frequently hurled at Black activists in multiethnic coalitions. He notes—as he recently did in The Nation—that everybody in current multiethnic justice movement settings wants to feed off Black rage and expressive culture “as long as they don’t have to hear about Black suffering.”

That burden is what Wilderson underscores when he writes, as he did in the article “Social Death and Narrative Aporia in 12 Years a Slave,” that “Blackness is coterminous with Slaveness.” For Slaves, Humans, and junior partners alike, this post–George Floyd–martyrdom moment in the nation’s history—arguably as much a When They See Us awakening for Blackfolk as the Nazi concentration camp footage was for American Jewry—offers an embarrassment of riches to illustrate just how that burden sits in the world and weighs down on the bodies and souls of American-born Blackfolk.

Wilderson’s Afropessimism appeals powerfully to critical-race-and-gender-theory millennials because it provides both an ingenious analytical framework for Black oppression and a novel, weaponized language for blasting away at the silencing of Black suffering, Black trauma, Black despair, and Black depression by the junior partners in academia and progressive contemporary multi-identity coalitions.

Wilderson devoted several pages of his first memoir, Incognegro, to recounting the betrayal of Black feminist academics by white feminist academics at his college in San Jose once they’d achieved administrative power. In this aspect of his agenda, Wilderson recalls Frantz Fanon’s warning that Black revolutionary cohorts need to be wary of opportunistic comrades who don’t want to defeat their oppressors but instead merely replace them. Or the comedian Dave Chappelle, who has a bit where he tells a white woman that her only problem with white supremacy was that she didn’t get a big enough cut.

In Afropessimism, Wilderson—a snarky signifying furthermucker on the page—describes a moment of extreme annoyance after a film lecture he gave in which junior partner exceptionalism figured in his narrative analysis. A distraught white female academic beseeches him, “What about solidarity between races?” Wilderson’s now-infamous reply: “I don’t give a rat’s ass about solidarity.”

Shocking and enraging as that response might be to some—and hilarious and rallying to others—the fact is Wilderson, who teaches at UC Irvine and is in a long-term partnership with a white female poet, can’t actually escape solidarity with the junior partners. There are, in fact, according to one prominent Black woman race theorist, Asian women in academia who now describe themselves as Afropessimists. Which speaks to the cool factor of AP as yet another example of Blackfolks’ ability to make any odd thing we touch—like Timberland boots and scratch DJ battles—seductive and hip to the non-Black junior partners.

James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time.” But what he didn’t say was that, on a good day, it is mostly a sublimated state of rage since folk got bills to pay and sanity to keep. There are many successful Black women in the corporate world and in academe who are currently angry as f**k at having been hauled in to wet-nurse Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion sessions by their employers—in addition to doing their 80-hour-a-week jobs. Since they don’t want to be identified as That Angry Black Woman, no one is the wiser in the hierarchy. This may partly account for the current Afropessimism boom, in which Wilderson’s desublimation of his own rage into the highfalutin language of anti-racist structural analysis provides the sisters a safety valve and an intellectual alternative to depression or going all “Pirate Jenny” (see Nina Simone’s slave-revolt take on the Brecht-Weill ditty) on fools at their gig.

According to a couple of Black critical race feminist profs we know, there are undergrad students who haven’t actually read Wilderson but have nonetheless adopted AP as their rallying cry after coming home from Black Lives Matter protests despairing that nothing they do “is going to stop these cops from killing us.” For some, this despair leads to their own feelings of “Fuck solidarity” and a petulant, pissed-off urge to withdraw from interaction with white people—especially the staunchest of former allies—while they sort themselves out.

Nonacademic Black-folk from the grassroots activist side of the table sometimes ask: So what’s Wilderson’s “solution”? In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Wilderson lived in South Africa, where he was a mostly report-writing member of uMkhonto we Sizwe—the military wing of the African National Congress. He dedicates Afropessimism to “Assata Shakur and Winnie Mandela, for everything.” So it’s not a huge leap to guess his vision for making real change in the systemic anti-Black state of things is aligned with a version of theirs. But Wilderson has never positioned himself as a movement savant. AP is not a political directive toward anything—other than Blackfolk not getting fooled again by the promises of solidarity from junior partners whose reality-construct is as dependent on the reproduction of Black suffering—upon not being the nigger—as the titular Humans (white boys by any other name).

While Wilderson’s hard line on the place of Slaves, Humans, and junior partners might lead you to believe Afropessimism is a full-throttle tract, the book is much more of a classic bildungsroman. Wilderson has led a dramatic life—and he is also an adroitly and acerbically self-dramatizing furthermucker, and an exquisite writer of modern, novelistic prose.

Among our key critical-race-theory guiding lights, he is hands down the one you read for pleasure, pathos, cringingly vulnerable interpersonal confessions—and sometimes even wrathful, biting comedy. The brother has a theatrical flair. And he doesn’t eschew self-deprecation on an operatic scale.

It’s hard to imagine, for example, another Black male writer who’s devoted himself so unsparingly to excavating scenes from his parents’ marriage—Spike Lee’s Crooklyn is the only work that resonates on similar frequencies—or detailing his multiple, tear-jerking inadequacies in nearly every romantic relationship of his teen and adult life (though not without much picaresque laughter as well).

The annoying and earnestly woke young Wilderson’s torture of his bewildered parents with his Soul on Ice–inspired ultra-Blackness sets up Afropessimism’s best one-liner. One 1960s pre-Nixon-impeachment day, young Frank, ever the adolescent scamp-provocateur, rolls up on his mother and blindsides her by proclaiming his newfound desire to fight in Vietnam. Mom exhales, then professes pride in her renegade Marxist-wannabe spawn finally embracing the American way. At which point Wilderson launches his spring-loaded ambush: “You don’t understand me. I didn’t mean the White man’s army, I meant the Viet Cong!”

By contrast, some of the most moving and painful writing in Afropessimism occurs in the book’s conclusion, when the author recounts his deeply admiring final reflections and memories of his mother, before dementia renders her a complete stranger to him:

Then she asked me if I had just come from the Washington Monument. When I said no, we’re in Minneapolis, not in D.C., she said I never did have a sense of direction, no wonder I’d come late for my sister’s recital.

“What recital,” I wanted to know, “where?”…

“What do you mean, where? The Jack and Jill convention, down the hall in the ballroom, silly.”… [S]he held up her index finger. “Listen. Your sister plays beautifully.”

The Jack and Jill convention must have been in 1970, and my sister had not played the piano for almost forty years. But I sat with Mom and listened to the end of the concerto, or was it an étude? Then came an ice age of silence in which she said nothing and seemed not to notice I was there. Snowplows groaned in the street below her window. The branches of trees were bare and starred with frost. Where was the woman who danced slowly in her stocking feet with my father in the living room at night, Johnny Hartman on the hi-fi and not a worry in the world? The woman who said my stock was good and my mind was strong. Where was she, the woman who made me want to write?

Her hair was as white and thin as dandelion puffs….She had not spoken for a while. Then, as if she’d been reading my mail, she sat up straight as a washboard…. Like Harriet Tubman staring down a gun barrel, she looked at me. “Didn’t I tell you, boy, people have to die? I know I told you that.”

Then she fell back into her eyes.

I went into the hallway so she wouldn’t see me cry. When I returned to the room, she asked me who I was.

Earlier, after giving both still-very-lucid parents a full description of Afropessimism, Wilderson recalls his mom querying him as to what purpose something like that could have for his students, and whether it might help them become “good citizens.”

The mature, middle-aged Wilderson doesn’t claw back. But after you smirk at his mother’s seeming naivete, you’re left wondering if Ma Dukes didn’t just signify on her boy in that blithe and cunning way Black mothers can do so well: cutting their grown and tenured progeny’s vestigial outlaw illusions off at the neck so cleanly they never even felt the slice of the blade.

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