What is afropessimism? What does an afropessimist look like?
A cousin of mine laughed when she first heard me refer to some of the authors I’m reading as “afropessimists.” For her it seemed to evoke thoughts of chain-smoking, sad-eyed black women with short 'fros or black men with goaties (like Orlando Patterson and Joy James, seen ABOVE), dressed all in black, sipping coffee in a French café with the same admixture of aplomb and ennui as the image of Jean-Paul Sartre. (Existentialism, of course, is often a profoundly hopeful philosophy.)
First, the name afropessimist is, I think, derived from a critique. In a review of Saidiya Hartman's Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (NY: Oxford, 1997) in African American Review, vol. 33, no. 4 (Winter 1999), Anita Patterson said that Hartman's central thesis is "profoundly pessimistic" (683). She was referring to Hartman's move of reading what Patterson would call the "bad use"-- hence, discriminatory practices-- to which African Americans were subjected as signs that blacks have not constituted free subjects in any meaningful sense. (Patterson’s critique, of course, ignores the fact that much of Hartman’s book is not concerned with “bad use” but, rather, with the discourse of civil rights for blacks in the antebellum and postbellum eras. In other words, Hartman is taking on “friends of the negro” as much as those who overtly and violently assailed the notion of black humanity.) Hartman later adopts the term as her own in an interview Frank Wilderson conducts with her, referring to "Achille Mbembe and the other so-called 'Afro-Pessimists'" ("The Position of the Unthought: An Interview with Saidiya V. Hartman conducted by Frank B. Wilderson, III," Qui Parle, Vol. 13, No. 2 Spring/Summer 2003, p. 197).
This distinction-- between "blacks are human subjects who are sometimes treated badly" versus "blacks' repeated bad treatment shows that they are not human subjects"-- is not quite the crux of an afropessimist argument, but it is an important component of one. The "pessimism" in afropessimism comes back, for me, to something my parents used to tell me-- something pretty much all black parents I know have to tell their children, regardless of age: "No matter where you go, no matter who you're with, always remember where you are and who you are." This is not solely or even essentially a reminder to be proud of one's heritage and carry the strivings of one’s ancestors wherever one goes. Rather, it constitutes a reminder that we are not agents, and that any number of things can and will happen to us at any time without our parents being able to protect us in any way. As Lewis Gordon says in Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism, with the black, it is a matter of "when," not "whether." It reflects an awareness that blackness is a position formed by the violence essential to Modernity and that that fact does not change no matter how much society may seem to change, no matter how much the company of friends may change, no matter how much my performance changes, no matter my age. Afropessimism is, at its heart, a fundamental critique of performativity and hybridity because it says that no amount of incremental change can create an ethical order so long as black incarceration, fungibility, and death is the precondition for social stability.
Pessimism. Sounds like a horrible, hopeless way to live doesn't it? In a sense, perhaps it should sound that way. As Saidiya Hartman says in the above-cited interview with Frank, it is "obscene" to take "the narrative of defeat" and "still find a way to feel good about ourselves" (185). We should not shrink from it; Hartman says that her pessimistic account of the violence of nineteenth-century black subject formation should be read as "an allegory of the present" (190). Moreover, as she puts it clearly in Scenes of Subjection,
It is impossible to fully redress this pained condition without the occurrence of an event of epic and revolutionary proportions--the abolition of slavery, the destruction of a racist social order, and the actualization of equality (77)
In that possibility of radical change-- what Fanon would call "the end of the world"-- may lie some hope. Let’s be clear. Afropessimism is not a politics. But it does hold political potential. It is probably better to think of it as a precursor to a politics. It is an attempt—however, as yet, incomplete— to frame a rage, a rage that will not find an articulation or a signification within any politics that takes the modern order as its presumption and premise.
This brings me to the second curious thing about afropessimism. The term "afropessimist" is still largely used as a descriptor-- an adjective more than a noun-- for work that evinces certain symptoms of black rage that cannot be spoken. Indeed, it is correct to say that most of the people whose work is described as afropessimist may not identify themselves as afropessimists or may pay a dear price for the extent to which they consciously avow a pessimistic analysis. Again, it has not (yet) coalesced into a school or philosophy. But that is really only to say that it shows up in bits and pieces, in stolen moments, as if whispered through a hole in a wall or as if spoken unconsciously through the ways in which it manifests in fantasies.
So, to point to the fact that Joy James and Saidiya Hartman, for example, have “made it” within the academy as an indication that there is a space for afropessimist thought would be to obscure the actual lived experience of students whose dissertation work, for example, was derailed by advisors who were politically opposed to the prepolitical seeds of afropessimist thought or sentiment that manifested in their work. Or, even before the dissertation work begins—the extent to which the seminar process serves a regulatory function on forms of thought that evince such a critical perspective on hybridity and performativity as afropessimist thought and other politico-ontological perspectives employ. In other words, just because some professors who identify as afropessimists have their photographs online and have won awards for their work does not in any way mean that afropessimist thought has a place within the academy from which it can inform the efforts of up-and-coming scholars to pose a counterhegemonic challenge to the dominant paradigm.
Moreover, the fact that classic authors of the black literary canon like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison-- as well as established scholars like Hortense Spillers, Achille Mbembe, and Orlando Patterson-- may not self-identify as afropessimists does not prove that their thought isn’t shot through with afropessimistic tendencies. Orlando Patterson, for example, is a political moderate, certainly not a revolutionary, who has consulted heads of state and who often moralizes about black male irresponsibility with the most strident of white neoconservatives. Nonetheless, his excellent central argument in Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study clearly authorizes a reading that blacks today-- despite the fact that some of them experience (and theoretically all of them could experience) a great deal of politico-/socio-economic success (which prior groups of elite slaves also experienced; see 299-333)-- may still be understood as slaves if their social position is defined by the three constituent elements of slavery: social death, natal alienation, and general dishonor (1-14). When framed by Patterson’s analysis, black political discussions are free to shift to discussions of the extent to which the United States is a society that has depended and continues to depend on slaves for a variety of forms of labor that preserve its existence as a set of relations, rather than dwelling on questions of whether or not the United States ever actually ceased to be a slave society.
There is still more discussion to be had about the question of what constitutes afropessimist thought. One thing to keep in mind is that the goal of this site is not to make us be more afropessimistic, whatever that might mean. The goal is simply to not let certain things that we know to be true atrophy in obscurity and suffocate, for lack of light and air, by not even being raised to the level of discussion. If afropessimistic thoughts flourish as a result of our having a space in which to pose them, that fact will speak to the need for them to be raised and carried further within the academy as well.
For now, this juncture might be a good place for us to start working out a discussion list. Since it is in some ways the source of current afropessimist thinking, maybe we could start out with Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks.
After that, I’d love to move on to work on the following in no particular order:
Ronald A.T. Judy's (Dis)Forming the American Canon
Frank Wilderson's Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid
Kara Keeling’s The Witch’s Flight
Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama
Loic Wacquant’s “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration”
Hortense Spillers’ Black, White, and In Color
Frank Wilderson’s “The Prison Slave as Hegemony’s (Silent) Scandal”
George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum
Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection
Jared Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes
Steve Martinot and Jared Sexton’s “The Avant-Garde of White Supremacy”
Lars von Trier’s Manderlay
Abdul JanMohamed’s The Death-Bound Subject
Assata Shakur’s Assata
These are just things that I’m interested in checking out and discussing. Please feel free to add.