In honor of Black August, cosmic hoboes is publishing a review essay and interview Omar Ricks did with Frank B. Wilderson III about the release of his book, Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid in 2008. This is Part 2 of the interview. (Part 1 is here.)
A Review Essay and an Interview with Frank B. Wilderson, III
Review Essay by Omar Benton Ricks
Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid. By Frank B. Wilderson, III. (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2008. Pp. 501. Paper, ISBN 978-0-89608-783-5). (2nd edition coming soon from Duke University Press.)
Omar: Let me ask you to clarify this seeming paradox: Your membership in a bourgeois community that has access to Walter Mondale and the Marines. Sure, you were eligible for “honorary white status” and often play your Americanness, but, even more directly you have a father who is respected and a white woman who, if anything ever happened to you, would call the police or the Marines. How would you respond to the assertion that you, or the black middle class in general, already have a protective hedge against blackness?
Frank: It is true that, as opposed to two years ago, when I was working on my Ph.D., I now go to Trader Joe’s and I don’t look at the receipt when I leave. It’s absolutely true that I now have a certain kind of respite from the stress of 2004 that is important, and that I appear to be important to a large number of people—other faculty members and students. Those are tangible changes. Those are meaningful and a lot of my physical ailments have left. On the other hand, it was Randall Robinson who was talking one day to some people about one of the books that he wrote, and he made a very curious comment about his son being stopped by the police on the freeway. He said, “Last night, racial profiling came home even to me.” And he wasn’t being ironic, which I thought to be quite sad. Because what had happened is that his enhanced economic capacity—his capacity to have a home in St. Kitts and one in D.C. and his books and everything—had blunted his explanatory power. And there are days when I’m all for that, you know. Like I just don’t want to know shit anymore! [Laughter.] So I can’t say that I find that emotionally reprehensible because as a bourgeois academic I slip into it all the time. It doesn’t mean, however, that I have moved from a fated life to an agential life. I still live the life of “when” as opposed to the life of “whether” and perhaps my nostalgia, my disavowal—which is the misstatement “came home even to me last night”—like his son is not a Negro! “Oh! That’s Randall Robinson’s boy! Let’s not stop that nigger!” [Laughter.] The pigs don’t know and they don’t care. And if they did know, they might vamp even harder. The answer to your question is that one knows that, yes, perhaps Mondale would intervene if the Inkatha Zulus were to kidnap me, perhaps there would be an international incident, but only to the degree that the paradigm momentarily addressed other factors—like my dad’s prominence in the Democratic Party—as opposed to my blackness. There can be situational adjustments. You can even live a life of a situational adjustment. I don’t see how that’s completely possible because your nigger moment has actually packed its bags and is on the way to meet you, you just don’t know when it’s coming or where it’s going to hit you, and that’s an issue of being fated, as Lewis Gordon says. And I don’t think that any black person who’s not in a mental asylum really tells themselves, “I live a life of agential ‘whether’” when they’re alone with themselves. It’s always “when.” “When will I be treated badly?” “When will I be arrested?” “When will I be accosted for acting ambiguously with my white wife,” as Lewis Gordon writes. It’s not whether or not someone will mistreat me; it’s when. If one did not know where one was positioned, regardless of one’s attitude toward that, one could not move through the world. It would be like moving through ether. You’d just be crazy.
Omar: You point out how flimsily founded the ascension of the black bourgeoisie really is. The laughable notion of the Name of the Black Father is a prime example. On p. 150-151, after your father has told you the origins of your family name, you say this of the Name of the Father:
Then he looked at me, that sullen-Wilderson-look that my mom always found so disparaging, but she was wrong, for the ﬁrst time I knew she was wrong. It wasn't a Wilderson-look, for it could just as well have been a Wilson-look. He looked that look at me, the look of chance, and said, "Now you know.”
“The look of chance.” So, even the features that we think of as the possessions of our families and defining characteristics of our families and things that give authority to our parents—are not ours. They have no name, or, rather, can only ever have an arbitrary (chance) name. Could you also speak to the notion of patriarchy as well as matriarchy and how this narrative troubles these concepts in relation to the African American family?
Frank: Yes, you’re right. The name Wilderson was a name of chance and ascription, just like all other black names, so our names are symptoms of our bodies being possessions, where other people’s names are symptoms of their recognition and incorporation into kinship structure.
Omar: For example, Smith being the name of somebody whose ancestor was once a blacksmith or Cartwright being the name of somebody whose ancestor was once a cart maker—in the social structure.
Frank: I’m not suggesting that the way in which Europeans, and Asians, and Native Americans, and Latinos attain names is not arbitrary. All semiotics is semi-arbitrary. What I’m saying is that the paradigm recognizes and incorporates those names as the function of paradigmatic agency. So a good critical theorist could go back and look at the way they’re named and say, “Well there’s a pedigree of arbitrariness in this process as well. What are you black people talking about?” And what I’m talking about is that the arbitrariness is a function of subjects naming subjects. And once the name is put on someone, that person is recognized as a subject. This arbitrariness is a function of subjects naming objects. And the name becomes a moniker of further objectification. Every Negro name is a joke to the extent that the person tries to present it as a representation of genealogy. The can of tuna fish isn’t going to jump up and say, “Hey, I got a name! Now I’m a person too! I’m not your thing.”
Omar: Even if the can of tuna fish puts an African-sounding name on itself, it’s still just a can of tuna fish.
Frank: So we have a schism throughout this book—and it’s not a schism that the book tries to solve, it just tries to note it and explain—of someone living their name as though they were a subject, a patriarch, a matriarch, and that’s their attitude towards their name. And there’s a complete irreconcilable dissonance between their attitude toward their name and what their name really means paradigmatically. That is the paradox of negrohood. That is the lifelong struggle, which is why Cornel West says that blackness is a kind of meditation between suicide or madness. Do I just go through this dissonance for 80 years that no one else has, or do I just kill myself? And I’m not sure that either choice has any purchase over the other.
Omar: Your socio-economic position in writing this narrative is key because it exposes the fact that there is no escape from the onslaught. The features of the subject—god-given, inalienable rights, agency, the capacity to create culture out of nameless space and endless time, a contingent availability to violence, a narrative of immigration, the Name of the Father, and ontological resistance (what both Hegel and Lacan called recognition, and what existentialists call Presence)—are continuously embattled, contested, given no harbor, even for black families and individuals that have supposedly "made it." You expose how tenuously "respectability" is layered on the black body, how easily that black bourgeois "respectability" can be and is removed. Your parents find out they have been under surveillance after how hard they've struggled to be "respectable" and loyal Americans. Shelleen Johnson, after being voted chair of the department by her feminist sisters—there’s that language of family again—is policed by her white secretary Helen. This poses important questions to the achievements of the black bourgeoisie and the achievement ethic it teaches its youth and the youth of working-class and non-working poor communities. Many have pointed out how the black family socializes and politicizes its children into this politics of respectability. Absent these kinds of gestures—raising children in a “good” black neighborhood, or a “‘good’ Methodist girl in a ‘good’ Catholic school”—it’s not clear what a black parent is to do. So, what role does the black parent play in this drama of the emerging subject--the black child, the black Manchild or Womanchild?
Frank: I think one of the things that the book is showing is that it is impossible to be a black parent. And, again, I don’t really answer the question of “What should we do?” which your question is posing. I can’t parent my stepdaughter because I have no filial claim to her. Even though I’ve signed all the paperwork, the state and civil society already has the claim. And my parents can’t parent me because they have no filial claim. That was not as maddening and vexing to us on the plantation. In fact it was easier for us to understand than it is now. It is the truth of the paradigm and we don’t accept it today. And that’s where part of the problem is. It is a problem of understanding. If we did accept it, what could we do about it? Again, I don’t know. So, there is a question then of how do you look into the eyes of the black child. That’s a very terrifying encounter, one that I hope never to have again because the question is when you look into their eyes, what do you say? Do you say, “Don’t look to me for sanctuary because I can’t provide myself with that. The reason I can’t provide myself with that is because anything could happen to me at any time and I have no way to stem it. Therefore, your growing and your development and your mind is actually forming in this house right before my very eyes and I’m supposed to give you some lessons based upon a general set of predictive circumstances when all I can tell you is that any kind of shit can come down on you at any time, and there will be no recourse”?
Omar: —and it’s when, not whether. Reba says, “Daddy will they take our money” when the kasspirs [South African police and military armored vehicles] are coming and you say no they won’t, and the voice of your conscience says, “What possessed me to lie to a four-year-old child?” Indeed, not only does black parenting function via such lies of convenience. You seem to point out that the notion of a coherent “black culture” or blackness as an ethnicity—far from being liberatory—requires us to embrace such lies of convenience. So when you say,
I am nothing, Naima, and you are nothing: the unspeakable answer to your question within your question. This is why I could not—would not—answer your question that night. Would I ever be with a Black woman again? It was earnest, not accusatory—I know. And nothing terrifies me more than such a question asked in earnest. It is a question that goes to the heart of desire, to the heart of our black capacity to desire. But if we take out the nouns that you used (nouns of habit that get us through the day), your question to me would sound like this: Would nothing ever be with nothing again?
your answer to Naima’s question is bringing something into focus that often gets missed in conversations about black men dating or marrying white women. The implications of this are that blackness is not fundamentally comprehensible as a sociocultural identity, that we are united only in our nothingness, our position as slaves. You force us to focus on how even the things we see as comprising our culture are more essentially understood as indices of our constant availability to gratuitous violence. Many black women feel a profound sense of rejection when they see black men with white or nonblack women, a sense that issues forth from a sense of cultural entitlement—a sense that black people should be with black people just as Chinese people “should be” with Chinese people or Jewish people “should be” with Jewish people. According to this cultural entitlement, black people are, or should be, about making ourselves into, a culture or ethnic group, consisting of people with specific norms—like endogamy (marrying only within the group). In various places you share with us that blacks do have an unique and vibrant and deeply rooted culture, and that this cultural lens is a very important lens through which to view black people—as you share in the myriad references to “cultural things” like our hair, the mother-son familial dynamics, the common courtesies that black professionals afford each other, or when you cast [Motown founder] Berry Gordy as God in a sort of Ne(gr)o Genesis myth. But in your answer to Naima’s question you’re showing that, while our culture and ethnicity are important to us, they are inessential to blackness, to how we are positioned in the world always and already, before we can even offer performance.
Frank: Our being is a being in pain, as someone once wrote, and that’s very different than say an Asian or Latino or even Native American person’s being as a being who experiences pain, even long periods of pain from U.S. imperialism and the usurpation of Turtle Island, the occupation of the Settlers on this continent. So the question is how to live. And what the book tries to do in this answer is to recognize the truly divided nature of the subject, such that in order to be with oneself and to feel that one is actually alive in the world, the only way to do that—unless one is in a revolutionary moment where one is just against the world—the only way to be otherwise is to have a little bit of whiteness in one’s life. Preferably in one’s bed. That then gets us back to the various gradations of blackness in the black position, such that black women who are black and American are least likely to be able to have a little bit of whiteness in their lives. I don’t think that Naima would ask that question if the racial dynamics were such that black men, thinking heterosexually, could not get black female lovers and black women could. Then I would be asking her that question. She’s asking the question on one level as a question of how am I going to perform in the world. But what I understand the question to mean is bringing us back to the problem of actual existence. Who we are. So I could answer it in the way that it was written that yes next year I’m going to date only black women, which would only put some salve on the question. It wouldn’t actually solve the dynamic. And it’s the same kind of question that I’m asking Khanya, but I’m accosting her in the beginning of the book when I say “You’ve just made a lateral move from kaffir to nigger” but what I’m really saying is, “Why won’t you be with me? You have more whiteness in your life because of your immigrant status and because you have that whiteness in your life I’m feeling abandoned.” Well, yes and no. Her actual performance in the world is not what’s abandoning me; it’s my recognition of how abandoned I already am through her capacity to climb a little bit out of the hole through immigration and she doesn’t want to fall back into the hole because she knows that were we to have a baby and that baby live here [in the United States], going back to your study—you know, Jared Sexton’s work has shown that black immigrants, African immigrants, Caribbean immigrants, are the only class of immigrants, are the only class of immigrants, whose second generation does worse than the first. Every other class of immigrants, the next generation does better, even Laotians. So immigration can’t slip the blackness.
Omar: It’s just another middle passage, then. Let’s talk about black rage. The black revolutionary impulse is always laboring under duress from the policing of whites. It seems that we are forever caught between a need to be, as you and your Grandmother Wilderson say, "mad at the world," and the fear of policing that comes in multiple modes, whether it be an Algiers Motel massacre in Detroit or the fear among African National Congress members in South Africa that the kind of radical reorganization of South Africa, such as Chris Hani advocated, might pose a threat to capital would bring the U.S. Marines to their shores. But you point out that there’s also a substantial amount of policing from white liberals like Harold Milton, your comrade in Berkeley who tells you that “black emotionalism” undermines black movements, that he, a white male, is a “people’s leader,” that he introduced a black girl who is a student leader to Mao and to all the philosophers that black revolutionaries were reading. After protesting the Kent State massacre and the bombing of Cambodia, he says of the Jackson State massacre – “Cambodia was like a universal thing… but …Jackson State…that’s like a special interest happening.” Special interests: How blacks’ demands are isolated performs a policing function similar to the question “What would you have in its place?” Milton wields power in saying that he’s more revolutionary.
Frank: We’re back to our problem being a problem of being. And we find ourselves in these moments with so-called white progressives and so-called white revolutionaries, where we lose ourselves because of a problem of performance and then something happens, a little conversation like that and they remind us that it’s a problem of being. Because I’m actually setting the terms. And he has set the terms because underlying what he’s saying is his understanding of what it means to suffer. He would say that people suffer through economic deprivation, class, they suffer through gender exploitation, patriarchy, and they suffer through American military occupation, imperialism. So he’s got these rubrics, and I’m not saying that they’re not important because I’m out in the streets with him, and I’m thinking that my rubric is in his mind also, and it’s not. And all of a sudden, he lets me know that it’s not. So now I’m jettisoned for the first time in my life into an understanding of really what I mean to white left-wing struggles. I can be a mascot, like a good lefty Negro cheerleader, for their causes, I can be a battering ram, when they need my rage and energy to knock down the doors of something, my “righteousness.” And what I forget in that moment, when I’m going off with my rage in their movement—I think that I’m struggling, I’m exploding, I’m moving forward, I’m battering down the door for not just their liberation but for black liberation—I forget that I’m a captive revolutionary, I forget that I’m captive to their will, and I push things too far. I push things for disrupting civil society on behalf of Jackson State— and it’s like, “Whoa! We weren’t going to the plantation!” he’s trying to tell me. “We were talking about whites and colored beings who did not have adequate access to the promise of civil society. You let your emotions and your mouth get your ass in trouble.” This is what he’s trying to tell me.
Omar: Thank you for bringing this discussion about leadership to the distinction between what is performative and what is ontological. Now, there are some possible exceptions to what you’re saying among whites and nonblacks on the Left, like Marilyn Buck or John Brown, or your Umkhonto we Sizwe comrade Trevor Garden—whites and nonblacks who were willing to die to all of their relations (in other words, become black) and be cast out of civil society as “traitors” and “terrorists” so that reality might be ethical instead of antiblack. But Harold Milton, it seems from this book, did not engage in that sort of ontological self-incapacitation. And this suggests that white and nonblack leftist activists may perform “people’s leadership” but will remain ontologically positioned as Masters in relation to Slaves (their black partners in struggle) and Settlers in relation to “Savages” (their American Indian and Native Hawaiian partners in struggle). Their struggles will liberate their Slave and “Savage” colleagues only to the extent that this liberation comports with their own liberation as Humans. But this concept you introduce of the structural antagonism between the Settler/Master and the “Savage” and Slave remains undisturbed. So who’s left to lead the struggle? Perhaps at this point we can talk about black leadership a bit. There’s a sense now with the looming election of Barack Obama that black rage is something that can be channeled into the electoral process to help give the Left—or if not the Left then at least the Democratic Party—that extra boost, more turnout than black folks have had probably ever, but no attention to what he’s going to do if he gets into office and lives past the inauguration.
Frank: The only way that America won’t kill him is if he can prove that he’s for everybody except blacks and rabidly against blacks. He might live four years. But the moment he seems to be for blacks—I mean, I hope it doesn’t happen. I actually feel sorry for him. But I think one thing that everyone is forgetting is that the only way that voting could actually be an ethical practice is if, say, every Indian had 22 votes and every black had a vote and everybody else sat back. There are only two groups of people who can vote: blacks and Indians. Having other people vote makes—forget the content, forget what you pour into the recipe—makes pulling the lever an unethical act. I’m not saying that people don’t understand this. I’m saying that they disavow it so that they can pull the lever. They pull the lever and call it ethical. They don’t say, “I’m pulling the lever and participating synchronically and diachronically in the massacre and the separation of Indians and in the further social death of blacks because I’m actually strengthening civil society which is a murderous projection.” They say, I’m pulling the lever and I’m making change—ethical change.
Omar: There is this sense that we’re channeling something that could be violent and thereby unethical or irresponsible into something that’s simply pulling a lever to make change. This reminds me of how pacifists aren’t really pacifists.
Frank: Yes. This comes from Joy James. Pacifists prefer the violence of the state to the violence of blacks. And people used to ask me when I’d give lectures on my time in Umkhonto we Sizwe, “Did you ever kill anyone?” And I’d say, “Yes, I’ve killed many people—many people: Every April 15th when I sign my tax returns I become a member of Murder, Incorporated, euphemistically referred to as U.S. citizenry. I become a mass serial killer. Oh, you mean did I kill anyone as a black insurgent? Well, that’s peanuts!”
 American Indians and Native Hawaiians are positioned as a liminal case between blacks and Humans. This is because the “savage” is positioned by genocide (as opposed to groups of people that have experienced genocide as an historical event) and also positioned by the loss of sovereignty. Thus, one part (genocide) of the American Indian’s grammar of loss can find no possibility of redress, while the other grammar of loss (sovereignty) leaves intact the possibility, albeit extremely remote, of redress (the restoration of Turtle Island). See Frank B. Wilderson, III, Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. (Durham: N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010).
 Prof. Joy James, in-class conversation, referred to author by Frank B. Wilderson, III, 25 September 2008.