Some Sociological Notes
The term afropessimism was first used in print in 1987 by the French Minister of Cooperation (that is, African affairs), Michel Aurillac, in an editorial published in Le Monde cautioning against the view that economic development and political democratization in sub-Saharan Africa had permanently stalled.footnote1 The word was used and abused in subsequent decades by African economists and Africanist commentators who refused to see colonialism as the root cause of the continent’s predicament and stressed instead postcolonial corruption, ethnic dissension and the patrimonialization of the state as sources of societal stasis. ‘Afropessimism’ was later evoked in discussion of the prospects and pitfalls of foreign investment in Africa.footnote2
The term, but not its original referent, was then appropriated in the 2010s by a new generation of black academics in American departments of ethnic studies and humanities. In the words of Frank Wilderson, who has positioned himself as one of its leading exponents, Afropessimism refers to the notion that ‘Blackness is coterminous with Slaveness’. ‘Blacks’, Wilderson writes in his landmark book Afropessimism (2020), ‘are not Human subjects, but are instead structurally inert props, implements for the execution of White and non-Black fantasies and sadomasochistic pleasures.’footnote3 To the narrative of racial progress, Afropessimism counterposes an anti-humanist vision in which the denial of black humanity is everywhere built into the very makeup of civil society: ‘Afropessimism gives us the freedom to say out loud what we would otherwise whisper or deny: that no Blacks are in the world, but, by the same token, there is no world without Blacks. The violence perpetrated against us is not a form of discrimination; it is a necessary violence; a health tonic for everyone who is not Black.’footnote4 It is, moreover, perpetual and without recourse: workers can oppose and yearn to overthrow capitalism, women patriarchy, lgbt people heterosexism, colonial subjects imperialism. For blacks, however, there is no politics of liberation; they are excluded forever from ‘a narrative of redemption’ because the world finds ‘its nourishment in Black flesh.’ All nonblack people, however progressive their politics, are ‘junior partners’ of whites and objectively complicit in totalized and totalizing antiblackness. The plight of ‘people of colour’—the term Wilderson uses to refer to people who are neither white nor black—cannot be compared to and should not be conflated with the predicament of black people: ‘Analogy mystifies, rather than clarifies, Black suffering. Analogy mystifies Black peoples’ relationship to other people of colour.’footnote5
What are we to make of these claims? Opening with a vivid depiction of a mental breakdown, Wilderson’s book is a disconcerting memoir and a provocative travelogue about being black in America from the vantage point of the cultural bourgeoisie of the early 21st century. Educated at Dartmouth, Columbia and Berkeley, Wilderson has had varied life experiences as an activist, a stockbroker and, now, an author and academic at the University of California, Irvine, where he is a professor of drama and African American studies. He is the son of a university dean father and a school administrator mother who also had a private practice as psychologists. He grew up mainly in an upscale district of Minneapolis, and his childhood was stamped by the cultural capital and racial bridging endeavours of his parents on and off campus. Wilderson presents Afropessimism as ‘storytelling when the narrator is a slave’.footnote6 Combining passages of genuine lyric power and beauty with heavy didacticism, it is perhaps best read as an exercise in ‘auto-theory’, the ‘commingling of theory and philosophy with autobiography’, which Lauren Fournier describes, in her book on the subject, as a ‘critical artistic practice indebted to feminist writing activism’.footnote7
Afropessimism is difficult to assess and critique because, when it takes leave from the gripping immediacy of its memoirist voice, it situates itself at a ‘meta-theoretical’ level so abstract that no historical reality can be brought to bear on it; and when the time comes for conceptual explication, it retreats back into narration.footnote8 The book proceeds by postulation rather than demonstration, by allegory instead of argument. It weaves a tapestry of childhood memories, family anecdotes, professional and romantic experiences, political sorties, academic encounters, allusions to novels, movies and philosophical texts, conceptual disquisitions and historical accounts, all of which it places on a plane of epistemic equality. How to evaluate this intellectual position from the standpoint of an agonistic sociology of ethno-racial domination?footnote9 Note that a principled defence might be that Afropessimism is a (or the) poetics of blackness, written by a dramatist; and so its claims should not be taken too literally, nor held up to social scientific standards. But Wilderson insists his approach is a ‘theoretical apparatus’ and an ‘analytic lens’, one that ‘labours as a corrective to Humanist assumptive logics’, and this analytic is being used by sociologists to develop and reorient empirical arguments or to deny their very possibility.footnote10
Afropessimism is an exclusivist brand of race primordialism. It is primordialist in that it sees race—or, rather, blackness as uniquely institutionalized in the United States and then universalized with a stroke of the pen—as foundational to being, knowledge and power; as permanent, pervasive and impossible to dislodge from its role as structural mooring and existential pivot.footnote11 It is exclusivist in that it reserves this ontological burden for blacks and for blacks alone. As the entry in Oxford Bibliographies, which Wilderson co-authored, explains:
Afropessimism is a lens of interpretation that accounts for civil society’s dependence on antiblack violence—a regime of violence that positions black people as internal enemies of civil society, and cannot be analogized with the regimes of violence that disciplines the Marxist subaltern, the postcolonial subaltern, the coloured but nonblack Western immigrant, the nonblack queer, or the nonblack woman.footnote12
Afropessimism asserts the uniqueness of the black plight, not through methodical genealogy and comparison, but on the authority of the author’s identity, experiences and meta-theoretical virtuosity.
The notion at the heart of Afropessimism is that of ‘slaveness’: ‘Afropessimism is premised on a comprehensive and iconoclastic claim: that Blackness is coterminous with Slaveness: Blackness is social death: which is to say that there was never a prior metamoment of plenitude, never equilibrium: never a moment of social life.’footnote13 Afropessimists claim that their use of slavery is not metaphorical but tautegorical, grounded in Orlando Patterson’s sociology of slavery: ‘The black is positioned, a priori, as slave. The definition of slave’, the Oxford Bibliographies entry explains, ‘is taken from Orlando Patterson who theorizes slavery as a relational dynamic between “social death” (the slave) and “social life” (the human).’footnote14 For Patterson, however, slavery is not a racial institution but an organization of extreme domination that may or may not be racialized. It is, moreover, an institution that not only varies immensely across the span of human history, from the familial to the genocidal, but also everywhere fails to quash the slave’s humanity. Indeed, slavery, in Patterson’s telling, is haunted by the slave’s refusal of the denial of their humanity. This is why it needs brute force to sustain itself. This is why an analysis of the internal relations of slavery must be articulated with an analysis of enslavement (entry) and manumission (exit): ‘Enslavement, slavery and manumission are not merely related events: they are one and the same process in different phases.’footnote15 Thus the master dangles the possibility of manumission before the eyes of the slaves precisely because they remain human under bondage: ‘The slave desires nothing more passionately than dignity, belonging and release. By holding out the promise of redemption, the master provides himself with a motivating force more powerful than any whip. Slavery in this way was a self-correcting institution: what it denied the slave it utilized as the major means of motivating him.’
Slavery, in other words, contains its own negation, and so ‘slaveness’, for Patterson, marks a liminal state, not an ontological one. Again, this is because human bondage curtails but fails to annihilate the humanity of the slave: ‘Everywhere the slave’s zest for life and fellowship confounded the slaveholder class; and in all slaveholding societies the existential dignity of the slave belied the slaveholder’s denial of its existence.’footnote16 To conceive of ‘the Black’ as ‘the Slave’ in the singular also elides the fact that slaves are not alone; they live in a community of slaves which is the crucible sustaining their humanness, as Patterson demonstrates in his ground-breaking 1967 study of the distinctive social relations and communal values of slaves on the plantations of Jamaica in the 18th and 19th centuries.footnote17
It follows that the violence of slavery is not ‘gratuitous’, indiscriminate and Pavlovian, as Wilderson and his followers would have it.footnote18 Patterson is clear that ‘it was necessary continually to repeat the original, violent act of transforming free man into slave’ because enslavement was never accepted. ‘The continuous violence in the slave order was also made necessary by the low motivation of the slave to work.’footnote19 Far from being needless and wanton, then, the brute force of the master was strategic and calibrated, and thus highly variable in both form and frequency across societies and epochs. It was needed to reduce a human to a living thing (res) which existed only as an extension of the master, but remained human all the same.
So much for slavery and violence. What of blackness now? In his critique of Afropessimism, the New Yorker writer Vinson Cunningham wryly describes Wilderson’s book as ‘the story of an American who thinks of his Blackness as normative and therefore as characteristic of Blackness around the world.’footnote20 Indeed, mired in the racial doxa of his home country, Wilderson takes blackness as a self-evident, fixed and homogeneous category. He never stops to ponder the question posed by the sociologist F. James Davis in his classic book Who Is Black? (1991), which establishes that the us definition of blackness through strict hypodescent (the ‘one-drop rule’), disregarding phenotype, social status and non-African ancestry, is a global outlier.footnote21 Even within the United States, a rival system of ethno-racial classification built on gradations of colour that recognizes intermediate categories between blacks and whites (mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, sambo, mango, etc.) was operative in southern states such as South Carolina and Louisiana until the mid-19th century under the influence of Caribbean migration and imports from Catholic French and Spanish culture.footnote22
So the clearcut black–white or black–other dichotomy is neither universal nor transhistorical: the racial classification of ‘blacks’ varies across societies and eras and so does their racial stratification. In his little-known yet cardinal essay, ‘Four Modes of Ethno-Somatic Stratification’, Orlando Patterson—Wilderson’s favourite sociologist—shows how the same root population, the descendants of African slaves, were differentially defined and incorporated in the United States (‘binary mobilization’), Latin America (‘hegemonic whitening’), the Caribbean (‘pluralistic underdevelopment’) and northern Europe (‘proletarian incorporation’). ‘Each mode refers to a unique configuration of ethno-racial ideology, ethno-demographic mix, ethno-class stratification, and level of societal racialization.’footnote23 This historical variation in modes of racial domination is just what the rhetoric of Afropessimism unknowingly denies and magically disappears.
But there is more when it comes to blackness in the United States specifically. The notion that it is a compact construct is a social fiction and thus a literary facility that ignores the long, ongoing history of skin tone differentiation and discrimination among both blacks and nonblacks. It is well established that since the days of Emancipation, African Americans have been ‘colour struck’, establishing invidious distinctions among themselves based on complexion along a gradient nested inside descent-based categorization that has operated to diffract life chances and inflect social strategies such as marriage, social club membership and political allegiance.footnote24 Whites also distinguish African Americans, native and immigrant, by phenotype, including complexion, facial features, body size and corpulence. In a string of innovative papers, the Harvard sociologist Ellis Monk has, moreover, revealed that the disparity between light-skin and dark-skin blacks is greater than the white–black disparity for a range of critical life outcomes, including education, household income, health and ageing, police contact and incarceration.footnote25 This suggests that, at a minimum, Wilderson’s proposition that ‘Blackness is a locus of abjection to be instrumentalized on a whim’ needs to be qualified to connect with historical reality.footnote26
Is the protrusive and suffusive tenor of blackness beautifully conveyed by Afropessimism’s rhapsodic prose a property of the social world or a projection of the racially obsessed and obsessive gaze that Wilderson trains on that world—that is, the product of a thoroughly racialized habitus?footnote27 The answer is both. There is no question that the United States is a historical formation resting on a deep and enduring caesura relegating the descendants of African slaves to a subordinate position in symbolic, social and physical space, and in which the black/nonblack binary operates in multiple domains, each echoing and reinforcing the others. It is also abundantly evident that, as a properly socialized member of that society, Wilderson has been trained to see, feel and act in racially inflected ways—as vividly demonstrated by all the episodes of his childhood recounted in Afropessimism.footnote28 The meeting of social structure and mental structure, position and disposition, produces a spontaneous agreement such that racialized world and racialized gaze reinforce and validate each other. The proposition that ‘without Black people, Human existence would be unintelligible’ might, with suitable qualifications, apply in ‘race-divided societies’ such as the United States and South Africa, where Wilderson sojourned to join the fight against apartheid, and where ethno-racial division remains highly salient, suffusive and consequential.footnote29 But it is questionable whether it holds in ‘societies with race’ where ethno-racial division is ancillary to the makeup of social space, the state and subjectivityfootnote30—think of China and its one-and-a-half billion citizens, for instance, compared to the roughly 164 million persons of African ancestry, part or whole, residing in Europe and the Americas. Wilderson speaks of the World, capital W, Life, capital L, Slave, capital S and Human, capital H, but these are scholastic archetypes that erase essential distinctions between historical epochs and geographical formations that an adequate theory of racial domination must imperatively capture.
The racial exceptionalism of the United States is reinforced by what might be described as a rhetoric of extremism. At multiple points in his narration, whether recounting scenes from everyday life, political episodes or academic encounters, Wilderson presents extreme cases or extreme interpretations as the baseline against which antiblackness is tallied. Thus, in his account of the violence of slavery in the us South, he draws on the stunning 1853 memoir by the former slave Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, which depicts in vivid detail the sadistic and seemingly gratuitous brutality of Northup’s master. But this account needs to be read alongside those evoking the paternalistic cast of American slavery well established by historians of the South’s ‘peculiar institution’.footnote31 To say that American slavery was paternalistic takes nothing away from the horror, violence and immorality of human bondage. It is simply a statement of historical fact born of the comparative study of different regimes of enslavement, both in the Americas and around the world, which ranged from domestic to paternalistic to despotic.footnote32 Contrary to Wilderson’s thesis that such violence against blacks is ‘beyond the grasp of reason’ and ‘secures the order of life itself’, horrific punishment is perfectly intelligible in the prosaically materialistic—as opposed to ontogenetic—terms of instilling terror into the slaves who witness it in order to enforce discipline and facilitate the extraction of labour on the plantation, as well as in the symbolic logic of affirming caste superiority.footnote33
Another germane technique Wilderson uses is to resort to analytic hyperbole as though the dramatization of a claim were its own validation because it silences the would-be critic: ‘You can’t make an analogy between the violence immigrants, Native Americans and workers are subjected to and the violence that attends to Black people. It is absolutely necessary for Blacks to be castrated, raped, genitally mutilated and violated, beaten, shot and maimed.’footnote34 Or when he presents ‘the logic of White feminism, the logic of working-class struggle, the logic of multicultural coalitions, and the logic of immigrant rights’ not as disconnected from, or impediments to, the struggles of blacks (insofar as such a notion makes sense anymore), but as partaking of the ‘unrelenting terror’ that threatens black thought, ‘an essential terror as constitutive of an anti-Black world as the military or the megachurch’. Another example: ‘Whoever says “rape” says Black, whoever says “prison” says Black; and whoever says “aids” says Black—the Negro is a phobogenic object: a past without a heritage, the map of gratuitous violence, and a programme of complete disorder.’footnote35 These associations may be operative in us history and public culture, but everywhere and at all times? Even in the United States, it is highly questionable whether such connotations are transhistorical: the dominant image of the convict in the postwar decades, for example, when the prison population of the country was 70 per cent white, was a bumbling, socially incompetent white male, not a violent black man.
Where does this time-stamped Americanocentric ontologization of blackness based on the ‘structural antagonism’ between humans and blacks lead us on the political front? It is hard to see light at the end of an intellectual tunnel dug on the principled negation of black agency, individual and collective. Indeed, the only goal one can meaningfully pursue according to Wilderson is to expedite ‘the end of the world’—real or metaphorical, it is hard to say.footnote36 The Afropessimistic diagnosis of the black predicament yields a conviction in the futility, worse the utter impossibility, of a politics of freedom. For Wilderson, ‘Blackness is a positionality of “absolute dereliction”, abandonment, in the face of civil society and therefore cannot be liberated or be made legible through counter-hegemonic interventions.’ Instead of seeking to liberate blackness, Wilderson urges us to ‘embrace its disorder, its incoherence’.footnote37 This may be a comfortable attitude to adopt for a tenured university professor and kindred specialists in cultural production who trade in symbolic representations, the more captivating the better, but for a black janitor, a black fast-food worker, a black accountant or a black physician in their day-to-day?
At most, the paradoxical quietism of Afropessimism yields an ethic, sustained by those ‘in the know’ about the necessary eternity of black enslavement, that fuels a negative solidarity of eternal exclusion. Occasionally, Wilderson vacillates, perhaps sensing that his radical racial essentialism could be plunging his reader into an abyss of despair, so he gestures in the direction of constructivism: ‘Like class and gender, which are also constructs, not divine designations, social death can be destroyed. But the first step toward the destruction is to assume one’s position (assume, not celebrate or disavow), and then burn the ship or the plantation, in its past and present incarnations.’ But this concession is quickly withdrawn: blacks are ‘often psychically unable and unwilling to assume this position’, which ‘is as understandable as it is impossible.’ And so, Wilderson writes, ‘Black people form a mass of indistinguishable flesh in the collective unconscious, not a social formation of interests, agendas or ideas.’footnote38
This raises a conundrum: what is the status of Wilderson’s own discourse as the ‘narrative’ of a ‘slave’? Does its author not believe that Afropessimism offers a sober, accurate assessment of the quandary of blackness? Would that not mean that there is an ‘outside’ to the condition of ‘slaveness’ from which a black author can speak—and possibly ‘speak truth to power’?footnote39 An erudite ‘slave’ writing for an attentive audience of educated readers, black and nonblack, is surely more than a generic Slave capital-s. His very existence points, if not to an outside of slaveness, at least to gradations within the category. Does Wilderson’s ability to reflect on his own social position and existential injuries suffered on the sole account of being black in American society, to share his insights, broadcast his view in and outside academia, and enlighten his readers not invalidate his account of blackness as paralysing slaveness?footnote40 Otherwise what would be the point of propagandizing ‘a looter’s creed: critique without redemption’?footnote41
Afropessimism is not a theory so much as a mood coalescing in the hangover from the Obama years and a paradoxical expression of the yearning of the African American cultural bourgeoisie for black solidarity, be it negative, made more tenuous by upward class mobility or inheritance. It offers a rhetorical radicalization of racial nihilism in the face of shifting yet enduring black oppression that leads straight to political abdication. It is ironic and revealing that Afropessimism would thrive in the academy and seduce college-educated black millennials at the very moment when Black Lives Matter, the most significant movement of black mobilization since the Civil Rights Movement, surged in the streets, challenging the premises of white rule across the gamut of American institutions, starting with the university.footnote42 Ultimately, Afropessimism flounders because it denies the varieties of blackness and the historicity of racial domination that have been demonstrated time and again—first and foremost by the long string of hard-fought victories of black struggles for dignity in America, Africa and beyond.footnote43