What is the state of race relations in the summer of 2021? What remains of the uproar and reckoning that the Black Lives Matter movement stirred up beyond the borders of the United States the year before in response to the police murders of African Americans? What remains of the wave of solidarity that also swept across the social media profiles of European art and cultural institutions? More fundamentally: can whites show solidarity with the suffering of Black people and effectively fight oppression and violence against them at all, or are they structurally responsible and therefore to blame? Can intersectional alliances be formed in the fight against oppression? Are there opportunities for coalitions and alliances across race lines?
The African American poet, author, and philosopher Frank B. Wilderson III clearly rejects humanist hopes for such alliances. With his book Afropessimism, which will be published in German in the fall, he has presented an indictment in his idiosyncratic style, mixing autobiographical passages with theoretical explanations. It extends the foundations of afropessimism as a diagnostic tool and radical lens within the broader field of critical race theory—a field that is currently under particular pressure in the US. After becoming a talking point and agenda item for the Republican party, several states have passed laws that prohibit the teaching of critical race theory in middle and high school.
Afropessimism focuses on the singularity of Black suffering and tries to readjust the foundations of leftist theorizing. It posits that the enslavement of Blacks and the continuing violence against them forms the anchor of our world: the “Black” serves as a foil and counterpart, the counter-image to and, therefore, origin of the concept of “people.” Afropessimism sees itself more as a diagnosis than a solution. For afropessimists, change presupposes the end of the world. The “people” on the one hand , Black slaves on the other hand: That is the radical basic premise of the theory. To what extent this stance is justified, how much validity it can develop universally or globally beyond the US context, and how it can be made productive for activist and political issues, is hotly disputed.
V / A editor Marc Schwegler spoke to Wilderson in the context of the magazine’s ongoing focus alliance. Here we are publishing excerpts from their conversation.
«Generally speaking, the history of Black people in the United States has been to side with whoever is suffering. And we have done this for hundreds of years. Unconditionally. We have just said that we are for the people that are suffering – and against those that make them suffer. There’s a word in the Bantu language family: Ubuntu. It just means “compassion.” Personally, I think that the history of Black people has been too much Ubuntu and not enough critique. Because what happens is that the inverse does not happen to us. Historically, we gave all our energy to the suffering entity in our midst – but that suffering entity always gave their energy to us only under certain conditions.
In 1999, there was a thing that happened at UC Berkeley called the Third World Liberation Front Strike. It really just started as a conference – bringing in revolutionaries from the original initiatives in 1968/1969, which created a massive strike at UC Berkeley and at San Francisco State across the bay. Back then, the two campuses erupted, and out of this eruption came what we now call Asian American Studies, African American studies and so on. But it was very violent. In 1999, we brought back those people from years ago for the conference. And then some undergraduates found out that the University of California was going to cut the budget for ethnic studies. I won’t go into the details, but the conference erupted into phase two of the Third World Liberation Front strikes after the one in the sixties. And it was about a year and half of major interventions. A thousand people sometimes taking over a building or chaining themselves to it, getting into confrontations with the police.
At one particular moment three Black people demonstrating peacefully were assaulted by the police. One of them started swinging his fist against the cops. If you touch a police officer in the US, that’s called assault; it’s a Class A felony, punishable by 18 months in a state prison. They were put on trial and the movement had a major decision to make. My position was clear: We leave no comrade behind; we now have to fight the county in addition to the university to not prosecute our people. But many of the Asians, the LatinX and some of the whites in our coalition were like: No, these Black people violated the code of non-violence. And what began to emerge – to cut a long story short – in the highly contentious meetings during spring and summer, where we discussed how we were going to respond in the fall, was the fact that the desire, the unconscious dream of joy for the Black people was an end result of fire. As Gaston Bachelard might say: a psychoanalysis of fire, just the pyrotechnics on their own. But the dream and desire of LatinX people was the expansion of rights and claims inside a civil society. And so a fundamental emotional or psychic difference emerged. Fortunately Jared Sexton and I were there to give it some sense and a theoretical framework. Because the energy of the Black students was just: “Fuck it, let’s burn the shit to the ground! The pig assaulted me; the pig pulled me by the dreadlocks! Fuck non-violence – it’s just a tactic!” But the LatinX people were like: “No! It’s a principle! It’s not a tactic! We believe in non-violence!”
We were saying: We have to go to the courthouse and disrupt it so that they cannot pull off these trials. We have to make them understand that if they try these students and send them to St. Quentin, there will be waves upon waves of agitation, of property destruction, and conflict. We were not going to leave anybody behind. But one brown person said, speaking from his unconscious, highly agitated, “This will make me a target just like you,” as opposed to the correct statement: “I would love to be a target just like you!” I said to them: “What do you mean?” They said: “My parents did not cross the Rio Grande for me to end the United States. They crossed for me to get an education, etc. etc.” And I answered: “Well, my parents did come up through slavery and to the North for me to be an active part of civil society as well, but civil society refuses to give me that opportunity and therefore civil society is unethical. I want you to come over here, stop being an immigrant, and become a slave! Respond in the way a slave revolt responds, which is not to try and regain territory but simply to burn the plantation to the ground.” But they said “no” and we said “yes” – and the coalition went from 1000 people down to 250 over the course of three months. That was an eye-opening moment.
Afropessimism is first and foremost an iconoclastic engagement with the left—not the right. It is an engagement through a critique of the assumptive logic of the left, so that hopefully we can intensify the revolutionary infrastructure of thought on the left. Afropessimism is a critique of the basis of all the pamphlets, the posters, the speeches of the left as it engages with their underlying assumptions and theories. Basically, there’s two of them: either they reference Marxism, or they reference psychoanalysis. More often, it’s a Marxist lens. What we’re saying is that if we want a revolutionary thought, then we need to talk about the blind spots of Marxism – especially its inability to think through the suffering of the slave.
A basic premise of afropessimism comes from Orlando Patterson’s book Slavery and Social Death—although I was told by a grad student that he is rather hysterical about the way we have appropriated his work. I chalk that up to him being a Jamaican immigrant; the immigrant mentality is one of trying to get along in a country as opposed to wanting to destroy it. There are just some people, especially immigrants, which can’t face the abyss, but we’re helping him trying to understand his book a little better than he does. Anyway, one of the things Patterson brings up in his book is that we have to stop thinking about slavery as people in chains, in shackles, people chopping cotton or sugarcane. We have to think of it in the way Marx thought about capitalism. Capitalism does not exist on the factory floor – that’s one of the places where capitalism is experienced. Capitalism is a relational dynamic. So what is the relational dynamic of slavery? It is this: There are sentient beings who have to exist in other people’s minds as natally alienated, which means without having filial or even afilial relations. They may have mothers and fathers, but that’s not the essence of their existence; the libidinal economy can’t think of them as having those relations. Next to this natal alienation there is a second important dynamic—that of general dishonor. Not the dishonor of the working class, which is to say the dishonor if you do not act according to the hegemony of the ruling class. No: You’re dishonored in your being – not in your actions. And finally there is an openness to gratuitous violence, which means those beings are available as a resource for the needs of others, whatever those might be. They might be pleasurable; they might be violent. The violence being imposed upon them is larger than what their actions might evoke. It’s being violated without the possibility of even giving or not giving consent to being violated.
Afropessimism argues that those three qualities – natal alienation, general dishonor, and openness to gratuitous violence – have to exist for certain sentient beings to allow a world to be a world, for a stratified society to exist. Because if they do not exist, then communities of people who call themselves humans and free citizens with the ability of giving or denying consent cannot know themselves as such unless there are others over there who are totally deprived of that. In this perspective, slavery is a necessity, a constituitive element of civilized societies, allowing them to understand themselves as being. And this is true, Patterson argues, going back thousands of years and over all cultures. So before the Arabs hit Africa, in 625 AD, there were peoples in Africa enslaving others or they were being enslaved – but, crucially, before they were “Black” or “Africans.” The important thing to note is that there was no prior plentitude called “Blackness” before slaveness. Just as there was no prior worker before capitalism – there were serfs and landlords. Our intervention with respect to the libidinal economy that differs from Patterson’s view is that we think that at a certain point in time, slaves were not recruited or made anymore. So we’re arguing – and that is the most controversial aspect of Afropessimism – that everybody has been thinking Blackness as a cultural identity. But while there might be cultural elements to it, it is more so a paradigmatic position. A position that did not exist before somehow a global consensus emerged that sub-Saharan Africa is a place of socially dead beings. Because there were no free Blacks before slave Blacks.
Some people say Afropessimism denigrates Black people. We say: Show us the existence of Blackness before the aforementioned global consensus – a consensus that happened, mind you, rather quickly! I have not done the research myself, but I have students who do it. And they show how somehow the Gulf state Arabs came to the Eastern part of Africa and just started harvesting slaves. The people that today are called Iraqis, Iranians, East Indians, Moroccan Jews, and Berbers, after 625 AD they all began to converge on these bodies that were – in their minds –always already dead. That’s interesting to me—because it contradicts Patterson’s thoughts. He hasn’t accounted for how Blackness actually comes into being.
One way to think about it, is that the word human – if we think about it semiotically – is not organic. It has to have its other to exist. And Patterson says you just can’t have an organized world without slaves. They don’t have to be in chains! In the Ming dynasty they wore silk garments and were civil servants, but they were understood to be bodies that were available for everybody else’s use. If we did not have that, we would not have the United States. It’s like gazpacho soup: It’s served differently in Spain, Mexico, Guatemala, but it always has tomatoes in it. No matter what the other ingredients are, it is overdetermined by tomatoes. And what we are suggesting is that “worldness” is overdetermined by “Blackness” – and more specifically Anti-Blackness.
Where we agree with Patterson is that there was always slaveness. Before Columbus came to America, the Choctaw in the southeastern and the Ohlone in the northwestern part of the United States – they harvested slaves a lot. The way they harvested them was precisely how Patterson describes it. It was contingent upon them conquering another people or someone in their own community who behaved in such a way that they were no longer allowed in it. So there was contingency. But what the people who are opposed to the concept of afropessimism fail to do is showing us free Blacks before slaveness. It can’t be done. You can show me free Maasai or free Asante, of course, but not free Blacks – because Blackness does not emerge devoid of slaveness.
And that actually does something to temporality. This is a really interesting thing for storytelling because it says that there is no temporality to Black existence. In every narrative – whether it is political or bourgeois – we have instantiated a prior plentitude which is disrupted. So there can always be a dream of political redemption – a dream Native Americans carry in their hearts. Because the day of political redemption is the day the immigrant—wherever he or she came from— is sent packing and turtle island is returned to native people, from the tip of Peru to Alaska. It really does not matter if that day ever happens – what matters is that is a conceptual possibility. I don’t think any Black person can write a story like that.
I have been struggling as a creative writer with this for a long time. Because I am positioned in a place where there is no narrative arc of redemption for my body; however, my unconscious desire is always overdetermined by a desire to become white or disappear. One would like to be able to tell a story or write a poem that moves from plentitude to a description of disruption – whether it is colonialization or capitalism – and then in the imagination moves to some kind of political or personal redemption. But Black existence is a flat line of historical stillness. This contradiction – and this is why my book reads in such a jigsaw-puzzle way – lies in the desire to be coherent, but it can’t possibly be articulated.
I was struck with something that Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks. He’s talking about France but also the whole Western world, in a way. What he suggests is that some kind of suppression is internal to the white family structure . The mother is a second-class citizen, the daughter’s desire has to be directed at the father. These hydraulics of gender alone produce a constant pressure on the psyche. That kind of pressure is necessary for any structure to stay in place. Even you and I speaking—we are under the pressure of grammar. We must adhere to the rules of grammar so that this conversation can be coherent, but we also have varying degrees of resistance to that. It comes up in dreams, slips of the tongue, and in the way children butcher words and concepts. And we would like to do that, too, but we can’t. And that “but we can’t” builds up a form of aggressivity.
In so-called “primitive” cultures that aggressivity got expelled through rituals. Masks, dancing, burning things in effigy, these were ways to channel this energy somewhere else, so that it is not directed back at the community. What Fanon suggest is that the Black imago is already available on a microscopic level to the white family as a destination for the aggressivity that would otherwise erupt internal to the white family. The RAF in Germany in the 70s and 80s was nothing more than a family disruption. The Germans asked themselves how Ulrike Meinhof could become a terrorist – how could “one of our daughters” turn out like this? That question cannot be asked of Assata Shakur or Angela Davis. They can never be imagined as “one of our daughters.” They’re always already a destination for our aggressivity: we might need them for joy, we might need them as jouissance, as a release.
Fanon makes an interesting point even in his homophobia—which I wouldn’t want to defend. If a white man goes to a brothel and gets a Black subject to beat him, as a sadomasochistic pleasure, we have to understand that the Black man is not a man or a subject in this mise-en-scène because the stage of this whole thing has been set by white, male desire and joy. Even if the encounter is reversed – one beats the other – reciprocity does not exist between the slave and the non-slave. The violence of this sexual encounter looks like the Black man is beating his lover, but what you have to understand is that the violence has a higher level of abstraction, in which the white lover has created the entire stage. And the Black man is just a resource.
It’s a kind of logic that narrative artists in the United States cannot exactly inculcate or present. You do find it in the book 12 Years a Slave, though. Of course, as a Christian man and forty years before psychoanalysis, Solomon Northup can’t describe it as I do in my book. But what he is actually reporting is: “Look, people are coming to our cabins at twelve midnight to take us out and whip us. The family is coming on Saturdays on their way to a picknic and they whip us. I hear the cries of people being whipped up and down the Delta.” This is an area I’m very familiar with, this ninety miles stretch from New Orleans up to Baton Rouge where you have 450 plantations based along the Mississippi River. The place you see in the movie is right across the river from where my family’s plantation was. But Northop says about the beating, the whippings, the violence: “I don’t get it!” And Marx said the same thing when he worked for the New York Daily Tribune and wrote about slavery in America. He said: “I don’t understand how these Southerners can keep up the productivity with this degree of beatings.” What he did not understand was that those beatings were not utilitarian. They were not for profit – they were for joy, for pleasure, for community building.
When I teach my undergraduates, we begin the first day of class with watching Lars von Triers’ Manderlay. Only a European can hate America comprehensively enough for us to get out the truth. I tell my students that I don’t believe that Lars von Trier understands the movie he made. What I believe is that he is so iconoclastically hateful towards the United States of America that his artwork opens up a possibility to explore the forbidden territory. I say to the students: Look at the way he talks about that film. Lars von Trier thinks that it is an allegory on the occupation of Iraq, but he made a fatal mistake. He should have made it as an allegory by situating it on an Indian reservation. Then he could have the coherence of land appropriation, of labor power appropriation. But he situated in on a slave plantation. And he wasn’t careful enough – the way white Americans would be – to massage it, to make it look like a working-class struggle. Von Trier’s film is a very interesting teaching tool because it says: Here is a totalitarian state, a plantation run by a woman played by Lauren Bacall. Then a younger white woman arrives who takes over from her. She liberates the slaves and imposes her communist will on the plantation.
But the important thing for us, what von Trier has been able to get out of that film, is that the unconscious of both white women sees the Black body in the same way, as a resource to be appropriated. Except that the liberal white woman who liberates the plantation is embarrassed by what her unconscious is telling her conscious mind. And that embarrassment leads to a series of faux pas and wrong turns which end up disastrously for her at the end of the movie. My point to the class is that whether it is a situation that extracts all the labor power from the slaves and gives them nothing or whether it is a situation that democratizes the resources of the plantation to share them equally, both are instantiations of white hegemony on Black bodies, with no sense of Black agency and Black discourse in either of them. That is the brilliance of Lars von Trier’s film. In two hours and twelve minutes he has been able to show how the United States as a project has no capacity for reform or redemption—as long as there are Black people.»