Part II: ‘Afropessimism’ and the rituals of anti-black violence

People who approach racial slavery as just an event will experience Frank Wilderson III’s book, Afropessimism, as a violation. In his own words, they will encounter “Afropessimism as though they are being mugged rather than enlightened; that is because they can’t imagine a plantation in the here and now”. Yes, even here and now of South Africa. 

Set in Minneapolis, New York and Johannesburg, Afropessimism was released on April 7. This was two months before the streets of Minneapolis were set ablaze as a result of the video recorded lynching of a Black man, George Floyd, whose brutal murder was beamed on to our screens and played on repeat across the world. At that time, Wilderson could not have known that a harrowing scene around the corner would fit into the book’s agenda like a hand into a glove. 

In 1991, Wilderson, who grew up in Minneapolis, was the second African-American to be elected into the official ranks of the ANC. (The first was Madie Hall Xuma, who was the president of the ANC women’s league in 1943.)

Wilderson is professor and chair of the African-American studies department at the University of California, Irvine. He is a poet, filmmaker and the multi-award-winning author of Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid (2008) and Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms (2010). The title of his third book also refers to a school of thought that critiques civil society’s naturalised dependency on anti-Black rituals of violence. Amid the current international Black Lives Matter protests that are leading to the toppling down of the statues of slavers and imperialists, the Mail & Guardian interviewed Wilderson on his latest book and the genesis of Afropessimism as a field of thought. This is part two of a three-part interview. Part one can be read here.


Zamansele Nsele: The term anti-Blackness is  becoming more prolific in the mainstream media. In your book, you make a distinction between the two terms. In your view, from an Afropessimist standpoint, how is anti-Blackness different from White supremacy?


Frank Wilderson: To simplify without making this simplistic, White supremacy is what happens to people of colour who are not Black. This is why racism is not as rigorous and precise a term as it needs to be. Like racism, White supremacy doesn’t do the work of understanding how the violence that underwrites anti-Blackness can’t be analogised with the violence that secures White supremacy. What we are saying is that non-Black people of colour suffer horribly but their suffering has a conceptual grounding wire; unlike the violence of anti-Blackness, which is prelogical and conceptually incoherent. White supremacy is conceptually coherent; in other words it happens to non-Black people of colour (POC) because White people need something tangible from them, such as land. I understand that this is layered and complicated in South Africa because land is an important underlying factor; but we would argue it is important, but not essential, it is not the essential underlying factor or catalyst of anti-Black violence.

Let’s think of White supremacy as a triangulated structure of oppression; the triangulated structure is what gives the violence of White supremacy a kind of coherence that anti-Black violence does not have. Think of three edges that meet at three points. At one point at the bottom you have the Europeans. At the opposing bottom point you have, let’s say, the indigenous community that is being violently, even to the point of genocide, robbed. What is being robbed? Land. Now we have the triangle’s pinnacle, the third point of the triangle — land. In semiotics we call this a “third term mediator”. Third term mediators are precisely what are lacking in the structure of anti-Black violence. The bloody encounters between the Europeans and the indigenous is White supremacist (rather than anti-Black) because both the victim and the perpetrator share a grammar, which is secured by the third term mediator, land. The violence makes sense. This is a conflict about how that land will be organised, owned and governed. Even in genocide, White supremacy offers recognition and incorporation to the being(s) being genocided: the genocide is contingent upon the victim’s recalcitrance in the face of the settler’s demand: “Your land or your life.”

Third term mediators also lend conceptual coherence to the violence of capitalism against working class people (who are not Black). Here the character of the mediator is temporal rather than spatial. Here the demand is: “Your labour time [the working day] or your life.” The capitalist wants to organise the day so that you work more to produce surplus value. And the worker wants to organise the day so they can work less to produce no more than use-value. Here, time is the pinnacle of the triangle, the third term mediator. Time, then, lends coherence to class warfare, just as land lends coherence to White supremacy. 

What does the White supremacist give to the POC subaltern, and vice-versa? Recognition: I recognise your Human capacity to name and lay claim to land. But you are not White so you manifest that capacity in ways which are inferior to mine. (Israelis are fond of saying “We made the desert bloom.”) I’m just going to rename and usurp what was your land, and kill you if you transgress my new world order. Note the contingency in “if you transgress”. So, not only is the violence conceptually coherent but the third term mediator allows for it to also be contingent upon a (real or fantasised) transgression. This is not how anti-Black violence works.

Within the paradigm of social death, anti-Black violence cannot be conceptually secured by a third term mediator. The anti-Black unconscious does not recognise the capacity for Black people to organise space or time, conceptually. There is no shared concept because the collective unconscious of Humans, whether exalted (White people) or degraded (indigenous) or somewhere in between (the working class), do not recognise capacity for the ability to transpose space into place or time into event as belonging to Black sentient flesh. We are speaking implements or objects, in the collective unconscious; not speaking subjects. What does anti-Blackness extract if it is not (essentially) land or labour-time? It takes everything. The slave is the embodiment of absolute domination. Which is why the violence is not contingent but gratuitous. The extraction is not conceptually coherent. It cannot be whittled down to a concept. No story is adequate to its telling. For it is life itself that is extracted. The capacity to be counted among humans. But we are the fulcrum of the world. Without our embodiment of a total absence of the ontology of life, life itself, meaning what it means to be Human would face the catastrophe of incoherence. What would it mean to be Human if Humanity included Black people? We are the foils against which the world (and world making capacity) defines itself. And to keep that anti-Black paradigm of oppression safe and sound, a violence like no other is needed. Academic, sociologist and writer Orlando Patterson says that every society needs to think slaveness to think non-slaveness. Humanity requires a sentient being who has no access to recognition, no access to incorporation, no access to culture even if that person says, “Hey I have culture, I speak Xhosa, I speak Zulu.” Yes, but in the collective unconscious you are Black.

Black Lives Matter: Los Angeles gathers for political education with Frank B. Wilderson III, 2014

ZN: I am thinking about how in your  book you say that some people experience Afropessimism as though “they are getting mugged”. The way that I am interpreting this is that they experience Afropessimism  as though it is the theory itself that is taking something away from them. I am imagining people in South Africa, especially some Black people who are invested in narratives of “progress” and “moving on”,  may be inclined to think that exploring anti-Blackness through social death robs them of a “hard-earned agency” and of the psychic space of access to the African cultural accoutrements that accompany being a Black person on the continent. How would you respond to this sentiment? 

FW: Oh, I don’t have to convince them. The police and the army do the job of convincing. That’s a morbid way of saying that those interventions are not arguments. They are sentimental assertions. An assertion is not an argument. You see, all the things they’ve mentioned — “progress”, “moving on”, “hard earned agency” — well, it’s a phantasmagorical projection to suggest that a mode analysis called Afropessimism has taken all of that away from them. That’s what I mean by a sentimental assertion rather than an argument. It’s incumbent upon someone, whether Black or non-Black, to actually prove that third term mediators such as “agency” are something more than the wish of a traumatised Black person’s mind; that they are also part and parcel of the libidinal gaze of non-Black people when they look at us. I don’t think you can prove that. Furthermore, such a person would have to counter what I’ve said about the prelogical nature of anti-Black violence (it’s inherent gratuitous — rather than — contingent character) by a structural analysis of violence of their own; one which answers the question: “What do Black people do, what rules do Black people transgress to incur all this violence?” I don’t think that argument can be made. So instead, they do an end-around the Afropessimist argument and talk loudly about how it makes them feel. Well, you know what, it sometimes makes me feel like shit too, and I’ve written three books and a lot of articles about it. But my feelings are not what’s at stake. What’s at stake is an unflinching paradigmatic analysis and the end of the world, which means our freedom.

Being frank: Author Nadine Gordimer wrote to Frank Wilderson III in 1992. She makes an appearance in Wilderson’s memoir Afropessimism.

NZ: Could you tell me why you chose to blend  the genre of memoir with theory in writing Afropessimism

FW: At the level of structure, and in its rhetorical drive, Afropessimism is a genre-bending work of auto-theory that shatters the academic fourth wall and asks how critical and political theory can be incorporated and intermingled with real life, not merely used as a tool to measure, describe and define it. I liked the idea of using “embodied experience” as “the primary material for generating theory”. I think that the autobiography of civil rights activist Assata Shakur does this. I have taught that book for many years. My art practice has been duly informed by it.

There’s another aspect to the answer to your question. Narrative, as a structure exemplified by the narrative arc; an arc that moves from equilibrium or plenitude, to disequilibrium or dispossession to the denouement of redemption, known as equilibrium restore/renewed/reimagined or reparation, is not an arc that is available to a Black person (remember what I said about the prelogical structure of anti-Black violence, where there is no story of transgression to be told that would explain the violence). So, that means that narrative, in its most generic manifestation, is organically anti-Black. 

Narrative cannot narrate the experience of Black suffering without subjecting that experience to a structural adjustment. That is to say, without trying to insert the Black being into a story of contingent violence. So, I had to rupture the smooth progression of storytelling. I had to do that to subvert the normal progress narrative; to refuse the ruse of analogy that says I, as a Black person, can experience the arc of redemption and redress just like any other suffering being. I needed to write about something that cannot be narrated, anti-Black violence; rather than surrender to a narrative of White supremacist violence. I had to stay in the hold of the ship and not offer a false arc of redemption and redress. This required instersplicing stories with theory before those stories landed in the faux realms of redemption, redress, or resolution.

All in together: Frank Wilderson III (far right) at his grandmother’s house in Louisiana. His father is on the far left and between them are Wilderson III’s uncles and aunt (1969).

ZN: Can you speak on the role of film in the book (12 Years a Slave  and Punishment Park). How is the visual  medium of film as a form generative to your storytelling in Afropessimism? 

FW: Film is an art form where people show their anti-Blackness more readily and unintentionally.

ZN : I agree, and  I am  thinking of the trope of Black people dying first in  horror movies. When I was growing up watching slasher films, before being exposed to Afropessimism theory, when we saw the token Black character appear, we all knew that character in the movie would die first. In retrospect I think this echoes the real life of experience of Black people dying prematurely. 

FW: Yes, you are so right. In my second book Red, White and Black: Cinema and US Antagonisms. I watched well over 100 Hollywood films and I hate Hollywood films. You know Joseph Stalin was once congratulated on the tenacity of the Red Army on how it got to Berlin before the Allies. And he said, “Yes, I am very proud of the Red Army, but I would give you the Red Army tomorrow if you gave me Hollywood in return. I can dominate the world more effectively with Hollywood than with the Red Army.” What he meant by that, is that, the way in which cinema captures the imaginations and the way that it deploys its message is achieved through both the conscious and the unconscious realms of the mind. It is a powerful medium, the conscious mind of cinema, which is the script, is telling the story of universal Humanness. The conscious mind of cinema never says Black people are mere implements, or that they are extensions of the master’s prerogative. In short, the film’s narrative, the script, never says Black people don’t suffer when they are maimed; they cannot be injured; we can do anything we want with them from licentious sex to gratuitous violence; or they are a different species from the Human. But the visual strategies say this; the cinematic strategies say this. A White character and the Black character can be buddies and they can have the same journey in life — that’s the script; that’s the conscious mind of the film at work. But the unconsciousness of a film doesn’t lie like that. We’re back to the slasher films of your youth. 

If you compare the  sequencing of scenes where Black people are maimed or murdered with the sequencing of scenes in which such violence occurs to non-Black people (especially to White people), you find that a Black person can get beaten and then we move on to a sequence of scenes that is not focused on or even concerned with reflection upon the violence that just occurred. In other words, there is no recognition  in the unconscious of cinema that a Human being has been injured, that something dreadful has just occurred; nine times out of 10 it’s just the opposite: the spectacle of mutilated Black flesh is a pleasurable experience for the spectator. If you go to the other end of the spectrum and see the death of White people in Hollywood movies, the bodily mutilation of White people, there is collective reflection on that. Someone is sad, there is a funeral, and there is a remembrance.

This is not a conspiracy theory. There aren’t five evil men, or tokoloshes, in a Hollywood basement saying, we are gonna mutilate Black people in one scene and not reflect upon that violence in the next scene. This is an institutional analysis on how the collective unconscious works, and it is pervasive. It is precisely why we can have so much of what seems to be Black-on-Black violence in South Africa with the deployment of a Black government’s military into the townships maiming people; or what seems to be simply Black-on-Black domestic violence, rape and the spectacular mutilation of Black women. It is Black people killing Black people, at the level of performance; but structurally, that is to say, at a paradigmatic level, it is really anti-Black violence being deployed, not by subjects (non-Black people) but through their speaking implements. Cinema is a profoundly effective distribution network for the generalisation of anti-Blackness. So effective that it intensifies the suffering of Black people even when its narrative, its script, says, no, this film is meant to do just the opposite. Visual images of the murder of George Floyd or of Marikana work on two levels: the level of conscious, political intent to bring about change; and on the level of an unconscious necessity to maintain inaugural division between the living and the dead.

Cadre deployment: Kassian Vaubel, Alexis Hernandez Abreu, and Carol Vaubel see Frank Wilderson off at the Minneapolis airport in 1989. Wilderson was on his way to South Africa. (Supplied)

ZN: The cinematic strategy you mention, of swiftly “moving on” from Black mutilation to the next scene without a collective pause, reflection or a coming to terms with what has happened or a mourning, seems to capture the “move on ” ideology that we hear in South Africa so often — that we should move on and focus on fighting  corruption. It is usually accompanied with the retort that racism is now a relic of the past, the idea that we (as the Human race) have moved beyond that, we have transcended and made progress. I find it compelling how this desire “to move on” is fulfilled both in  film as well as in speech. But I am wondering how the desire to move on links to the repetition of Black mutilation, which swiftly loops us back into the scene of  (anti-Black) Human renewal? 

FW: That’s a really good question. What I’ve been saying, sometimes too indirectly, is that if it weren’t for this kind of Black bodily mutilation without pause, the Human, what it means to be, what it means to exist as subjects of discourse rather than as objects void discursive capacity, this distinction would be lost. Humanity would find itself perched on the precipice of what’s known as an epistemological catastrophe — the end of the world. The gratuitous violence sustains the inaugural division between the living and the dead. But this division and the gratuitous (rather than contingent) violence that sustains the division can only be discussed honestly and out in the open in eras of extreme “integrity.” Integrity is in scare quotes because I’m talking eras such as the era of chattel slavery in the South, or the era of apartheid in South Africa: eras in which the unconscious mind is calibrated with the conscious mind. No such integrity exists in so-called liberal democracies, like the United States — unless and until a true and honest American governs. Andrew Jackson was a true American president. His conscious mind spoke the truth of America’s unconscious. Donald Trump is a true American. But without those kinds of eras (such as the State of Emergency in PW Botha’s South Africa when I first arrived in 1989) what you get is a veil of disavowal from the mushy mouths of liberals, as the killing continues. You get narratives of progress and universal Humanity, while we die at rates higher than we did when Human beings said what they meant. Liberals haven’t the integrity to bear witness to the violence that sustains them, so fascists must do their dirty work; liberals disavow what’s in front of their eyes or chastise Afropessimists for being “divisive”.

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Zamansele Nsele
Zamansele Nsele is an art historian and she lives in Johannesburg

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