Part III: Afropessimism and 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. Parts one and two can be read here.



Zamansele Nsele: The killing of George Floyd and the video recording of his death have ignited nationwide and international protests. What do you think of  the circumstances under which Minneapolis is under the global spotlight, both in your book and currently in the media? 

Frank Wilderson: It is interesting that my book came out two months before George Floyd’s murder. Of course, I did not plan this; I had no idea. There is a chapter in the book called “Hattie McDaniel is Dead”, which is set in Minneapolis. Folks will have to buy the book to understand fully what I’m talking about. 

What I’m trying to say, is that, yes, the murder of George Floyd in the social-democratically-oriented city of Minneapolis seems like a scene out of Dixie. But the structure of anti-Black violence, even in a bastion of liberalism, had been a soup of gratuitous violence long before Floyd was murdered.

 When I first started writing that chapter, I thought that the violence I was going to write about had a narrative arc. I imagined those scenarios in the chapter as a result of contingent violence: violence catalysed by Stella’s lawsuit [Stella is a Black woman I was a  partner to at the time]. In other words, like George Floyd’s murder, it became impossible to tell a conceptually coherent story about violence, because I could not be sure that the violence was contingent upon the “transgressions”. Stella and I were not special. 

Most Black people have stories of gratuitous violence to tell; violence in one’s life that resists the arc of narration. We were not special. What the chapter is saying is that, beneath the surface of a so-called liberal Scandinavian social democratic haven like Minneapolis, or beneath the surface of a Helen Suzman dream of universal Humanity, you have the same structure of anti-Black violence you have under PW Botha or US President Donald Trump. It’s just that white progressives are embarrassed by the state violence that sustains them, so they disavow it. But every so often, the liberal façade is torn, and the violence that sustains them lives out in the open.  

What was your hardest scene to write? And why?

The scene that opens and partially closes the book is the psychotic episode: it was probably the most challenging to write. No one wants to admit to, much less write about, having gone mad; much less sell that story to 10 000 people. It was difficult to expose myself like that. But the other difficulty is manifest in the fact that I don’t believe there is a point in a Black person’s life, prior to a breakdown, in which that person was sane. I believe we move through life with low-grade insanity, which can flower or explode into a psychotic episode like the one I had in the year 2000. 

Therapy and/or psychoanalysis attempts to take you back to a time of prior sanity. But that is a temporality that does not exist for the Black psyche; not because there is something wrong with us, but because the world imposes an insane, prelogical paradigm of violence on us; which in turn secures the capacity for sanity for everyone but us. To be sane is to be non-Black. 

The scene that my book opens with is saying, “It’s impossible for me, as a Black implement of non-Black desire and aggressivity to be sane.” But it’s also saying, “If Human sanity is secured by the prelogical violence of anti-Blackness, then the Human cannot be sane and ethical at the same time.” (I make this point through a deeper interrogation of Lacanian psychoanalysis in my second book, Red, White & Black, than I do in Afropessimism.) 

Yes, it’s a dramatisation of my mental breakdown; but the scene labours as a condemnation of Human capacity — the capacity that I don’t have, which is the capacity for sanity. That’s the big takeaway point, but it was damn hard to write. For I had to face the abyss of my relational void. Which meant I had to admit, I had to dramatise what was really happening: that in the middle of my psychotic breakdown, I began to fear more for the psychiatrist and the nurses who were (sort of) attending to me than I did for my own psychic wellbeing. I had to show myself caring for their sense of anxiety, my desire to give them relief from their Negrophobogenisis; my need for them to be safe, safe from me, “a hulking black mass with matted, uncombed hair, and orbs of fireworks bursting from holes where the eyes should be.” 

We’re back to David Marriott’s claim that the Black unconscious is overdetermined by White desire and the White ego ideal. I had to surrender my desire for personal coherence and write like an Afropessimist. Write a diagnosis of Black suffering that does not offer a cure. Das Kapital is a diagnosis of class suffering. But it has at its fingertips a prescriptive gesture, a cure: the end of the world of capitalism, followed by a communist renewal. Afropessimism also offers a cure, but for most people it is too hyperbolic, they don’t want to hear. You know it, right?

Protesters demonstrate outside a burning fast-food restaurant in Minneapolis in May 2020, during the protesting that broke out over the murder of George Floyd by police (Photo: AP)

Yes, it’s called the end of the world. People don’t want to hear those words because it is so unimaginable; the loss is too great.

Yes, our loss is unimaginable; too great to even be coherent as loss. Demographers tell us that had it not been for the Arab slave trade, and the European slave trade, there would be 200-million more people on the African continent than there are today. And the social and technological development of Africa would be exponentially greater than anything we could imagine. 

They didn’t just rob us of land and labour time. They destroyed our relational capacity at every level of abstraction; they destroyed recognition, incorporation, reciprocity and the constituent elements of world-making capacity. They destroyed our world at the level of ontology. And they’re always afraid that ontology is what we’ll take out of their ass if and when we rise up. Capitalists’ fear of communism is just fear. 

But Humans don’t fear Black insurgency; it terrifies them. If the workers prevail in class warfare, the new dispensation can be imagined. But if the Black revolt prevails, all bets are off. The other side of that dust-up is literally unimaginable. The Afrikaner had a bead on the unconscious when he coined the phrase “swart gevaar”. It was the force of his unconscious attempting to articulate a terror that White, English-speaking South Africans prefer to repress. 

Frank B Wilderson III  is professor and chair of African American studies at the University of California, Irvine. (Ebrahim Safi)

One of the criticisms against Afropessimism is that it originates in the US academy and that it is only applicable or exclusive to the Global North (not in the Global South where there is a Black majority context). What do you say to this?

That is a form of sophistry that is coming from people who want to demonise Afropessimism through ad hominem attacks rather than engaging and interrogating its first principles and assumptive logic. So it’s a way for them to do an end-run around the argument and condemn it for where it comes from. 

Let me tell you, when I arrived in South Africa in  1989, I was in  Soweto, Jo’burg for six weeks. I came back in 1990, then I moved to South Africa in 1991 and finally left at the end of 1996. I saw two kinds of contraband caches, one was for weapons and explosives that were hidden in places like Phola Park. But the other kind of hidden cache would be like a hole in a wall hidden by a piece of furniture, where you might find a tiny collection of contraband books, a secret library teeming with banned books like Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, for which I was told you could get 18 months in prison; or, for instance, works by the Black Panthers. 

What I was finding, was that 50% to 70% of the literature from those contraband caches came from the Black revolution in the Americas. Yes, they were reading the works of Stephen Bantu Biko, but they were also reading Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. They were reading Angela Davis. They were reading Huey P Newton. The Black American literary tradition was influencing the imagination right alongside Black Consciousness and the works of Amílcar Cabral. And I don’t recall the hue and cry, “We are unduly influenced by too many books from the Global North, too many books from Black America.” No one said, “These books have nothing to do with our South African struggle.”

Let me tell you a funny story about the Mail & Guardian. Sometime in 1992, I was in a debate on the floor of a Hillbrow/Berea ANC Branch meeting with this white communist who was saying the Branch needed to form a local dispute resolution committee with our IFP [Inkatha Freedom Party] enemies and the SAP (South African Police). In fact, the order to do so came from Shell House. Nelson Mandela’s people in the ANC wanted us to form local dispute resolution committees (LDRCs) with the people who were killing us; to come together with the IFP and the police in mini-imbizos all over South Africa. 

So, our branch is debating the issue before we vote on it when this white guy gives a pitch for the angels. In other words, he calls himself a communist, but he’s got nothing but love for the SAP and the IFP. Like Mandela, he’s convinced that a LDRC will make Hillbrow/Berea a safer place to live; and he has the nerve to mobilise what he claims are ideas from Antonio Gramsci to ballast his assertions. 

I rose to the floor and said, “Hell no, I’m not gonna sit down with Themba Khoza who is slaughtering our people right here in Hillbrow and across the Transvaal. We are not going to sit down with the police who transport the IFP to the killing fields.” (There’s an internal ANC division during that time between Mandela’s people on one side and Chris Hani and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s people on the other side. It was being played out in that debate.) So, the LDRP motion is, thankfully, defeated at that branch meeting. 

After I made that intervention in the debate, Albie Sachs’s son, Michael, and Sachs’s former wife, Stephanie Kemp, pull me by the button and ask me to run for a seat on the executive committee.  You see the White communist tried to argue that Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks teaches revolutionaries that it was right to join such formations as the LDRCs with the likes of Themba Khoza and the SAP. But anyone who’s actually read Gramsci knows better. 

I had studied Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks under Edward Said, at Columbia. Compared to this White guy, I was a Gramsci expert. At that time Gramsci’s conception of civil society, and his ideas about wars of position and wars of manoeuvre were all the rage in the Transvaal. At Wits [University of the Witwatersrand], I taught The Prison Notebooks in a graduate seminar. In Soweto, I led a study group on it. 

During the debate I asked this joker what sections of The Prison Notebooks he was referring to. He was struck with aphasia. So, I told him, straight up, that he was lying, misrepresenting Gramsci. Then, I countered with the same book — referring to the precise sections, sometimes even the pages — when I launched my counterargument. He was a White accommodationist masquerading as a communist. It was cold-blooded, the way he tried to bamboozle the sisters and brothers at that meeting (90% of the members were Black).

So, when Michael Sachs and Stephanie Kemp ask me to run for a seat on the executive committee, they also ask me about my past. “Tell us about yourself. How did you become conscious, politically?” I said, in the late 1960s and 1970s I was in a lot of revolutionary learning spaces — emphasis on the word “learning”. I said when I was 13 and 14 I used to go to the Black Panther office where they would have anti-imperialist teach-ins for junior-high and high-school kids. So, here’s where your newspaper comes in.

A few days later, Michael Sachs wrote short bios about the Hillbrow/Berea slate of candidates in the Mail & Guardian. My bio said that I had been a member of the Black Panther Party for self-defense. I never said that! But it had been less than two years since the ANC had been unbanned. Sachs laughed and said something like, “Well your having been a kid in Panther political education classes doesn’t pique as much interest as your having been a Panther; the latter does a lot more work for our membership drive.” We both laughed. 

To come full circle, my point is that when it came to ideas from Black America, well, everyone in the struggle was animated and interested in those ideas: because the paradigm of Black suffering is the same across the globe, even though the histories differ. The naysayers are lying. An analysis of global anti-Blackness disturbs and disaggregates their analysis of capitalism, their analysis of white supremacy, even their analysis of gender. And they are seeing in South Africa, Black youth across the board who are sick and tired of imperial cronyism, through which Humanist analyses such as these are foisted on them as essential lenses through which their Black suffering must be explained. They are sick and tired of the anti-Black incursions and the violence levied against them from White governments in blackface on the continent and the negro political class in North America.

 With Afropessimism, they can now assess their predicament for themselves, and do so at every level of abstraction. That makes the old guard shiver. But refusing to rigorously engage  Afropessimism and calling it a northern import makes them sound, not like revolutionaries, but like Boers sending out their warning calls about the swart gevaar.

You have previously  mentioned that Afropessimism would not be able to make the critical interventions that it does without Black feminism. Could you tell me more on the Black  feminism that underpins Afropessimism?

When I speak of Black feminism, I dont mean all of the Black feminist archive, any more than I mean the entire archive of critical Black studies when I refer to the writing of Black scholars who are men, women and transgender people. I’m most interested in the Black feminism that teaches me something about the singularity of Black suffering, as opposed to feminism that could be deployed in an argument that emphasises what all women have in common. 

So, you see, the archive of Black feminism, like any other archive, is vast and diverse. I’m highly selective, as I am with every archive. I don’t approach it like a smorgasbord. But I do think that all Black feminism is wonderful, even that part of the archive that I don’t necessarily agree with at the level of assumptive logic. The analysis of Black suffering has for too long centered on the Black cisgender man’s experience.

My work, in particular, and I would say Afropessimism in general, is influenced by one stratum of Black feminism. I’m thinking of the work of Saidiya Hartman, Joy James, Christina Sharpe, Sylvia Wynter, Hortense Spillers and Zakkiyah Iman Jackson, for instance, in which revelations on structural violence jump out from the page. Through immanent critique, and rigorous exegesis, deployed via meditations on the experiences of Black women they give readers theory at its best — ways of seeing that aspire to generalisation. 

For example, in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” Spillers debunked my notion of a universal proletariat, by showing me how we exist as cargo in the collective unconscious; and why capacity for filiation is subtended by anti-Black violence. Through her case studies on the rape of slave women in the 19th century, Hartman has shown us how a constituent element of Human ontology — consent —is not a constituent element for slave women, slave men, or slave children and, most importantly, why 1865 did nothing to change this. 

The Black, even today, has no consent to be revoked. These are major, major meta-critical interventions that we might not have had without this particular stratum of Black feminism. Their works help us understand how and why the state and/or civil society injures flesh that is Black though, paradoxically, the injury cannot be recognised or recorded as such. We possess no consent to be violated. This is what this stratum of Black feminism has taught me and so many others.

As someone that deals with a theory that is, on the one hand, perceived to be bleak while, on the  other hand, it can be read as energising, giving relief  to people who live their entire lives being gaslighted by the world into believing that they are lacking because they are of  African descent. What care practices do you do in your daily life that give you the endurance?

At a simple level I do yoga, I exercise and I take cannabis for my cancer — it’s legal in some states and I’m fortunate to have a doctor who prescribes it. I consult a Babaaláwo, a Voudon priest similar to what you call a sangoma. I think the real answer to your question is that I don’t believe that Afropessimism is an emotional pessimism. I think that it has been mischaracterised as an emotional pessimism. It is a pessimism of the intellect, but an optimism of the will. Will being the Black movement on the ground: what we’re seeing in the States, in the streets, and what we’re seeing here. 

It is pessimistic about the emancipatory claims made by Marxism, pessimistic about the emancipatory claims made by non-Black feminism, pessimistic about the emancipatory claims postcolonialism makes, pessimistic about the emancipatory claims of indigenous thought. Afropessimism is not pessimistic about Black folks’ capacity to set it off.

 If we understand this, then we can see Afropessimism itself as a form of care. It gives us the power to pose the question that we were heretofore denied. And the power to pose the question  is the greatest power of all.It gives us explanatory power at the level of meta-critique. We can take down our interlocutors by turning their assumptive logic inside out. It’s not integrationist. It’s not Afrocentrist. But nor is Afropessimism a refuge for other people’s hopes and dreams. It gives us the power to struggle alongside people who are fighting for their sovereignty, while at the same time ridiculing the puniest of such demands.  We have no sovereign selves to be restored. That’s what makes us so fierce. 

What it says to Black youth in South Africa and what it says to Black youth in North America, what it says to Black youth in South America, and in Europe — it says that nothing should shackle your imagination. You can feel joy when a police station burns. It frees our imagination to think a Black thought out loud; to be neither fearful nor ashamed of our pent up desire for the end of the world. 

We exist in a world that says, at every turn, we don’t exist. A world that tells us, to paraphrase Fanon, “Turn white or disappear”; a world that pits our unconscious against us. “What do you do with an unconscious that appears to hate you”? A world that says we must always atone for our presence — not our actions but our presence. 

Afropessimism makes no such moral judgments. You don’t have to feel guilty if you hate the United States, or Europe, just because you call it your home. Afropessimism gives you permission to wallow in the contradictions. Afropessimism listens to the symptoms of your rage; it listens to your imagination at those rare moments when it is not shackled to onerous tasks of making your desire make sense to non-Black people. It says free your rage, free your joy, free the joy in rage, and free the rage in joy, for you, Black people are the truth of the world.

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

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