It is tempting to describe Frank Wilderson’s new book, “Afropessimism,” as an autobiography of a critical theory. The book provides both sequel and prequel to “Incognegro,” Wilderson’s account of his experiences in the South African freedom movement. At the same time, it uses its autobiographical narrative to dramatize and support the theory that gives the book its name.
I acknowledge that describing the book in this way might violate a core Afropessimist principle. A key point of the theory, at least as it appears in Wilderson’s book, is that blackness, unlike autobiographies, has no story. Stories are narratives that move toward closure. They have characters seeking redemption or solving problems. According to Afropessimism, there can be no redemption for blacks, no way to solve the problem of anti-blackness. We are not characters in our own story. Black degradation and death are the ground on which other people’s stories — human stories — unfold.
Wilderson’s ambitious book offers its readers two great gifts. First, it strives mightily to make its pessimistic vision plausible. Anyone unconvinced by the vision may find this a dubious contribution, but enough people have been convinced by the view to make an accessible introduction to it a valuable resource just for understanding contemporary intellectual life. Second, the book depicts a remarkable life, lived with daring and sincerity. “Afropessimism” shares unvarnished glimpses of Wilderson’s childhood, his undergraduate years, his life as a worker and activist between stints in the academy, his graduate studies and their toll on his mental health, his personal relationships, and his experiences as an increasingly well-regarded academic.
The main challenge of the book may be that it offers both these gifts at once. It wraps its critical theory in a memoir, in a way that means for both elements to be mutually supporting. The narrative vividly establishes the need for theoretical intervention, and the theory provides keys to understanding the narrative. When a white woman in the story cannot comprehend her black neighbor’s request that she knock before entering the neighbor’s home, the theory concludes that a master-slave script still governs interracial interactions. When a Palestinian friend tells Wilderson that Israeli military aggression is particularly humiliating when the soldiers are Ethiopian Jews, the theory says that anti-blackness runs deeper than other forms of injustice. When Wilderson’s mother asks him what problems Afropessimism solves, the theory says she is unwilling to face the hard fact that anti-blackness is a problem with no solution.
This simultaneous commitment to analysis and to narrative sometimes pulls the book in opposite directions. Paragraphs that could have helped develop a scene instead crank up the theoretical machinery. Energy that could have been spent translating jargon into normal prose goes instead into setting up a metaphor. One can almost hear the gears grinding as the book shifts from one mode to the other.
These clashing objectives are most costly on the theoretical side. Just in the form I tried to give them above, the Afropessimist’s claims are probably puzzling to the uninitiated. How does one face a problem with no solution? Why say that blacks are not human, instead of just that we’re treated that way? Why does anti-blackness have to trump capitalist exploitation, gender oppression and white supremacy directed at people other than blacks?
Reading the book felt a bit like returning to the culture wars of the late 20th century. Some people back then ostentatiously courted paradox as a way of pointing to the limits of language. Others grumpily insisted that “paradox” is a $20 word for “inconsistency” and pointed out that inconsistencies tend to complicate practical activity. When one side said “There’s no truth,” the other side said “How can it be true that there’s no truth?”
The point, of course, was that truth-seeking doesn’t work the way we usually think. It hides the operations of power, and it relies on institutions — like media companies, universities and think tanks — that have goals often quite opposed to producing knowledge. The paradox is both shorthand and provocation, potentially useful but in need of unpacking.
Wilderson revels in a similar sleight of hand. His claim that there is an “essential antagonism between Blacks (Slaves) and Humans (masters)” probably means that the notion of humanity doesn’t function the way we usually think, and the causes and pleasures of anti-blackness run too deep for humanist appeals to justice and rights. But this is also a provocation in need of unpacking — one of many.
“Afropessimism” is a contribution to a long-standing debate in black letters over the place of optimism in an anti-black world. The debate flares up at key historical turning points and recruits its combatants from the brightest lights of each era. Albert Murray criticized James Baldwin in the wake of the U.S. civil rights movement. Stanley Crouch took up arms against Toni Morrison in the long valley between Selma and Obama. Ta-Nehisi Coates took on all comers as the Black Lives Matter movement gathered momentum.
After he published “Dusk of Dawn,” Du Bois seemed to join the pessimist side of this fight. Near the end of his life he gave this advice to a young admirer: “Chin up, and fight on, but realize American Negroes can’t win.” What can one do with that?
Du Bois gave one answer when he indeed fought on from outside of the United States, in Ghana. Many years later, Cornel West teased another response out of tragicomic cultural forms like the blues. Accept the absurdity of a world that arrays itself against you, while working — in faith, hope and love, and with whatever joy one can find or create — toward the better outcomes that, however unlikely, are not impossible.
I confess that Afropessimism strikes me as a refusal of the possibilities that make “fighting on” conceivable. Afropessimists say this misses the point, but I usually lose the thread of their responses when the sleight of hand begins. The best reply I’ve seen is not in Wilderson’s book but in an essay by University of California at Irvine professor Jared Sexton. He describes Afropessimism not as a problem-solving intervention but as a commentary on the cost of trying “to delimit the ‘bad news’ of black life.”
There is homespun wisdom here, not terribly distant from the thought that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. But Wilderson wants to go further. He wants to say that we can’t even imagine an alternative to anti-blackness. Not yet. The best we can do is to imagine and fight for what he keeps calling “the end of the world,” at which point (I hope he thinks) new possibilities will reveal themselves.
But even that way of putting it may be too optimistic for him. If so, I’ll simply commit to admiring the economy and the poetry of his provocations. It’s not clear what else one can do when someone says that he would “make my home in the hold of the [slave] ship and burn it from the inside out.”
By Frank Wilderson
352 pp. $29.95