Incognegro, a Memoir of Exile and Apartheid
Winner of the 2008 American Book Award
Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms
Civil Rights

Mother never spoke of slavery
she was born and raised in a debutante ball
but when they killed King she wrote every blue
hair blonde eye a letter
like any spring of no reply winter
was late in leaving and we were her
only postage
my sister and I walking end to end
through the seep of slush and the push
of wind
no one dabbed a crystalled eye for
she would have no crying

[A poem from Incognegro: a Memoir of Exile and Apartheid]

Rather than celebrate Blackness as a cultural identity, Afro-Pessimism theorizes it as a position of accumulation and fungibility (Saidiya Hartman); that is, as condition—or relation—of ontological death. One of the guiding questions of Dr. Wilderson’s engagement with Afro-Pessimism asks, How are the political stakes of analysis and aesthetics raised and altered if we theorize the structural relation between Blacks and Humanity as an antagonism (an irreconcilable encounter) as opposed to a (reconcilable) conflict?
The following question was asked on a graduate student exam for a Critical Theory Seminar, entitled “Sentient Objects and the Crisis of Critical Theory,” that he taught Fall Quarter 2006.

Question: Why are the theorists under consideration [in this seminar] called “Afro-Pessimists,” and what characteristics do they have in common?

“Afro-Pessimists are framed as such…because they theorize an antagonism, rather than a conflict—i.e. they perform a kind of ‘work of understanding’ rather than that of liberation, refusing to posit seemingly untenable solutions to the problems they raise.”

“[The Afro-Pessimists argue] that violence toward the black person happens gratuitously, hence without former transgression, and the even if the means of repression change (plantation was replaced by prison, etc.), that doesn’t change the structure of the repression itself. Finally (and this is important in terms of the self-definition of the white person), a lot of repression happens on the level of representation, which then infiltrates the unconscious of both the black and the white person…Since these structures are ontological, they cannot be resolved (there is no way of changing this unless the world as we know it comes an end…); this is why the [Afro-Pessimist relational-schema] would be seen as the only true antagonism (while other repressive relations like class and gender would take place on the level of conflict—they can be resolved, hence they are not ontological).”

“[The Afro-Pessimists] work toward delineating a relation rather than focus on a cultural object.”

“Something that all the Afro-Pessimists seem to agree upon regarding social death are notions of kinship (or lack there of), the absence of time and space to describe blackness…There is no grammar of suffering to describe their loss because the loss cannot be named.”

“[The Afro-Pessimists] theorize the workings of civil society as contiguous with slavery, and discuss the following as bearing witness to this contiguity: the inability of the slave (or the being-for-the-captor) to translate space into place and time into event; the fact that the slave remains subject to gratuitous violence (rather than violence contingent on transgression); the natal alienation and social death of the slave.”

“[T]he Afro-Pessimists all seek to…stage a metacritique of the current discourse identified as “critical theory” by excavating an antagonism that exceeds it; to recognize this antagonism forces a mode of death that expels subjecthood and forces objecthood [upon Blacks].”

“For Fanon, the solution to the black presence in the white world is not to retrieve and celebrate our African heritage, as was one of the goals of the Negritude project. For Fanon, a revolution that would destroy civil society, as we know it would be a more adequate response. I think the Afro-Pessimist such as Hartman, Spillers, and Marriott would argue there is no place for the black, only prosthetics, techniques which give the illusion of a relationality in the world.”

Like the work of Jared Sexton, Saidiya Hartman, David Marriott, Hortense Spillers, Frantz Fanon, Lewis Gordon, Joy James, and others, Wilderson’s poetry, creative prose, scholarly work, and film production are predicated on the notion that slavery did not end in 1865; the United States simply made adjustments to the force of Black resistance without diminishing the centrality of Black captivity to the stability and coherence of civil society.

The Convocation of Conquest

my chair was missing from the table
an oversight I’m sure
standing there I considered the distance
we’d walked just to arrive and the
horses apathetic to the prey of their riders
gaining in spite of themselves with heads
so enormous cold mist from their nostrils
fell upon the moon upon you and
me and the men and women
we took with us from the corners of sleep
one dream one table one people with one
unnamable loss and no place set
even aside

[A poem from Incognegro: a Memoir of Exile and Apartheid]

For those interested in novels, poetry, films, and critical text that explores the questions posed by Afro-Pessimism, the following list is a good place to start.

Armah, Ayi Kwei. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Oxford; Portsmouth, N.H., USA: Heinemann, 1988, (1968).

Baldwin, James. Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone. New York: Vintage Books, 1998 (1968).

Bush Mama. (Dir. Haile Gerima 1977). Perf. Barbara O. Jones.

Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous conditions. Seattle, Wash.: Seal Press, 1989, c1988

Eady, Cornelius. Brutal imagination: poems. New York : G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2001.

Edwards, Gus. The Offering. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press, c2002

Eltis, David. “Europeans and the Rise and Fall of African Slavery in the Americas: An Interpretation.” The American Historical Review. Vol. 98, No. 5, Dec. 1993.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann.
Grove Press, Inc.: New York, l967.

Feelings, Tom. Middle Passage: White Ships, Black Cargo. New York: Dial Books, 1995.

Gordon, Lewis R. Bad faith and antiblack racism. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1995.

Hammonds, Evelynn, M. “Toward a Genealogy of Black Female Sexuality: The Problematic of Silence.” Feminist Genealogies, colonial legacies, Democratic Futures. Eds. M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, l997.

---.“‘The Position of the Unthought’: An Interview with Saidiya V. Hartman.” Conducted by Frank B. Wilderson, III. Qui Parle, Vol. 13, No. 2 Spring/Summer 2003.

---. Lose Your Mother: a Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

Himes, Chester B. Lonely Crusade. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947

James, Joy (ed.). Imprisoned Intellectuals: America’s Political Prisoners Write on Life, Liberation, and Rebellion. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Pub. Inc., 2003.

Judy, Ronald. “On the Question of Nigga Authenticity.” Boundary 2. Vol. 21, No. 3 (Autumn 1994): 211-230.

---. (Dis)Forming the American Canon: African-Arabic Slave Narratives and the Vernacular. Minneapolis: Univ. of MN Press, 1993.

Keeling, Kara. “‘In the Interval’: Frantz Fanon and the Problems of Visual Representation.” Qui Parle, Vol. 13, No. 2 Spring/Summer 2003.

Killer of Sheep. (Dir. Charles Burnett 1972). Perf. Henry G. Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy, Angela Burnett.

Manderlay. (Dir. Lars von Trier 2005)

Marriott, David. On Black Men. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

---. Haunted Life: Visual Culture and Black Modernity. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

Martinot, Steve and Jared Sexton. “The Avant-garde of White Supremacy.” Social
Identities. Vol. 9, no. 2. June 2003.

Mbembe, Achille. On the Postcolony. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Random House, 1987.

The Murder of Fred Hampton. (Dir. Howard Alk 1971)

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Sexton, Jared. Amalgamation Schemes. Minneapolis: University of MN Press, 2008.

Shakur, Assata. Assata: An Autobiography. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1987.

Spillers, Hortense. Black , White and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 20003.

Wacquant, Loic. “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration: Rethinking the ‘Race Question’ in the US.” New Left Review, no. 13, January/February 2002, pp: 41-60.

The Watermelon Woman (Dir. Cheryl Dunye 1996)

Wolfe, George C. The Colored Museum. New York: Grove Press, 1985.

X, Malcolm. “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Speech delivered February 4, 1964. Detroit. Audio cassette: Pacifica Archives.

Yancey, George. Who is White: Latinos, Asians, and the New Black/Nonblack Divide. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Pub., 2003.