by Elizabeth Jordie Davies
“I can’t say too emphatically that we stand at a terminal point in history, at a moment of supreme world crisis. Destruction lies ahead unless things are changed. And things must be changed. And changed by the people.”
-- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
I approach Afropessimism with a question: what here can move us forward? I understand Afropessimism as an intellectual project, a description of the state of the world as anti-Black. Afropessimism asserts that Black people exist outside of the category Human and are fundamentally excluded from social and civil life. I also understand Afropessimism as having potential as a political project, one that presents both opportunities and challenges. In this way, I depart from Michael Dawson, who, in his essay “Against Afropessimism,” warns against Afropessimism’s anti-political stance.
Afropessimism makes an important political intervention by accounting for the slings and arrows of anti-Blackness, the indignities suffered by Black people and the right-ness of Black anger and despair. As such, slavery and anti-Blackness provide foundational understandings of the past and present by validating the Black experience and by explicating the relationship of Black people to the rest of the world. Even though Afropessimism itself locates Black people outside of politics, it prompts those of us who are interested in a politics after Afropessimism to consider what we might or can do in the face of a world that again and again refuses Blackness.
While I stress the political potential of Afropessimism, I also agree with and extend a few of Dawson’s criticisms of Afropessimism. I am particularly interested in the political stakes of centering Black death as the lens through which to view the world. Afropessimism’s singular lens is useful when naming the enduring problems of white supremacy and anti-Blackness; however, I worry that it limits the scope of political possibilities that can be pursued by linking anti-Blackness with the struggles of other marginalised people and by embracing the fights of multiply-marginalised Black people.
Thus, I conclude that a Black politics and Black life must be pursued beyond Afropessimism. Black culture and Black recognition provide the foundation that links Black people together beyond conditions of oppression, forms the basis of solidarity politics, and prompts us to imagine otherwise.
I. A Black Experience
Afropessimism offers a paradigm through which Black anger and despair can be fully recognised given the terrain of anti-Blackness, which is a result of the position of Black as “slave.” Wilderson’s Afropessimism follows and extends Hartman who locates Black people in the “after-life of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment. Yet for Wilderson, the Black condition is not solely an “after-life” but a static condition of slavery and Black exploitation in relation to the rest of the world. Blackness is the “other” upon which the world turns and operates.
In reading Wilderson’s descriptions of his life experiences of racism, both micro and macro aggressions, it seemed clear to me something was being articulated that was familiar to all Black people, something worth acknowledging for the truth it reveals and the foundational understanding it provides: the Black experience of being unacceptable to white people, being outside of social life, and unworthy of recognition.
Wilderson recounts conversations with his childhood friend’s white mother, wherein she asks the “unasked question,” first through his friend, then directly “How do you feel, being a Negro?” This exchange echoes Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk, wherein he ponders, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Wilderson’s personal experiences, though in some ways limiting the scope of his argument due to his positionality as a middle-class man, provide entry into the experience of Blackness as Black autobiographical writing has done throughout history. The barrage of attacks on Wilderson from white neighbors and colleagues echo a common theme throughout Black biography: an outsider looking in, an invisible man, or a woman hiding in the attic.
Wilderson asserts that the senselessness and inhumanity of racism and anti-Blackness can only make sense if to be Black is to not be human but to be in the category of slave. He emphasises that the history and presence of anti-Black violence is insurmountable in the political arena. He expounds on this in conversation with Linette Park for The Black Scholar, wherein he declares that there is no need for some “telos” or “destination” for Black rage. Instead, Wilderson suggests we should “pick the scab and let Black people do the work of combustion” without the “mandate of uplift” or the “mandate of civil rights.” In this way, Wilderson says, we have a “mandate of true acknowledgement of what snaps in the mind from the death of Black desire, and we’re saying that’s okay. Because, nothing can happen in this world without Black people being at the core!”
I am open to the political implications of what it means to be neither in nor of the world, positioned outside of social and civic life, and inhabiting an outsider status from where one could let go of the present and strive for a different future. Following Jasmine Syedullah, I recognise that pessimism, in particular, can serve as a “prophetic defense against the future white supremacy makes all but inescapable...despair works to expose the limits of political agency, incorporation, representation, and progress.” Afropessimism, then, suggests that to reach for some common ground with a white supremacist system is and always has been futile, given the relentless and ongoing reality of Black death since slavery. This axiom allows Black people to step away and slip through an open door to something else.
Furthermore, I agree with Sexton when he writes “Slavery must be theorised maximally if its abolition is to reach the proper level.” Sexton goes on, “The singularity of slavery is the prerequisite of its universality.” I therefore agree that the emphasis on anti-Black slavery is a useful anchor, pulling the conversation to the crux of the matter. Only in a system defined by anti-Black slavery can the logics of racism, the carceral state, colorism, capitalism, persistent inequalities in wealth and status, and diasporic divisions of Black people across space and time make sense.
There is power in naming the reality of the present in the realm of a post-slavery continuum that demonstrates how what is remains linked to what was. If Black people remain in an undignified state of being, that helps explain ongoing dissatisfaction, anger, and uprisings. Black activists’ extension of the “abolitionist” fight from slavery to mass incarceration, for example, demonstrates the discursive power and mobilising potential of placing modern struggles within the long trajectory of anti-Blackness.
II. The Limits of Afropessimism
Despite the discursive power of slavery and anti-Blackness as the defining backdrop of the modern world, this framing has important limits. Dawson asserts that Afropessimism, in its singular focus on new world slavery, obscures the genocide of Indigenous people and flattens the experience of Black people. I argue that we must be able to reasonably acknowledge and centre the experiences of Black people vis-à-vis slavery, while also linking this struggle with other experiences of colonisation and marginality. Two things can happen at once. Attention to the struggles of others does not weaken or shrink the gravity of Black struggle.
Without acknowledging the struggle of other marginalised groups, Afropessimism, as Dawson writes, is theoretically limited by not acknowledging the context in which slavery occurs. Afropessimism loses the fuller story of white supremacy and ignores that the anti-Black capitalist world was made possible through centuries of genocide and displacement of Indigenous people. Without this story, we cannot comprehend Black peoples’ stakes in fights against capitalism, colonisation, and the fight for environmental justice. The lack of acknowledgement of the colonisation of Indigenous people at the outset of modernity withdraws Black struggle into itself and refuses to see the areas upon which collaboration, mutual interests, and common enemies can build a pathway forward.
In addition, Afropessimism needlessly limits the scope of its argument focusing solely on the trials of anti-Blackness. However, anti-Blackness, and sexism, and classism, and homophobia, and (etc)... are all defining and intersecting struggles in Black life. I do not think that the answer is mere recognition of these struggles, wherein simple acknowledgement or “representation” is the reliable answer. Rather, we should name these systems of domination as part and parcel of anti-Black practices because Black people bear the brunt of all of these “-isms” in distinct ways. The Black experience is expansive and we cannot ignore the variations in conditions that make for better or worse life chances.
I am concerned that Afropessimism forecloses questions of solidarity, refusing the possibility that Black people can ever benefit from true cross-racial solidarity, as well as refusing the power of Black led social movements.
Wilderson writes that “left-wing counter-hegemonic alliances” are “an essential terror” and that “coalitions and social movements—even radical social movements like the Prison Abolition Movement—bound up in the solicitation of hegemony, so as to fortify and extend the interlocutory life of civil society...ultimately accommodate only the satiable demands and legible conflicts of civil society’s junior partners (such as immigrants, White women, the working class), but foreclose upon the insatiable demands and illegible antagonisms of Blacks” (emphasis Wilderson’s).
There is something to be learned and understood from the assertion that everyone is anti-Black, and that there (perhaps) can be no pure solidarity. I accept that. When Wilderson recounts his Palestinian friend’s anti-Blackness, or when his father was called a n*gger by a Native American man, I do not excuse these as one-off experiences but as examples of the embeddedness of anti-Blackness. There is no good reason to ignore this fact and I am not here to suggest that we pursue cross-racial solidarity at the expense of Black safety and well-being, or that we should prioritise coalitional politics only, or before first building up Black political bonds.
But avoiding opportunities for solidarity leaves a lot on the table. Acting in solidarity connects multiple struggles against white supremacy and builds power, rendering solidarity a useful tool that can be used to accomplish political goals and better the terrain, even in an anti-Black world. And better is not perfect, but it is better.
It is better for Black people to be out of prison than inside of it, it is better for Black people to be able to vote than to not be able to vote, even as anti-Blackness says those voting rights are and will always be under attack. It is better for Black people to enter class struggle in solidarity with other workers. The fight for a free Palestine has always been and always will be intertwined with the Black freedom struggle. We cannot slide into a realm of futility that diminishes the value of waging political fights for subjugated people the world over.
This is not to say that progress is a given, or that there are no fights that Black people should refuse. It is not evident to me that the oft quoted Martin Luther King Jr. aphorism “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is accurate. I do not think that Black people should be in coalitions with people who deny their humanity. Black people will have to fight for every modicum of progress and will have to use discernment about who fights alongside. Guidance for these fights, though, can be found in a rich Black radical tradition. Furthermore, Black culture and Black community can serve as grounding and mobilising forces beyond the realities of anti-Blackness.
IV. Black Life Matters
“The archival of black life is more than counting the dead, the maimed, and the dispossessed. Rather, it holds a possibility of deep remembrance of the freedom dreams of our ancestors, those who walked before us, and walk beside us, and those yet to come. Freedom dreams don’t live in real time. They live in epiphenomenal time—that black (w)hole of our existence in which the past, present and future are coiled around each other like that tiny black curl at the nape of your neck your grandmama used to call a “kitchen.”
-- Zenzele Isoke, “Black Ethnography, Black (Female)Aesthetics: Thinking/ Writing/ Saying/ Sounding Black Political Life”
While Afropessimism offers an intellectual path away from this world, it does not fully revel in the pleasurable cultural experiences of being Black. This includes the continuum of common experiences, language, and culture through which Black people are able to recognise, know and acknowledge each other. Thus, the pathway forward after Afropessimism must be sought elsewhere.
Sexton argues that “Nothing in afro-pessimism suggests that there is no black (social) life, only that black life is not social life in the universe formed by the codes of state and civil society, of citizen and subject, of nation and culture, of people and place, of history and heritage, of all the things that colonial society has in common with the colonised, of all that capital has in common with labour—the modern world system. Black life is not lived in the world that the world lives in, but it is lived underground, in outer space.”
It may be the case that Black social life is lived outside of civil society. But even so, Black social life and culture deserves a central place in the condition of Blackness as it has always been there, moving Black people through and forward. New and old Black feminisms and Black queer politics provide rich, grounding traditions of expansive togetherness, inclusion and safety for all Black people, even as these were and are located outside of mainstream feminist and queer movements. Though the world is predicated on Black death, Black people can be revived through Black collectivity. As Kevin Quashie writes, “Antiblackness is part of blackness but not all of how or what blackness is. Antiblackness is total in the world but not total in the black world.”
Black art and literature, Black music, call and response traditions, the Black church: there is so much we give for and to us that gives cause and reason to carry on, to not despair, and to fight at least for the space where we can be us, even if that space is outside of the social world. Traditions seen as errant and often unrecognised for their artistic contributions mean something to Black people and demonstrate that Black existence is more than just a condition of slavery. We should revel in who Black people are in spite of anti-Blackness, not to ignore its persistence but to honour those who came before.
While we must take care not to, as Hartman warns, “fill in the void” with political projects that are ultimately integrationist, nor reclaim struggles against anti-Black violence as some demonstration of otherworldly strength or endurance. I think, however, there are ways to revel in Blackness that exists outside of what are typically seen as justice-bent goals or characteristics, like integration or endurance. Black people can, in fact, revel in their outsider status, as Hartman demonstrates in her book Wayward Lives, and build a “transformational politics from below,” as Cohen discusses in her essay, “Deviance as Resistance.”
In this essay, I find important political potential in grounding anti-Blackness as the defining condition of the world, as it validates and speaks to the Black experience. However, I also agree with Dawson’s critique that Afropessimism does not adequately recognise the struggles of other marginalised groups and homogenises the Black experience.
I find important limitations in the theory of Afropessimism as it forecloses possibilities for linked solidarity struggles by minimising the struggles of other marginalised groups outside of Blackness. Even as the outsider status of Blackness provides a generative space to pursue a different world and even revel in Black life, Afropessimism alone does not fully appreciate Black cultural traditions.
We may hold Afropessimism as a truism describing the state of the world; but I see Black radicalism and Black feminism as the imaginative, world-building politics that provide a path forward. Author and womanist Alice Walker, speaking at an Anti-Nuke Rally at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1982, offers food for thought in this regard:
“Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it. In any case, Earth is my home—though for centuries white people have tried to convince me I have no right to exist, except in the dirtiest, darkest corners of the globe.
So let me tell you: I intend to protect my home. Praying—not a curse—only the hope that my courage will not fail my love. But if by some miracle, and all our struggle, the earth is spared, only justice to every living thing (and everything is alive) will save humankind.
And we are not saved yet.
Only justice can stop a curse.”
 Ellison, R. 1995. Invisible man. New York: Vintage International.
 Hartman, Saidiya. 2007. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux: 6.
 Wilderson, Frank. 2020. Afropessimism. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation: 24-27.
 Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903, 1994). The Souls of Black Folk. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc. 1.
 Park, Linette. 2020. “Afropessimism and Futures of …: A Conversation with Frank Wilderson.” The Black Scholar 50(3): 40.
 Gordon, Lewis R., Annie Menzel, George Shulman, and Jasmine Syedullah. 2018. “Afro Pessimism.” Contemporary Political Theory 17(1): 128.
 Sexton, Jared. 2011. “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afropessimism and Black Optimism.” InTensions Journal. Issue 5: Fall/Winter. Toronto: York University: 33.
 Ibid, 33.
 Or, perhaps Afropessimists would say, slower or faster deaths.
 Wilderson, Frank. 2020. 222-223.
 Ibid,12-13 & 44.
 Isoke, Zenzele. 2018. “Black Ethnography, Black (Female) Aesthetics: Thinking/ Writing/ Saying/ Sounding Black Political Life. Theory and Event, Vol 21(1): 149.
 Sexton, Jared, 2011. 28.
 Quashie, Kevin. 2021. Black Aliveness, Or a Poetics of Being. Durham; London: Duke University Press: 5.
 Hartman, Saidiya V. and Frank B. Wilderson. 2003. “The Position of the Unthought.” Qui Parle 13(2): 186.
 Cohen, Cathy J. 2004. “Deviance As Resistance: A New Research Agenda for the Study of Black Politics.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 1(1): 42.
 Walker, Alice. 1983. “Only Justice Can Stop a Curse,” in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. Barbara Smith, ed. New York: Kitchen Table—Women of Color Press.