by Marcus Lee
Michael Dawson’s critique of Afropessimism centers primarily on the striking inattention to historical detail in the writings of Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton. Both writers pose slavery and the present as so deeply interwoven that claims of historical continuity require neither explanation nor qualification. Wilderson writes, “The changes that begin to occur after the Civil War and up through the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power, and the American election of a Black president are merely changes in the weather. Despite the fact that the sadism [i.e. spectacular, gratuitous violence] is no longer played out in the open as it was in 1840, nothing essential has changed.” Sexton likewise suggests that the structural relations constitutive of slavery remain pervasive and are unyielding, “regardless of variance or permutation in [their] operation across the better part of a millennium.” According to Dawson, these sweeping claims, as well as many of the other theoretical maneuvers in Wilderson and Sexton’s writings, work to obscure rather than clarify the terms of antiblackness and result in a general loss of analytic purchase on the current moment.
I appreciate Dawson’s historically informed critique. Wilderson and Sexton often substitute rhetorical flourish for the opportunity to parse historical detail or substantiate claims. In reading Wilderson’s memoir, Afropessimism, however, I am struck by his unique mode of narrative theorising. Whereas Dawson bases his critique in empirical precision and historical specificity, Wilderson revels in the personal and the polemical. Wilderson’s sweeping claims, on my reading of them, do not just constitute historical slippages or inaccuracies, but also imply that history itself is somehow beside the point or irrelevant to his theoretical propositions. In other words, there seems to be a certain methodological incongruence between Dawson’s critique and Wilderson’s writing: while the former is concerned with material histories, the latter is theorising on different grounds entirely. This is not to diminish the significance of Dawson’s response; critical readings need not occupy the same analytic register as the objects to which they are responding in order to be generative. And—regardless of the utility of historical observations in Wilderson and Sexton’s writings—Dawson is correct to warn against the real-world implications of glossing over records of struggle and political economic change in order to craft theory. As he notes: “What is at stake is far more critical than an academic debate between abstract theorists.”
Still, the methodological incongruence between Dawson’s critique and Wilderson’s Afropessimism begs a set of questions: To what extent can historical data serve as counterevidence to a text whose animating assumption appears to be that history matters little? How might a more immanent critique of Afropessimism be constructed? What grounds Wilderson’s theoretical propositions, if not history? In other words, how does Wilderson arrive at Afropessimism and what might be said about the case material that gets him there?
The starting-point for this brief essay is Wilderson’s implicit invitation to read Afropessimism differently: not just as a field of critical theory or school of thought, but as a historical mood, a sensibility, or—what Jafari Allen would call—a “habit of mind.” What interests me are not Wilderson’s empirical or historical observations, of which he offers few in Afropessimism, but his narrative strategy. Following the literary styles of writers like Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin, and Saidiya Hartman, Wilderson fills his text with accounts of ordinary, yet personally formative encounters: a conversation with his grandmother, a fight at a boys’ club, an embarrassing moment with a romantic partner, drama with the landlord, a cab ride, office hours with a student, etc. The details of his narration—including its organisation, whom he does and does not give voice, and which encounters warrant reflection—provide the basis of his case for Afropessimism. I submit that readers might gain additional traction on the theoretical innerworkings of the text by examining the implications of Wilderson’s genre choice and writerly tendencies.
One of the noticeable features of Afropessimism, on my reading, is how little narrative significance Wilderson assigns to dialogue among Black people. Although he describes Afropessimism as “Black people at their best,” Wilderson narrates very few scenes of Black people at all. Instead, he provides many accounts of one Black person—himself—being alienated by his non-Black counterparts—e.g. a conversation between he and a Palestinian friend; a game of “secret agent” between he and three White childhood neighbors; a reception with non-Black attendees of a workshop in Berlin. It is through these encounters and others like them that Wilderson comes to recognise his standing in the world as a Black person. However, he gives short shrift to moments of intra-racial witnessing. To the extent that Wilderson does narrate encounters between and among Black people, he nearly always presents them as scenes of resentment, anxiety, or failed intimacy. In this way, Black people appear to have no moments of recognition between them—certainly no intra-racial sociality—but only what he calls “intra-Black imbroglio”: enduring confusion, painful embarrassment, or bitter misunderstanding.
Perhaps, then, it is not just a stubborn inattention to history that leads Wilderson to elide the development of intra-racial communication networks, art and literary circles, political institutions, churches, and mutual aid societies across the late-19th and 20th centuries (or what Dawson calls “the formation of modern black civil society”), but rather a more fundamental failure to imagine generative relationships between and among black people. Or, perhaps his tendency to discount patriarchy is not just the result of empirical imprecision, but is linked to how he narrates relationships and encounters with Black women—for instance, how might we understand Wilderson’s infatuation with Bernadette, onto whom he projects fantasies of an unnamed, slain Black woman? Or his general tendency not to reflect on relationships with Black women at all, except when their lives indicate forms of violence that prove rhetorically useful in his narrative? Maybe Wilderson’s insistence that “Blackness is coterminous with Slaveness” is not only a misreading of the historical record, but also the product of a habit of mind attuned to seeing “intra-Black imbroglio” first. What I am suggesting here is that Wilderson’s sweeping claims are not just inaccurate observations, but are indicative of a practice of reading, a sensibility—one more invested in the rhetorical uses of anti-black violence and death than the historical fact or political implications of intra-racial sociality.
The current uptake of Afropessimism within and outside of the academy indicates that many find its habits of mind appealing. This is likely attributable, at least in part, to the countless episodes of violence and democratic failure that shape our present: the mediatised killings of Black people, the election of Donald Trump (despite the popular vote), the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris (despite—or maybe because of—their major political contributions to the expansion of prisons and police), inequitable access to COVID-19 related health care, etc. Black people have good reason to feel pessimistic. However, it seems that Afropessimism does not only model pessimistic feeling, but also a set of practices or a sensibility that discounts intra-racial sociality. We lose more than we gain, politically speaking, when our rage toward the world is undercut by a failure to witness each other. Countering the perils of Afropessimism requires historical correction as well as the development of an alternate habit of mind.
 Frank B. Wilderson, Afropessimism (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2020), 96.
 Jared Sexton, “People-of-Color-Blindness: Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery,” Social Text 28 (2(103)) (2010), 37.
 Jafari Allen, “One View from a Deterritorialized Realm: How Black/Queer Renarrativizes Anthropological Analysis,” Cultural Anthropology 32(4) (2016), 620.
 Wilderson, Afropessimism, 40.
 Ibid., 100.
 Ibid., 152–5.