Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

English Final Presentation

bluish's picture

Intro to Afro-Pessimism


Theoretical Framework:


Before delving into Afro-pessimism, I want to situate the philosophical stance I’ll be taking. In his new book, Stain Removal,  J. Reid Miller introduces the concept of “ethical inheritance.” He claims, “We [must] understand value and race not as external qualities affixed or attached to a preexisting subject but as structural relations of difference through which the embodied subject becomes recognizable” (58). In other words, as people, we come into being through relations of difference. Throughout this book, Miller furthers this idea by thinking of race genealogically. Calling us to consider race a transtemporal apparatus, a lineage not attached to our usual understandings of time/change/progress. This offers us a way of conceptualizing race that tends to the “muchness” of it. Miller explains racial formation as a lineage, through which “ethical inheritances” inform and constitute our subject-formation. Miller encourages us to look beyond racism and ethics and see race as a form of evaluation. When we begin to see race as value, meaning race as a system of differentiation and evaluation, we might also be able to better address the political and ideological systems which inform our own sociality.


Moving to Afro-Pessimism:


Black Skin, White Masks:

The fact of blackness

Frantz Fanon, psychiatrist and theorist from Martinique published Black Skin, White Masks in 1952, and acts as the forefather of post-colonial psychoanalysis. This work laid the foundation for Afro-Pessimism and Black ontology.


“I am the slave not of the “idea” that others have of me but of my own appearance. I move slowly in the world, accustomed now to seek no longer for upheaval. I progress by crawling. And already am I being dissected under white eyes, the only real eyes. I am fixed. Having adjusted their microtomes, they objectively cut away slices of my reality. I am laid bare. I feel, I see in those white faces that it is not a new man who has come in, but a new kind of man, a new genus. Why, it’s a Negro!” (116).


Again, Fanon touches on the genealogy of anti-Black sentiment, and the great rift that fixes Black being.


“The disaster of the man of color lies in the fact that he was enslaved. The disaster and the inhumanity of the white man lie in the fact that somewhere he has killed man” 231


Some questions I have for this presentation:


  • What are the conventional frameworks used to conceptualize race?
  • How do we confront the complexities of Black positionality?
  • What questions help us investigate anti-Blackness on a fundamental level?
  • As we question, how do we sustain?

In an interview with Saidiya Hartman, Frank Wilderson echos the genealogical traces of Black positionality, similarly to Miller’s ethical inheritance.


The Position of the Unthought:


“One could present a reparations agenda in the way in which you present your book, dealing with the despotism of black positionality as it moves from generation to generation, from historical moment to historical moment-- with despotism being the almost ahistorical constant. Unleash the tiger and let it do its thing” (199)



Intro to Studying Race:


Race is a really difficult place to be. Race is conveniently translated into racism and how to be rid of it. Which I think points to a deeper tension... As proposed by Miller, I want to think of race as always, already happening, doing away with the notion that race is a “surface level” marker, but rather a tenet of subjectivity.


Coined by critical theorist Frank B. Wilderson, Afro-Pessimism offers us a critical way of theorizing about Black existence/non-existence.

As a pillar of my research, Afro-Pessimism allows us to critique the solution-based orientation of most anti-racist agendas, and how such discourse fails to accurately encompass the Black position

Afro-Pessimism theorizes the black-humanity relation as an irreconcilable, ontological antagonism, rather than a theoretically reconcilable conflict like class.

-       Ontology: the nature of being, existence

-       "What can be said to exist?"

-       "What is a thing?"[3]

-       "Into what categories, if any, can we sort existing things?"

-       "What are the meanings of being?

-       "What are the various modes of being of entities?

“We’re trying to destroy the world” Anti-Blackness & Police Violence After Ferguson An Interview with Frank B. Wilderson, III


“If I’m right that the problem that Black people are in is not colonial exploitation and not racism but social death -- which is not to say that Black people don’t experience racism and that Black poor people are not exploited, but that once all that’s over, we’re still going to be socially dead -- then I think that we actually don’t have a political framework to deal with that, certainly not in Marxism, Feminism, and post-Colonialism” (10).

-       How does ubiquitous anti-Blackness differ from conventional definitions of white-supremacist oppression?


Most activistism implies the possibility of a Black subject, whereas Afro-Pessimism moves away from this schema, and proposes liberation on an individual level, a "work of understanding" as opposed to most contemporary discourse which posits utopian, solution-based frameworks.



I’d like to use Toni Morrison’s Beloved as a way to engage with the questions posed by afro-pessimism. The scene I want to focus in on particularly is when schoolteacher and his nephews arrive to take Sethe and her children back to the plantation, and to their disbelief, she has killed baby Beloved, and injured her other children. One of the nephews recalls being beaten and his own reactions. Morrison writes : “Hell, he’d been beat a million times and he was white. Once it hurt so bad and made him so mad he’d smashed the well bucket. Another time he took it out on Samson—a few tossed rocks was all. But no beating ever made him… I mean no way he could have… What she go and do that for? What she go and do that for?” (176).


In this situation, the nephew is basically saying: we both went through the same thing, why would you do that? This really gets at the center of what antagonism looks like, and the reality of how Black enslavement marks a critical, explicit point in the Black-humanity relation.


What are the material conditions which force a mother to sacrifice her child?


Sethe cannot protect her children from the state of gratuitous violence which positions them as slaves. The entirety of the West’s economic and social order is dependent upon the free labor of Blacks. The aim of a society is to implement systems of sustenance-- white society’s telos or trajectory is to perpetuate itself, protect itself and preserve itself. Sociology student and Mellon Mays Fellow, Crystal Des-Ogugua researches the role of Black women’s labor in the formation of western civilization, and posits Black resistance as a question of bodily control. If we use the example of Sethe in conjunction with Des-Ogugua’s proposal, schoolteacher must enslave Sethe in order to maintain and perpetuate his wealth. Just before the above passage, he mentions what a wonderful breeder Sethe was and how she was domestically talented she was. Black female reproduction and domesticity are what sustain his plantation. For Sethe, there is no future in which she or her children will be able to reach an order of perpetuation, protection and preservation. Those imaginings stand in direct opposition to those of the master, schoolteacher. With this dilemma, Sethe chooses to sacrifice her child, an act against the cross-generational, enslaving mechanism. And upon seeing what she’s done, schoolteacher is put-off, disappointed, and says she’s not worth anything because she’s crazy. She has malfunctioned. My point in expanding on this scene is to get at how vastly complicated and apocalyptic Black liberation is, and could be. Sethe’s act of infanticide cannot be understood within the confines of a white moral framework, she belongs to an entirely different genealogy of experience, and so would her daughter. The Black body is the tool to the slave-state (and think of prison industrial complex, entertainment industry, sports, etc.), and in order to conceive of something like “black liberation” we must look beyond the bounds of our own political discourse, or own fixations with conflict-solution equations. Conflict implies resolution, antagonism calls for the end of a world.



So where do we go from here?


I turn to literature, self-making, self-actualizing.


SO what do we do? It’s about movements, bursts of energy, make of it what you will. But if there’s anything I can get across from this presentation it’s the great importance of looking through what we believe we know, something we’ve toyed with this entire semester. When asked about his position on the Reparations movement, Wilderson commented:


“I support the movement because I know it is a movement toward the end of the world; a movement toward a catastrophe in epistemological coherence and institutional integrity—I support the movement aspect of it because I know that repair is impossible; and any struggle that can act as a stick up artist to the world,demanding all that it cannot give (which is everything), is a movement toward something so blindingly new that it cannot be imagined. This is the only thing that will save us.”


Wallowing in the Contradictions pt.1-





calamityschild's picture

<3 <3 <3 you gave us a wonderful presentation and i'm so glad i got to leave class on such a high note! <3 i have so much admiration for you and your work!

swati's picture

thank you amaka

Anne Dalke's picture

I add my thanks to those above; this was such a rich presentation. You'd said, when we were planning it, that you "wanted questions," and (as you saw-and-heard) your talk certainly provoked them for taught me a lot, introduced me to an area of theory that I need to learn more about, readings and thoughts I will pursue further over break and beyond.

I followed you closely from Jerry's claim that we "come into being through relations of difference," through Fanon's of being enslaved by his own appearance, Wilderson's work on "the genealogical trace," Afro-Pessimism's theorization of the "irreconcilable antagonism" of blacks and humanity--and from that, refusal of any "solution-based orientation"--to your (to me) very surprising final turn "to literature, self-making, self-actualizing...."

As I think through and reflect on all the missteps of this semester, you give me hope of someday "teaching race" again in a way that doesn't "conveniently translate race into racism," but conceptualizes it "as always, already happening," not a “surface level” marker, but rather a tenet of subjectivity."

Thank you (again) for offering me-and-us this way forward,