Afro-pessimism and its counterpart in the Black Radical Tradition, Critical Race Theory have been subjects of controversy in the last few months globally but especially in the US. These two Black theoretical interventions into the nature of racism emerged from the US and share the genealogy of Critical Theory which flourished in the US through the Frankfurt school. Archeologically this implies that Maafa and critical white theory (Southern cradle) are central to the making of Afro-pessimism. The Afro-pessimists we have in mind in this short piece are Jared Sexton and Frank Wilderson especially the latter. This is because Wilderson is the intellectual pied piper of Afro-pessimism even though he fails to comprehend how African culture as manifested for instance in African music escaped the violence of fungibility of anti-blackness since the “middle passage” (something realised by Fred Moten in terms of Black optimism). The fundamental argument is that by ignoring the African worldview and culture through overemphasising structural logic at the expense of the agency of Africans, Afropessimism concedes too much to the white normative gaze. This white gaze universalises itself by projecting its view as if it is natural to everyone. Therefore, Afropessimism lacks epistemological resistance to the eyes of the whites. This white gaze is the map which Afropessimism mistakes for the territory. In this short piece we aim to briefly outline our understanding of Afro-pessimism and proffer a brief critique. We now turn to outline our understanding.
Afro-pessimism is infamously an “unclear word”. Afro-pessimism is characterised by many layers of signification. Epistemologically Afro-pessimism argues that critical white theories such as Marxism and Psychoanalysis do not explain the essence of black suffering. Its pessimism therefore is one of the intellect, as far as the cognitive maps of these theories are concerned regarding the unique grammar of black suffering. Wilderson argues that these theories cannot explain the essence of black suffering but only certain aspects. The worker is for example exploited by capitalism in terms of political economy through the generation of surplus value. There is the violence of capitalism which creates the ontological being called a worker. But this violence is rational since after this ontological creation it goes into remission until the worker violates the rules of capitalism (this violence is contingent while the violence of anti-blackness is structural). This is in terms of the human paradigm and its anti-black civil society. But in addition to this human paradigm there is the slave paradigm. Wilderson argues that the conquest of Africa by Arabs since 639 AD, entailed an ocean of violence through which the ontological category black was created and became synonymous with slaveness. According to Wilderson the violence which creates blackness and slaveness is not only originary but is also concurrent. In other words, the violence does not relent but persists during the existence of the black. This makes this violence to lack any rational foundation and making it gratuitous. Blacks are subjected to violence not because they have violated certain rules of civil society like workers in capitalism but because they are black. This constant subjection to violence of blacks is grounded on a libidinal economy rather than political economy. Blacks as slaves are violated so that the non-blacks or the humans can have psychic sanity. The spectacle of blacks subjected to irrational, but necessary violence serves to maintain the psychic health of the humans in civil society which is foundationally anti-black. While Indians are subjected to the violence of genocide so that they can be dispossessed of their land, blacks do not have the land and therefore cannot be completely wiped out as they are a necessary foil to the humans. This implies that because Indians are colonised their narrative arc is characterised by a point of plenitude, disequilibrium, and possible point of plenitude again. This narrative arc does not apply to blacks as they are slaves. The humans know that they are human because they are not black. This is in terms of Semiosis which is premised on the dichotomy between the human and its opposite. It is in this sense that the grammar of suffering of the blacks is without analog. By exceptionalising the suffering of blacks, Afropessimism makes a distinction between anti-blackness and white supremacy. Only blacks suffer from anti-blackness. Other non-whites suffer from white supremacy. The nature of violence is not the same. It is in this sense that Wilderson proffers a militant critique of coalition politics in which blacks are used by the non-blacks to attain their objectives which do not liberate blacks. The distinction between anti-blackness and white supremacy has resulted in Afro-pessimism cautioning against what it calls “the ruse of analogy”. The latter means that the suffering of blacks which is peculiar should not be equated with the suffering of humans such as workers in capitalism and Indians in colonialism. Based on structural logic Afro-pessimism is concerned not with how people think about their suffering but about how they suffer.
At the level of meta-theory Afropessimism fundamentally questions the assumptive logics of critical theories such as Marxism. The cognitive maps of these theories have a history and point of redemption. The workers came into being through an ocean of violence and can redeem themselves by destroying capitalism and replacing it with socialism. But the situation is different with blacks as the entire world is based on anti-black collective unconscious which blacks themselves also participate in. The redemption of blacks if there is such as thing lies in ending the world, but we lack the cognitive capacity to imagine what the other side of the world will look like. There is an ocean of violence unimaginable that is needed to end the world to destroy the ant-blackness and to build the world on new ethical and ontological terms. According to Wilderson the core of Afro-pessimism is Fanon’s statement that the “black has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the whites”. Based on Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection which discusses among other thing the “rape” of black women in slave plantations, Afro-pessimism argues that blacks are sentient beings but lack human capacities such as consent. This why black women could not be raped in the eyes of whites and white law. Relying also on the work of Patterson in Slavery and Social Death Afropessimism defines the essence of blackness as entailing social death, natal alienation, and dishonour. We have briefly discussed our understanding of Afro-pessimism, we now proffer our brief critique.
Without waxing Shakespearian about the name and the rose, it is very significant that we interrogate the nature of Afro-pessimism by starting with the name itself. We will not delve deeper into the relation between the first Afro-pessimism of the overtly racist white scholars about Africa and its destiny and the current Afro-pessimism of Sexton and Wilderson except to foreground their problematic understanding of Africa. It is important to note that from the perspective of an African-centred thought pioneered by the likes of Diop Afro and pessimism have an oxymoronic relation and therefore the name Afro-pessimism is moronic. One of the defining traits of the southern cradle is optimism while the northern cradle valorises pessimism. Therefore Afro-pessimism is characterised by the “north bound gaze” in the form of critical white theory despite its pessimism defined as epistemological scepticism about this critical white theory to explain the grammar of black suffering. Afro-pessimism remains “bound” in the northern cradle” and thus its absurd contradictions. Afro-pessimism has no epistemological resistance to the white eyes. Afro-pessimists fetishize the Maafa in the form of the middle passage by granting it magical powers to strip the enslaved Africans of their Africanity (therefore Archie Mafeje’s Africanity as combative ontology remains relevant). And this is how they moronically concede to the “loss of their Mother”. Wilderson proudly admits that he draws inspiration from the work of Saidiya Hartman especially Scenes of Subjection. In addition to the former book Hartman wrote another book which captures the moronic nature of the name and substance of Afro-pessimism called Lose your Mother. This title hints at the fact that Afro-pessimism accepts the loss of African culture and worldview during and after the “middle passage” and the foundation of Pan-Africanism. It is this loss of mother which we think eventuates in “the invention of the black” as a slave rather than the correct term which is the enslaved African. It is in this sense that we think Afro-pessimism is actually “Black-pessimism”. The ontological category of African and black are not the same. To remain an African even though enslaved (post the middle passage) is to accept your culture and worldview and to fundamentally comprehend that while enslavement changed the conditions of your environment it did not change the nature of your being African. To become and identify with the ontological category of the black is to concede to the unprecedented violence of the Maafa. At the core of “Afro-pessimism” is the relation between identity and positionality. Enslaved Africans continue to identify with Africa in terms of the African worldview and culture thus returning to “the door of no return” by refusing the “loss of their mother”. The black on the other hand is an ontological positionality imposed by Maafa which the “Afro-pessimists” in their fetishization of the structural logic embedded especially in Marxism in which Wilderson is versed, elevate this logic above the agency of the enslaved Africans. Therefore, as an African it is important to start any analysis with the African worldview and culture to avoid this epistemological mess. The politics of culture entails among other things the epistemological power one gets from starting with one’s culture in any analytical endeavour. Without the politics of culture, one runs the risk of conceding too much to structure at the expense of agency, the fundamental flaw of Afro-pessimism.
Historically we can trace the lineage of “Afro-pessimism” to the emergence of the Black Studies movement in the 1960s in the US. At the core of this movement was the challenge to racism in the academy by black students. In a piece called No Humans Involved, Sylvia Wynter captures among other things the maintenance of racism by the academy. “Afro-pessimism” or rather Black-pessimism is an academic discourse by “negro intellectuals” in the US. The importance of the piece by Wynter is that it captures the important intervention made by Black-pessimism. This is its problematisation of the ontological category of the human. Wynter underscores the fact that racist pigs who murder young black males in the US used the words “no humans involved” to categorise these black males. “Afro-pessimism” also foregrounds the gratuitous violence visited upon blacks in the US by underscoring the fact that it is fundamental to the collective psychic sanity of the humans. In a recent book by Wilderson, there is a section called “The Trouble Humans”. This section is important in its critique of the ontological category of the human. Part of the argument in terms of Semiosis is that the emergence of the category human is premised on its antithesis which is the not human. And this not-human or the “man-not” of Tommy Curry is the black who is coterminous with the slave. Wynter has provided a more historical account of the emergence of humanism which eventuated in the “invention of the human”. This invention occurred in the medieval era and was pioneered by the secular humanists who wanted to create an “epistemological rapture” from the theological epistemological order whose grammarians were the scholastic thinkers in the service of the Catholic order. It is this sense that the category of the human is an invention of a particular European culture which through Eurocentrism overrepresents itself as the universal. “Afro-pessimists” are correct in rejecting the category of the human, something which escaped many intellectuals on the continent of Africa. The likes of Biko were absurdly mesmerised by the category of the human that they wanted to give the white world a human face. The so-called African humanists such as Mphahlele and Kaunda ridiculously failed to comprehend the cultural distinction between the ontological category of Abantu and the human. This led them to conflate a Eurocentric desacralized ontological invention, namely the human located within the northern cradle with the sacred ontological category of umntu within the southern cradle. It is in this sense that the “Afro-pessimists” would agree that indeed young black males and blacks in general are not human.
The problem lies in the fact that the “Afro-pessimists” ontologize a contingent empirical reality of anti-blackness. It is also in this sense that “Afro-pessimism” challenges “the overrepresentation of Western Man/human as the human” unfortunately without proffering an ontological alternative (This is because Afro-pessimism as a form of black critical theory by Westernised blacks is premised on what Paul Mocombe calls Negative dialectics which only exposes the contradictions of a totality without proffering an alternative to the totality, due to the absence of an autonomous cultural and worldview base). This is something that the Black Studies movement before it was co-opted into the multicultural African American studies attempted to attain. In its manifestation as the Black Arts movement Black Studies attempted to critique the arrogant cultural foundations of Eurocentric curriculum in the US universities of the 1960s. And as we know at the core of all Eurocentric disciplines is the European philosophical anthropology manifesting through the category of the human as distinct from the animal be it homo politicus and currently homo economicus. The rejection of Eurocentric philosophical anthropology in the figure of the human by “Afro-pessimism” in line with the Black Arts movement within the Black Studies movement is something that the Black Consciousness of Biko completely missed. Part of Wynter’s argument is that a “ceremony must be found” to challenge “the overrepresentation of Western Man as the human”. It is interesting that Western Man is “the model human” for all other humans. In the context of conquered Azania there is an age-old indigenous paradigm which is grounded in the irreconcilable antagonism between Abantu and abelungu. This paradigm which is the premise of the “ceremony that must be found” is not only epistemological which is important for Wynter as a form of “disenchanting discourse” but it is also political. At the level of epistemology this paradigm defines abelungu as animals such as red ants and famously states that abelungu are not Abantu” or “makgowa ga se batho”. Here abelungu are the human that the “Afro-pessimists” rightfully reject because of the aggression, violence, and the will to conquered of the human which are embedded in the northern cradle since time immemorial giving us the “iceman inheritance” of European barbarism. It is in this sense that abelungu cannot be ethical beings thus the stupidity of “human ethics”. The radical humanism of Fanon (the French black man) is probably the underlying cause behind the absurdity of the Black Consciousness’s pursuit of giving the world a human face. Fanon at any rate was a French man and dismissed African culture in Black Skins, White Masks.
Biko had the advantage of access to the oral historical tradition premised on the antagonism between Abantu and abelungu in Azania, which is captured excellently by Mazisi Kunene in Emperor Shaka, but he chose to ignore it. This explains why Biko chose to invite abelungu to his African table even though in his own words “he knew that the white man is not supposed to be here”. Umlungu/ the human/the white man is a violent and parasitic entity which cannot be allowed to sit at the African table because it is has proven in the last “two thousand seasons” to be a blood thirsty “destroyer” to paraphrase Ayi Kwei Armah. To accommodate abelungu even if its on African terms which is not only oxymoronic given that the ethics of ubuntu by Abantu cannot co-exist with abelungu who are inherently ethics-less, but also moronic especially when it is called African humanism by our elders who should know better. This African humanism by not seeing “the trouble with humans” ironically unlike the “Afro-pessimists” stupidly wants to plunge Africans into “naïve hospitality and generosity” which initially accommodated abelungu and accounts for our mess today as Africans. “The ceremony can be found” only in Lembede’s Africanism on the premise of Africa for the Africans, thus Europe for the Europeans by expelling these humans to wherever they came from as a temporary solution…
“Afro-pessimism” or Black-pessimism is characterised by an anti-African myopic historical imagination. It is “conceptually incarcerated” in the “two thousand seasons” of anomy” within which Africans due to a barbarian “ocean of violence” experienced their “last walk in the sun” as a proud and powerful civilizer of the world and ruling the world in terms of Maat. It is it this African-world order of plenitude and equilibrium which preceded the current white world and not just the world of disequilibrium that Black-pessimism with its obsession with the black is simply choosing to ignore. In its distinction between the black as a slave and the indigenous as the colonised, “Afro-pessimists” such as Wilderson fail to foreground the fact that Africans are a “global people” and that as “Grimaldi Africans” we dispersed ourselves spreading the seeds of Africa to the entire globe spreading civilization thus occupying the so-called New World before the humans came to commit genocide against the so-called Indians. Therefore, the world was African and will be African again. “Africans came before Columbus” thus they are as indigenous as the so-called Indians if not more (since in terms of archaeology we can proudly say about Africans that “they came before the so-called Indians”). Within this African-centred historical paradigm the so-called New World does not begin with white settler colonialism but with the likes of Olmec civilization dating thousands of years before Columbus.
Africans in the entire Americas are both colonised and enslaved. Thus, contrary to “Afro-pessimism” the narrative arc of plenitude before Columbus and disequilibrium during Columbus and equilibrium after Columbus applies also to Africans and not just to the so-called Indians. Thus, US Black nationalism by pursuing among other things an African republic is not anti-Indian sovereignty contrary to Wilderson’s misguided claims. The anti-African myopic historical imagination of “Afro-pessimism” reaches its absurd summit with Wilderson’s’ critique of South African politics. Having joined the ANC, Wilderson plays into the hands of the Congress tradition which centres Apartheid as the primary antagonism. This monumental historical absurdity is monumentalised in the ridiculous Varara/Congress history series called The Road to Democracy. There is some truth to the idea that joining a cult or movement has epistemological ramifications, one of them being brainwashing. It is ironic but then in keeping with the confusing name of “Afro-pessimism” that Wilderson whose analysis is excessively premised on structural logic characteristic of his Marxist inclinations can ignore the structure of white settler colonialism in South Africa and choose to centre Apartheid which is a manifestation of this colonialism at the level of regime since 1948 but not its totality nor a fundamental antagonism, namely conquest since 1652. Given his Marxist inclinations it makes sense since even the so-called Neo-Marxist historiographical tradition of Wolpe and Legassick also made this ridiculous fundamental error in their silly debate around Apartheid and capitalism. This also explains why Wilderson would absurdly valorise the ANC rather than simply dismiss it as a civil rights movement. Wilderson did this by falling prey to the ridiculous factionalism within the ANC due to its ideological prostitution in the name of the “broad church” when he dismisses the Mandela faction which sold out and by valorising Hani as representing the radical faction during the so-called negotiations. Wilderson should just read Hani’s presentation during CODESA to see how he sounded like Mandela. Hani was a militant Marxist with a solid history of liberal nonracialism which defines the Congress tradition.
Following an anti-African conservative sociologist like Patterson in Slavery and Social Death, “Afro-pessimism” is dangerously grounded in the valorisation of the “loss of mother” thus the fetishization of social death and native alienation. This anti-African epistemological aspect of “Afro-pessimism” is dangerous since it can play into the hands of a racist historiographical tradition which “silences the past” of the marronage tradition and the Haitian revolution. By “consenting” (this is ironic since blacks such as Wilderson cannot consent as this is a human trait) to the stripping of African culture “Afro-pessimism” ends up “mistaking the map for the territory”. This is ironic and silly since it is the same “Afro-pessimism” which rejected the “map of the human”. By not being based on an autonomous cultural and worldview paradigm which means being based on the default one which is European masquerading as the universal, “Afro-pessimism” cannot make the fundamental distinction between two worlds that have an antagonistic relation. This is absurd coming from Wilderson who centres the concept of antagonism in which one of the poles does not survive the confrontation. It is in this sense that Black-pessimism in its fetishization of blackness rather than Africanness of the enslaved Africans dangerously homogenises the white world into the world. This absurd epistemological mistake ends up dissolving the antagonism between the African world/southern cradle and the European/white/northern cradle. This leads to the political paralysis of “ending the world”. Any sensible African grounded in their African-centred history knows that there was the African world before the European world which in terms of the long durée analysis is only a brief but barbaric episode in the evolution of African and world history. The political point is to organise to end the European world which is at war with the African world and to restore the African world-order. Because Black-pessimism is premised on negative dialectics of Critical Theory, it is epistemically imprisoned in the white world which it conflates with the world. And this is how “Afro-pessimism” “mistakes the map for the territory” to the alarming detriment of African politics of liberation and revolution. In terms of negative dialectics, the blacks of “Afro-pessimism” merely critique the contradictions and antagonisms of the US but retain a double-consciousness in the form of the love and hate they have for the US. The US and its white world become a totality in the conceptual and literal sense, a world in which they are trapped. This is because as soon as they accept courtesy of their “mother” Sadiya Hartman, that they have lost their mother, namely African culture, and worldview during and after the middle passage, they lose the “ties that bind them” with other Africans outside the US. Thus, ironically “Afro-pessimism” lacks a Pan-African orientation and indulges in the narrow and negative black nationalism of US politics with a good description but without a prescription of African liberation, something already formulated by Garveyism.
Even though Black-pessimism makes the conceptual intervention in the form of the distinction between anti-blackness and white supremacy thus gesturing towards race-first ideology and politics it is not Pan-African like the Garvey movement. By unlike the Garvey movement, rhetorically rejecting the politics of coalition Black-pessimism should through Wilderson critique Black Consciousnesses and its inclusion of the so-called people of colour like the Indians and Coloureds. This is because Black-pessimism’s definition of blackness even though it is mistaken it categorised the non-blacks such as Indians as part of the unenviable category of the human thus enemies of the blacks rather than allies. By also accentuating the contrast between the slave paradigm and the human paradigm thus the unique black “grammar of suffering” Black-pessimism can critique the homogenising of the blacks under oppression by Black Consciousness in South Africa. This homogenising of blacks under oppression by Black Consciousness falls prey to the “ruse of analogy”. This takes the form of a failure to make the fundamental distinction in terms of long durée historical analysis between conquest and oppression which is manifestation of conquest and merely its expression rather than its essence. In terms of the “ruse of analogy” conquest in the form of land dispossession and intellectual warfare against the indigenous people and oppression under segregation and Apartheid of the indigenous people, Indians and Coloureds become synonymous. A fundamental error of the Black Consciousness movement to this day. Therefore, we need to abandon Black Consciousness despite its promotion by the Azanian critical tradition today. We must move beyond this absurd blackness to Lembede’s Africanism based on race-first ideology and African culture and worldview. This is perhaps the misguided critical fertility value of Black-pessimism. It is this sense that it should be “back to African” rather than “back to black” as Kehinde Andrews suggests. This is because it is Garveyism (Africa for the Africans those at home and abroad) or perish.