Afro-Pessimism and the (Un)Logic of Anti-Blackness

Afro-Pessimism and the (Un)Logic of Anti-Blackness

Originally Published in Historical Materialism magazine.

The Problem with Afro-pessimism

In the late afternoon of 10 February 2015, local police in Chapel Hill responded to a report of fired shots. They entered a Finley Forest condominium to find the lifeless bodies of three young Arabs. The first, Deah Barakat, lay dead in the front doorway. The others, his wife Yusor and her sister Razan Abu-Salha, had been slain in the kitchen. All three had been killed with gunshots to the head in an execution-style murder. Over the coming hours and days, as details emerged on social media, it became clear that these young Muslims had been murdered in a hate crime. Seeing this in the context of state-sponsored islamophobia, which had fuelled a growing climate of harassment and hate-crimes against Muslims in the US, as well as the mass slaughter of civilians in drone attacks across the Middle East, activists online started using #MuslimLivesMatter, which was tweeted over one hundred-thousand times, to challenge the lack of coverage.[1]

The outcry surrounding the use of #MuslimLivesMatter came swiftly.[2] Those outraged onlookers, drawing on the language of the most visible movement for racial justice in the United States at the time, #BlackLivesMatter, were met with charges of reductiveness, appropriation and – most potently – anti-blackness. As one contributor to wrote:

The pattern of violence against Black people – specifically Black people – is a unique one, with both history and implications that will never be comparable to the struggles of other communities of color in the United States. Institutional racism and discrimination against Black people is evident in our courts, our prisons, our entire justice system.[3]

We have seen this pattern emerging for some time: on one hand, the exceptionalisation of a thing referred to as ‘anti-blackness’; and on the other, the mobilisation of this charge against ‘non-black people of colour’ who attempt to draw comparison between black struggles and their own. In a 2016 lecture, entitled ‘Irreconcilable Anti-Blackness’, Frank B. Wilderson III explicitly sets out to dis-analogise the violence of white supremacy and that of anti-blackness. While his argument – counter-posing the logical nature of racism experienced by so-called ‘non-black people of colour’ to the supposed gratuity and incoherence of violence directed at black people – is central to the relatively small but growing body of literature within the theoretical frame of Afro-pessimism, echoing this broader set of trends. Entrenched in anti-racist theory and practice today is the belief that all racial and ethnic domination is structured around a global hierarchy, with ‘white’ people at the top and ‘black’ people at the bottom. [4] This shift has necessarily coincided with the increasing purchase of the notion of an historically coherent ‘ethnic blackness’ in theoretical and political spaces.

Together, this set of beliefs, as in Wilderson’s earlier-mentioned title, has been given voice through the increasing prevalence of the concept of ‘anti-blackness’. Thus, the tension between the presumptions of this universalising analysis of racial categories and the as-yet unresolved question of blackness, what it is and who possesses it, plagues anti-racist politics and organising. Consequently, the limitations of popular theories of race are becoming increasingly apparent. Indeed, ‘blackness’ can be conjured in a myriad of curious ways, and there remains a conceptual confusion around this term which deserves more attention than it is currently given. This article will therefore show the necessity of interrogating this increasingly dominant conception of blackness and the assumptions it invests in correlating theories of anti-blackness.

The exceptionalism with which ‘anti-black’ racism is treated, along with the territoriality over what are deemed particularly black registers of resistance, in this increasingly powerful assemblage of analyses stands in stark contrast to the most prevalent traditions of black anti-imperialist organising of the 1960s and 1970s. The Black Panther Party lent both their name and Ten Point Programme model to various anti-imperialist groups including the Dalit Panthers, the ‘politically-black’ British Black Panther movement and the Puerto Rican Young Lords Party. Indeed, the Party was among the first political groups in the US to attempt to integrate the antagonism between blackness and whiteness into a broader theory of racial dynamics through Minister for Defense Huey P. Newton’s concept of intercommunalism. Huey took the question of race in the USA and framed it as merely one iteration of America’s incursions on collective self-determination. By reframing the black/white antagonism within the context of a broader critique of the USA’s imperialism, intercommunalism conceived of blackness as historically contingent and aspired to the abolition of race altogether.[5]

Where has this newer politics come from? I argue that these political impulses arise from an increasing disconnection from the intellectual history of the last period of anti-colonial insurgency. The radical politics of the 1960s has been recast within the anti-racist frame – the genesis of a New Left from which identitarianism can ostensibly trace its roots. This is no accident. As Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor stressed, there has been a concerted effort on the part of the political establishment to obscure the history of the last era of black insurgency in the US.[6] Indeed, there have been three central tenets of this erasure. First, the collapsing of the hugely-diverse political traditions represented in the Black liberation struggles of the 1960s and ’70s into a nebulous concept of a Black Power era.[7] Second, the extraction of this period of insurgency from its international context. The meme of militant Black America has been allowed to cannibalise the broader traditions of resistance within which those militants were situated. The 1960s and ’70s were a buoyant period for the oppressed and exploited – as Huey Newton characterised it, Afro-Americans were in fact ‘late to the party’.[8] Third, the conceptual separation between domestic and international resistance. This has facilitated the replacement of anti-imperialist (transnational) frames of thinking with anti-racist (national) ones. The revival of racialism has been the death of genuine solidarity, shaping the political imagination of this generation of theorists and activists for the worse.

Curiously, while the framework has become pervasive in structuring thought on the question of race, no concerted effort has been made to establish what ‘anti-blackness’ means. Embedded in the vagueness of this ethical critique of racism is a set of myths and mystifications around the nature of race. Crucial to this is the absence of a coherent and historically informed definition of ‘black’. In many ways, the recent theoretical interventions of the ‘movement of thought’ termed Afro-pessimism have both shaped, and been shaped by these developments.[9] Thus, this article seeks to intervene in contemporary debates around the nature of race, racism and racial liberation through a sustained critique of the growing Afro-pessimism literature. I will first address the emergence of Afro-pessimism, indexing it to particular developments in anti-racist organising. Then I will provide a critique of two key premises of Afro-pessimist literature: a) the subsumption of the world by the slave relation; and b) the subsumption of ‘Africanness’ by an Americanised conception of Blackness. In my conclusion, I assess the implications of these assumptions for contemporary politics, and point to an engagement with the radical politics of The Black Panther Party and its contemporaries as a possible route towards more-productive thinking.

Something in the Water

In Badagry, Nigeria – a slave town built by a former slave turned slaver – between the barracoon on the mainland and the Point of No Return beyond a small body of water, where slaves became cargo on ships, lies the ‘spirit attenuation’ well which provided the final source of water for hundreds of thousands of slaves who were destined for the Americas. Following reports of slave rebellions on the earliest ships which killed several European slavers, Yoruba slavers responded by charming the water. Today, local legend still holds that to drink from the well will result in memory loss, a complete dislocation of one’s history. It is believed that this powerful charm left slaves ready to be remade as the slaver desired because it took from them the memory of freedom. In many ways, the slave in this carefully-kept local history resembles the remaking of blackness itself in Afro-pessimist literature.

Here, we find blackness unmoored from time and space by a ruthless disregard for material historical processes; when read with Fanon, the ‘psycho-affective’ quagmire from which the colonised intellectual must wrench himself: ‘individuals without anchorage, without borders, colorless, stateless, rootless, a body of angels’.[10] At the heart of this blackness, which both preceded the transatlantic slave trade and is created by it, there is no memory before the slave ship. Those various socio-political formations on the African continent, documented locally, which both predated and gave life to the transfer of people across the Atlantic Ocean on an industrial scale cannot and do not exist. In other words, to be racialised as black and to be a slave are treated as one and the same.

Afro-pessimism, as Jared Sexton has pointed out, has largely developed through the ‘proliferation of social media platforms in the same moment when the professoriate groans under the intensified administrative command to turn research into output with eventual market value’.[11] Thus, the position that leading Afro-pessimist scholars – such as Frank B. Wilderson III and Sexton – hold within the academy is in large part dependent on the following that they have garnered among organisers. This in part explains the ascendency of what was once ‘a highly technical dispute in a small corner of the American academy’ to a structuring logic of various political formations in the era of #BlackLivesMatter. Afro-pessimism is a crucial literature to engage with, precisely because it has both shaped and been shaped by the organisational impulses of Afro-American and Black British activists in particular.

To engage Afro-pessimism is, in many ways, to take aim as a moving target. On one hand, the body of literature which Sexton describes as a ‘movement of thought’ sprawls in multiple directions.[12] Culture, society and political struggle have all had the Afro-pessimist gaze turned on them, churning out articles and citations in large numbers. In explaining the increasing organisation of far-right groups, as demonstrated by events in Charlottesville, one prominent British commentator mused that ‘Afro-pessimism is the best history of America.’ The breadth of analyses that it has inspired is certainly striking. On the other hand, much of the literature itself is near impenetrable for the layperson. It rests on both the peculiar invocation of various canonical figures in the Black Liberation tradition, and the collectivisation of various registers of blackness. This has meant that the literature is typically mediated through reductive simplification, and its sometimes-contradicting conclusions taken at face value.

Some points of clarification are therefore necessary. First, though the literature of Afro-pessimism is broad, these texts are, and often confess to be, largely derivative of the parameters set out in ‘the announcement and enactment of Afro-pessimism in the work of Frank B. Wilderson III and Jared Sexton’.[13] To this end, I will primarily be engaging their work. Second, my thoughts on Afro-pessimism are structured by a distinction between those who identify themselves as Afro-pessimists (Sexton, Wilderson, et cetera) and those whose work has been retrospectively drafted by Afro-pessimists into their project (Frantz Fanon, Hortense Spillers, Steve Biko, James Baldwin, et cetera). This distinction is especially important in the case of Afro-pessimism because the framework of thinking developed by the former often relies on partial and self-serving readings of the latter. Third, I seek to engage the theoretical structure and premises of Afro-pessimism, beginning with its conception of blackness.

In this, I mean to distinguish my contribution from Fred Moten’s Black Optimism, in which Afro-pessimism has found a comfortable antagonist.[14] Against the space that Moten opens between ‘the fact of blackness and the lived experience of the black’ – ‘the irreducible and impossible sociality’ of Black life, I posit a re-interrogation of the very notion of Blackness as a fissure whose character we can easily assume.[15] Indeed, Moten accepts Wilderson’s claim that ‘the bridge between blackness and antiblackness is “the unbridgeable gap between Black being and Human life”’, but neither attempt to elaborate the meaning of Blackness beyond the assumption of a coherence between Africa and her slave diasporas.[16]

Upon interrogation, Sexton’s assumption that ‘the slave is paradigmatically black’ brings two axioms to the fore.[17] The first, the insistence that the position of the slave is necessarily black. Black, here, is to be understood in a morphological sense. However, this must be taken with the second axiom in order that the implicit biological definition of ‘black’ cohere; slaveness links the Negro and the African. Wilderson articulates it thus: ‘slaveness is something that has consumed Blackness and Africanness, making it impossible to divide slavery from Blackness’.[18] The manner in which Africanness disappears into Blackness ought to be suspect: it suggests that slaveness is the thing which connects the Negro to the African with no move to elaborate the causal logic. And yet, it is from these, seemingly incontestable, assumptions that the Afro-pessimist imaginary springs forth.

The following takes aim at these twin axioms in turn because the stakes are so high. As I will show, the veiled interlocutor of Afro-pessimism is not the ‘White Master’ but what has in recent times been termed the ‘non-Black person of colour’. The paradigmatic blackness of the slave in Afro-pessimism acts not to establish the anti-blackness of white supremacy but the supposed anti-blackness of the ‘non-Black person of colour’. The white must challenge her racism, but the Native American, Arab, Asian or Latino must root out the anti-blackness which is surely inscribed in the shadiest corners of their mind. Indeed, both Sexton and Wilderson explicitly take aim at ‘non-black people of colour’.[19]

We saw this in action when the York University Black Graduate Students Collective called on all people to boycott a 2016 Israeli Apartheid Week event on campus which featured journalist Rania Khalek. In an ‘Anti-Black Racism Bulletin’, they denounced her as ‘notoriously anti-Black’ with no elaboration of her apparent offences.[20] Twitter was far more vocal in its charges. On the one hand, a previous questioning of what she referred to as ‘segregated organising’, when #BlackLivesMatter asked white people not to attend a Cleveland gathering, was taken as an offensive appropriation of a painful chapter of Afro-American history. On the other, the deeper charge was her attempts to analogise Black and other anti-imperialist struggles – framed by many popular bloggers as ‘appropriation’. This had come to a head through her consistent critique of the Obamas as symbols of racial justice while US drone-strikes waged destruction on Pakistan and Yemen.

In the debate that ensued, juju jones, a blogger, invoked Frank Wilderson ‘on ahistorical comparisons between Black struggle & the fight to free Palestine’.[21] Commenting on comparisons between the plight of Palestinians and Afro-Americans, Wilderson says, ‘That’s just bullshit. First, there’s no time period in which Black police and slave domination have ever ended. Second, the Arabs and the Jews are as much a part of the Black slave trade – the creation of Blackness as social death – as anyone else.’[22] Here, Wilderson’s work is not to situate the European settler-colonial project given life through Israel within a broader anti-imperialist frame. Instead, he makes two theoretical moves: first, to reject the analogy between the carceral violence of two settler-colonial states; second, to place Palestinians (equated in his comments with Arabs) and their colonisers (equated in his comments with Jewishness) in a solidarity of anti-blackness through a significant role in the ‘Black slave trade’. The historical conflations of Wilderson’s claim, and the contortions that are required to for him find himself there, notwithstanding, he goes on to tie this to the impossibility of true contemporary solidarity: ‘As I told a friend of mine, “yeah we’re going to help you get rid of Israel, but the moment that you set up your shit we’re going to be right there to jack you up, because anti-Blackness is as important and necessary to the formation of Arab psychic life as it is to the formation of Jewish psychic life.” … we know, once they get over [their own hurdles], the anti-Blackness that sustains them will rear its ugly head again against us. So that we don’t fall into a sort of genuine bonding with people who are really, primarily, using Black energy to catalyze and energize their struggle.’[23]

This saga, and Wilderson’s referenced comments, rest on a set of four intertwined logics: a) ‘race’ is necessarily globally consistent, a science of continental bloodwork; b) blackness is a stable category referring to a historically coherent people whose experiences of violence are necessarily tied by a common ethnicity – there is a clearly identifiable ‘us’; c) the phenomenon of anti-blackness is exceptional, existing in a register of experience that is essentially different to all other experiences of racism; and d) the analogisation (by people of colour) of various manifestations of racism and imperialism, insofar as it draws on black experiences and therefore ‘black energy’, is tantamount to anti-blackness.

No doubt, the institution of ‘chattel slavery’, along with all the material processes for which the phrase stands has become a shorthand, has a palimpsestic afterlife.[24] The conjuring of racialism to salvage the practice of slavery has left an indelible mark, underwriting the script of the repressive state-apparatuses of the US state. However, Afro-pessimism has mistaken a single frame for ‘the afterlife of slavery’, and a partial frame at that. Central to this project is an ambivalence concerning the success of liberatory struggles of anti-colonial insurgency in forcing the subject of racial domination to hurriedly scrawl all over the script to salvage the political order that he had created throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Wilderson and Sexton are therefore holding up fading polaroids and asking us to see a panoramic tapestry. Through this elucidation, I argue that the debate around political blackness raging in the United Kingdom is not so parochial after all, thus setting the stage for crucial questions about the intramural dynamics of anti-racist political formations today.

The Master and Slave Transformed

Like Marxism, Black Consciousness was also hobbled in an essential way. Fundamental to Marxism is the notion that the world is unethical due to its subsumption by relations of capital. What we learn from Fanon and others is that the world is unethical due to its subsumption by the slave relation.

— Frank B. Wilderson III[25]

Out of slavery the Negro burst into the lists where his masters stood. Like those servants who are allowed once every year to dance in the drawing room, the Negro is looking for a prop. The Negro has not become a master. When there are no longer slaves, there are no longer masters. … But the Negro knows nothing of the cost of freedom, for he has not fought for it.

— Frantz Fanon[26]

There is a long (and justifiably) maligned reductionist line that posits racism as simply a ‘seed of division sown by the bosses to divide the workers’. This line, both when it is used to argue that calls to combat racism among workers are unnecessarily divisive, and when it is used to argue that challenging racism is necessary for revolutionary politics, treats ‘race’ as significant only insofar as it is an obstacle to class unity. As noted by contributors to the Racism Research Project in 1975, we continue to lack a distinctively Marxist account of ‘racialisation’.[27] In the absence of a coherent theoretical framework which roots the superstructural phenomenon of racialisation in the economic processes that demand it, many Marxists have succumbed to this essentially conspiratorial account of racism, or have been content to allow this crucial theoretical gap to fester.[28]

Seemingly without an economic base, racism has increasingly been treated as a purely social relation; distinct and extricable from class. Consequently, Marxist scholars have instead typically approached the question of ‘race’ through resistance, emphasising solidarity as instances in which the barrier of ‘race’ has been overcome to achieve working-class unity. This has meant that an interrogation of the crises to which racialisation responds has been largely left by the wayside.

It is into this conceptual space that Afro-pessimist literature inserts itself. The mistake of this Marxist orthodoxy, Afro-pessimists argue, is in its attempt to subsume an ostensibly ‘different’ phenomenon of white supremacy under the banner of capitalism. Thus, it argues, race belongs to the realm of the structurally determined, a global juggernaut organised around a hierarchy of morphological groups which provides the ‘real’ antagonism of modernity. As Frank B. Wilderson III intimates, ‘the black subject reveals marxism’s inability to think white supremacy as the base and, in so doing, calls into question marxism’s claim to elaborate a comprehensive, or in the words of Antonio Gramsci, “decisive” antagonism’.[29] The United States, he argues, ‘is constructed at the intersection of both a capitalist and white supremacist matrix’ but Marxism is impotent in the face of the latter.[30] It is taken for granted that this can be generalised globally.

The notion, advanced by Afro-pessimists, that to be ‘ethnically’ black is paradigmatically different from any other racial group rests primarily on the presumption that the master–slave dynamic is essentially racialised. A tension emerges as Sexton and Wilderson go further. For them it is neither race, nor racism, which structures white supremacy; rather, White Supremacy is just one iteration of a global anti-black solidarity. Black is not a race, since blacks are the antagonist of the very category of human, and yet it is. Indeed, the category of ontological non-being, which Sexton and Wilderson identify, relies heavily on the assumptive logic of ‘Race’ – following from Patrick Wolfe’s paradox, this is in itself a powerful sign of the extent to which racial ideology has embedded itself in our capacity to conceptualise difference.[31]

Thus, the purportedly distinctive dynamic between ‘the Human and the Black’ is widely articulated through ‘anti-blackness’ and its contemporary accoutrements. Today, the concept of ‘anti-blackness’ has come to signify, not only the particularity of racism against those deemed black, but also the centrality of such racism to all paradigms of racial domination. In this sense, Afro-pessimism emerges from a tradition of ethnocentric analyses, which focuses on the particular intensity of systemic white domination of black people. However, Afro-pessimism marks a departure from this tradition through a theorisation of anti-blackness that takes aim at other racially dominated groups as fundamentally and irredeemably implicated in the domination of black people.

Afro-pessimists want us to think through these relationships as existing on different planes. Between the poor white and the white master, and between the ‘non-black person of colour’ and the white, there is a sort of reasoned violence. For the black, on the other hand, there is primarily gratuitous violence – existing in a state of incomprehensible ‘external superviolence’ and internalised self-hatred.[32] Wilderson renders this logic explicit when he asserts, ‘every other group lives in a context of violence which has what I would call a sort of psychological grounding wire, which means that they can write a sentence about why they are experiencing that violence. … For a Black person to try and emulate that kind of interpretive lens, the problem becomes a lot bigger. For us this is the ongoing tactic of a strategy for human renewal.’[33]

This emerges from a reading of Fanon that begins from the points where he seems ‘at a loss’ to explain what he is confronted with.[34] Contrasting Fanon to Marx, Wilderson comments that ‘[the] slave relation … relegates the capital relation … to a conflict, and not the antagonism that Marx … thought it to be’.[35] Crucial to his argument is the idea that Fanon’s critique of Hegel’s master–slave dialectic sets out to show some essential difference between the worker/capitalist relation and the Negro/White master relation. Wilderson goes on to assert that ‘were [the worker/capitalist relation] to be “solved” (were it to cease to exist as a relation, after the victory of the proletariat), the world would still be subsumed by the slave relation: an antagonism not between the position of the worker and that of the boss, but between the Human and the Black’.[36]

This reading treats Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks as a series of independent moments, disregarding his emphasis on temporality in the introduction.[37] In a lecture, titled after one of his articles, Sexton argues that these moments are in tension, constituting ‘a slippage between the universal denunciation of all exploitation, and the conceptual conflation of all such suffering under the broadest heading’.[38] It therefore effaces the relationship between these moments of complete despair and his moments of clarity – where these mystifications of ‘race’, the burden of incomprehensibility that they impose, and the nihilism which they invite, are turned on their head within the same text through the illuminating capacity of struggle. Turning, for example, to Fanon’s essay on ‘The Negro and Recognition’, embedded in his critique of Hegel’s master–slave dialectic is a striking demystification. Clarifying his motivations, Fanon writes:

I hope I have shown that here the master differs basically from the master described by Hegel. For Hegel there is reciprocity; here the master laughs at the consciousness of the slave. What he wants from the slave is not recognition but work. In the same way, the slave here is in no way identifiable with the slave who loses himself in the object and finds in his work the source of his liberation. The Negro wants to be like the master. Therefore, he is less independent than the Hegelian slave. In Hegel the slave turns away from the master and turns toward the object. Here the slave turns toward the master and abandons the object.[39]

What does Fanon mean when he says that what the master ‘wants from the slave is not recognition but work’? Against Hegel’s ‘absolute reciprocity’, Fanon advances a conception of the negro slave as the alienated epitome of exploitation; which is to say that the master and the slave in Fanon’s account are not produced by a relation of anti-blackness (in the new life that this term has taken on) but by exploitation. This harkens back to Wilderson’s earlier misunderstanding of the base in Marxist theory. Fanon, in contrast to Wilderson, gives ontological priority to the exploitative relation of production between master and slave. This priority is reiterated elsewhere, when Fanon takes aim at attempts to assert a global blackness: ‘“Negroes” are in the process of disappearing, since those who created them are witnessing the demise of their economic and cultural supremacy.’[40]

Fanon is less concerned with the slave as an opposing pole from which ‘Man’ has built community – he has no such illusions about the material existence of white fraternity.[41] Culture, he argues, is first and foremost national in nature.[42] Instead, Fanon is concerned with how the profits from her labour finance society. We might then think of the position of the slave as the capitalist aspiration for all workers – stripped of all that which renders her recognisable, the worker as ‘a mere mechanism’, but possible only through the mystification of race.[43] In contrast to Wilderson’s assertion that ‘an ensemble of ontological questions that has as its foundation accumulation and fungibility as a grammar of suffering’ exclusively marking the black as outside of ‘[a humanist] discourse that has as its foundation alienation and exploitation as a grammar of suffering’, the master–slave relation which Fanon proposes upsets this binary.[44]

Fanon’s elucidation exposes the slave as contingently black, not ‘paradigmatically black’. What is the difference? The Afro-pessimist sees the world as structured by a non-black solidarity in preventing the ontological possibility of black life. Were ‘black’ meant as a metaphor for the condition of total alienation from self, this might make sense.[45] However, because the Afro-pessimist imaginary ties itself to a morphological account of blackness, this leads us to a theoretical dead end. In this world-view, it therefore becomes necessary to begin by treating ‘race’ as a problem fundamentally rooted in the formation of sociality – in which the Black precedes the historical order and the processes, both violent and mundane, which create her. By contrast, to think through the implications of contingency is to confront the reality that these racial categories – categories that Wilderson and Sexton treat as absolute – are actually unstable as evidence that something else is afoot. It is to see ‘race’ not as an anchor, but as a mystification conjured to weather crises of legitimacy.

For example, we can examine how Sexton links the condition of the Afro-American slave, the free black and the African thus: ‘because blackness serves as the basis of enslavement in the logic of a transnational political and legal culture, it permanently destabilises the position of any nominally free black population’.[46] The presumption of a shared (presumably global) legal and political culture within which the assertion that blackness was a basis of enslavement might be made is quite mistaken. Even in the US, the centralisation of the legal and political status of blacks only emerged at the moment of formal abolition following the American Civil War. Prior to this, the internal border system of the US produced divergent rationales and attendant juridical technology for enslavement.

The South might be considered to fit the relationship that Sexton suggests. For example, Supreme Court judges in Georgia argued that the free black was ‘associated still with the slave in this State’.[47] However, the North tells a different story, wherein free blacks were likened to ‘white women and children … denied many political rights but did not therefore forfeit their basic status as citizens’.[48] In any case, the debates within slave states in the late antebellum period included the proposition of ‘forcing their free black populations to elect between re-enslavement and leaving the state’.[49] The concerns of legislators and judges in the South, that free black populations might inspire slave revolts and undermine the racial order, indicate that their motivations were not paradigmatic but pragmatic. This is to say that these political and legal elites were well aware of the fragility of the racial order that they had created.

Indeed, on the relationship between the free black and the slave, a sketch of the thinking of legislators in the Northern and Southern states offers a radically different picture to Sexton’s. Rather than being a given, the position of the free black was both contested and geographically dependent. Interestingly, during an 1820 Congressional debate regarding a clause in Missouri’s proposed constitution which would bar free blacks from entering the state, it was the condition of Native Americans which structured the logic regarding the position of free blacks: ‘the Indians born in the states continue to be aliens and so, I contend, do the free negroes’.[50]

Contrary to Sexton’s assertion of the exceptional nature of the Afro-American experience in this regard, legislators consciously rooted their position in a nexus of other ‘undesirables’ which included both Native Americans and white ‘paupers’. The preoccupation with the condition of ‘poor whites’ is certainly not a new phenomenon. Legislators in the antebellum South were consumed with the implications of (white) pauperism which meant that, ‘the adjudged pauper is subordinated to the will of others, and reduced to a condition but little removed from that of chattel slavery, and until recently, by statute of 1847, c. 12, like the slave, was liable to be sold upon the block of the auctioneer, for service or support.’[51] Moreover, it is important to note that the Northern and Southern states proffered different rationales for the contested status of free blacks, and that, at this time, the federal government’s role in determining the parameters of the claimable rights of individuals ‘was largely restricted to establishing the requirements for naturalization and the requirements for alien ownership of federal lands’.[52]

The fragility of hierarchies of race is inherent to the project of racialism. Rather than emanating from some assuredness regarding the morphological provenance of racialised ‘personhood’ and ‘unpersonhood’, what we see here is the adoption of specific policy-practices in order to construct a world in which the insurrection against domination that the American Revolution represented could co-exist with the continued brutal exploitation that slavery represented. And so, the slave was not created so that the American might exist; instead, the black was created so that slavery might survive republican fervour. Indeed, we must be careful about operating at a level of abstraction which would enable the post hoc justifications of enslavement concocted by Southern slave owners embattled by a crisis of legitimacy to shape the historiography of chattel slavery.

Wilderson and Sexton want us to believe both that the myriad forms of exploitation – indentured servitude, ghettoisation, mass incarceration, police brutality et cetera – which followed the formal abolition of slavery constitute a continuation of enslavement (or its ‘afterlife’), and that the position of the slave is fundamentally different from the position of the ‘white’ or ‘Indian’ indentured servant who often performed similar labour and whose resistance incurred violent repression. Such a framework mystifies three crucial facts: first, that the ‘blackness’ of the category of slave was both contingent and unstable;[53] second, that to exceptionalise African enslavement obscures the many categories of ‘alien’ which were comparable to the negro in the US context; third, that natal alienation was not from some African collectivity but from specific and diverse social formations in Western Africa.[54]

Between the Nigger and the Kaffir

There can be no such thing as rigorously identical cultures. To believe one can create a black culture is to forget oddly enough that ‘Negroes’ are in the process of disappearing, since those who created them are witnessing the demise of their economic and cultural supremacy.

— Frantz Fanon[55]

Thus, we return to the second premise of Afro-pessimist theory – a necessary conceptual convergence between the African and the Negro. Wilderson parses this logic flippantly: ‘slaveness is something that has consumed Blackness and Africanness, making it impossible to divide slavery from Blackness’.[56] This convergence is developed in greater depth by Sexton: ‘As in the case of black immigrants to the United States, the movements for decolonization in Africa encounter the “racial calculus and political arithmetic” … of slavery as an internal limit on their capacity to claim (national or regional or continental) sovereignty and independence in the manner of their Asian and Latin American comrades.’[57] The manner in which Africanness disappears into Blackness is indeed suspect: it distorts the conceptual space between the Negro and the African which Fanon elaborates. In short, the Afro-American scholar’s desire for an American genealogy of slaveness to overwhelm the complex encounters between Africans and imperialism alone, however fierce his intuition, cannot make it such.

In large part, the problem for Wilderson and Sexton is that their analysis takes for granted the salience of a phenotypical register of blackness. They read Fanon, presuming that his different registers of ‘black’ are one and the same. This can be addressed by a return to his more resonant text of the period – The Wretched of the Earth. Fanon explicitly argues that the relationship between national consciousness on the African continent and a shared African consciousness ‘does not rest upon a metaphysical principle’, but on the mindfulness to the rule that a colonialism which ‘lingers’ anywhere poses a threat to freedom everywhere.[58] In his essay on national culture, he addresses these different registers head on. Transformed by his experience as part of the Algerian Revolution, he revisits negritude, which he had previously described as his ‘last chance’.[59] He argues that, ‘once the concept of negritude had been elaborated’, the project of establishing the ‘existence of an African culture’ with the ‘inner dynamism’ of distinctive national cultures faced serious problems.[60] He goes on:

[Gradually] the black Americans realized that their existential problems differed from those faced by the Africans. … But once the initial comparisons had been made and subjective feelings had settled down, the black Americans realized that the objective problems were fundamentally different. The principle and purpose of the freedom rides whereby black and white Americans endeavor to combat racial discrimination have little in common with the heroic struggle of the Angolan people against the iniquity of Portuguese colonialism.[61]

This point can be elaborated through a comparison of the impulses that distinguish processes of racialisation in the antebellum US from those in colonial Africa. Orlando Patterson’s ‘social death’ thesis, which Wilderson and Sexton take as inherent to the black condition, posits three elements of coercive power in slavery: violence, dishonour and natal alienation. It is easy to see all three manifested in the condition of the black slave in the Americas. Dislocated from kinship relations and subjected to brutal relations of force, ‘their political existence [had] been destroyed’.[62] Try as they might, Sexton and Wilderson’s generalisation of natal alienation as embedded in the black condition cannot stand against the empirical evidence that we now have regarding the technologies of colonial rule.

In colonial southern Africa, the need for labour to service the farms, mines and industries – set up by settlers for the purposes of capital accumulation – necessitated interventions in the pre-capitalist social formations that still existed in the periphery.[63] On one hand, labour needed to be geographically mobile: this meant that the formal, predominantly male workforce needed to spend increasing periods of time away from the homestead. On the other hand, labour migrancy presented the possibility of ‘detribalisation’, disrupting birthrates and the possibility of ‘full proletarianisation’.[64]

Consequently, urban centres and the rural periphery had an interdependent but contradictory relationship in which the colonial administrations required both the integration of the native into capitalistic wage labour and the maintenance of ‘elements of pre-existing relationships’ to preserve the ability to reproduce the workforce.[65] The contradiction between legitimacy and accumulation meant that colonial authorities frequently intervened to strengthen the hold of kinship bonds, in order to secure young men’s labour in a system of indirect rule. Wage labour was ethnicised, with ethnic identity often determining which forms of labour were performed. Workers were often employed through ‘tribal’ authorities. Thus, the African’s primary relationship to the state was neither as a worker, nor as a black, but as Xhosa, Zulu, et cetera. These cultural identities were in turn stabilised as ‘biological’ lineages. This fragmentary worker status, in which an interaction between the urban mining and cash-crop areas and the (ethnicised) homestead was institutionally mandated, refracted relations of super-exploitation.[66]

This phenomenon of ‘class-ethnic structures’ stands in stark contrast to the technologies of the transatlantic slave trade. Without a steady stream of slave labour from across an ocean, colonial authorities had to consider the long-term reproduction of the workforce. Without the complete dislocation from traditional hierarchies of authority that the transatlantic passage represented, colonial authorities found themselves competing with pre-existing loyalties and political obligations. Thus, these problems were incorporated and transformed by administrators who sought to stabilise and absorb these pre-colonial socio-political formations.[67] Thus, while it is understandable that the ‘blacks who lived in the United States, Central, and Latin America in fact needed a cultural matrix to cling to’, the phenotypical register of blackness obscures much more than it illuminates regarding the various technologies mobilised to violently incorporate Africans into global capitalism.[68]

Were we to think of these two cases in conjunction, without the baggage of a mystifying search for a programmatic ‘anti-blackness’, we see a different set of similarities. Consider, for example, Steve Biko’s claim that ‘being black is not a matter of pigmentation’, which is elaborated in the logic he advances in addressing the unity, under the banner of blackness, of those designated as ‘Africans’, ‘Indians’ and ‘Coloureds’ by Apartheid:

What we should at all times look at is the fact that:

  1. We are all oppressed by the same system.
  2. That we are oppressed to varying degrees is a deliberate design to stratify us not only socially but also in terms of the enemy’s aspirations.
  3. Therefore it is to be expected that in terms of the enemy’s plan there must be this suspicion and that if we are committed to the problem of emancipation to the same degree it is part of our duty to bring to the black people the deliberateness of the enemy’s subjugation scheme.[69]

Biko’s second point is crucial. Afro-pessimism treats the distinction between morphological blackness and non-blackness as simply social (which is to say that it conceives of race as a hierarchy of stigma, in which the permanently dishonoured state of blacks places them outside of humanity); Wilderson and Sexton relegate dynamics of exploitation as incidental to blackness. Biko’s point is a corrective to this, opening the door to an exploration of the manner in which the class-ethnic structure, and its afterlife in post-colonial states, mirrors in many ways the class-racial structure of US slave society, and its afterlife.[70] These structures act to mystify relations of production. We see class relations materially refracted through ethnic and racial lines. Relatedly, the division of labour along racial and ethnic lines. In colonial southern Africa, white and Indian workers were incorporated into this structure through the reservation of specific, often skilled, roles for these groups.[71] In the US, this manifested first in hierarchies of unwaged labour, then in the active exclusion of blacks from various industries and skilled positions.

Thus, when Sexton describes the position of the Black thus – ‘A slave is one without standing anywhere, no matter how elevated in role or material circumstance. … Even the enslaved state functionary or military conscript. Even the manumitted slave gainfully employed, awaiting recapture’ – we must see this move for what it is, an abdication on the part of Afro-pessimism of a responsibility to contend with both the divergent processes of racialisation and ethnicisation in colonial and slave contexts, and the material reorientation of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ spearheaded by the National Liberation tradition, in which both Fanon and Biko situate their work. Indeed, in this light, the incomprehensibility of ‘external superviolence’ which characterises Blackness for Wilderson is exposed as a mystification produced by his own loaded problematic.

Afro-pessimism: Can’t Fight, Won’t Fight

To educate man to be actional, preserving in all his relations his respect for the basic values that constitute a human world, is the prime task of him who, having taken thought, prepares to act.

— Frantz Fanon[72]

So I think that what I have to offer is not a way out. What I have to offer is an analysis of the problem.

— Frank Wilderson[73]

It is often taken for granted that movements which resist dominant forms of exploitation and oppression have the capacity to reproduce themselves in different forms, at different points in history. As a result, we are liable to appropriate the language and heroes of past political insurgency and imagine ourselves the bearers of their traditions. This presumption, which unthinkingly ties political traditions of the past to contemporary politics, is quite mistaken. Of course, Marx has a line about tragedy and farce which is now clichéd. As a consequence, the political salience of historical retrieval is not always immediately obvious, both to organisers who often relate to political tradition through a series of canonical memes, and to historians for whom the task of reclaiming context usually serves to trap political logics in the past.

It is easy to imagine why, in the context of a global shift in the balance of forces, when revolution seemed imminent, the Panthers were able to construct an integrative theory of racial solidarity between people of colour. Where today we have seen the privatisation of various crucial functions of the state’s repressive apparatus, for them, the enemy was visibly unified; the troops on the ground in Vietnam bore the same stars and stripes as the police forces which terrorised black communities within the US. Thus, the literature of the Party is replete with striking analyses which are attentive to our capacity to redefine which communities of resistance we see ourselves as part of. The Party was able to attend to the particular struggles of Afro-Americans whilst maintaining that the subject of revolution was universal, thus asserting the necessary interdependence of human freedom. Consider, for example, these comments from the Party’s International Co-ordinator Connie Matthew’s speech at the Vietnam Moratorium demonstration, and Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Chapter and founder of the famous Rainbow Coalition in Chicago:

We got to face some facts. That the masses are poor, that the masses belong to what you call the lower class, and when I talk about the masses, I’m talking about the white masses, I’m talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too. We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.

(Fred Hampton)[74]

Now whenever the Vietnamese fight, and they are fighting, and they have won the war, they are fighting for you here. … Now, I am saying you have had what is known as group freedom and you are trying to find individual freedom. We are all one people, this is all one country, in fact in the world we are all one people, so until everyone has known what group freedom is you are not going to be able to exist in your hippy and yippie societies with individual freedom.

(Connie Matthews)[75]

These in turn echo Bobby Seale’s mantra that ‘the best care package we can send to the other liberation struggles around the world is the work that we do at home.’ [76]

The Black Panther Party had developed towards this politics of intercommunalism through sustained contact with the national-liberation movements of the global South, most notably through Algiers. This engagement opened up the space for the articulation of a universalist politics through the particularity of localised forms of domination. It is no wonder, then, that a surviving Party reading-list includes Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and Studies on a Dying Colonialism, written through the transformative experience of participation in the Algerian Revolution, rather than the Afro-pessimist-favoured Black Skin, White Masks.[77] This stands in stark contrast to theoretical tendencies in contemporary ‘anti-blackness’ theory. Today, the prevalent engagement with the latter, instead of the former, has produced readings which extract Fanon from the context of struggle which animated his work. This leads people to treat him as simply a theorist of race, rather than a revolutionary who saw race as a technology of imperialism.

However, it is important to remember that the Panthers were not the only ones articulating such a radical form of solidarity. They shared their analyses with the infamous ‘political blackness’, which now sees the anti-racist left in the UK turn in on itself, as well as the South African Black Consciousness movement. When the Panthers closed the gap between the local and global arenas, this undermined the ideological stability of racial difference. For South African students, and migrants in Britain, an expansive definition of Black – incorporating Africans and Asians (mostly from the subcontinent) in Britain, and Africans, Indians and ‘coloured people’ in South Africa – presented a substantial challenge not only to the systemic racism faced by those colonial and post-colonial subjects within the metropole on one hand, and at the heart of a settler-colonial project of accumulation on the other, but also to the very processes of racialisation and ethnicisation which mystify relations of exploitation.

If one can imagine why, in strength, the hand of solidarity is easily extended, this raises pertinent questions about the contemporary political arena. The 1980s neoliberal backlash against the increasing political power of the Third World and its diasporas in the West has resulted in a chronically weak Left and a restructuring of the economic and social relations upon which communities were conceived. It is in this context that the #BlackLivesMatter movement and more academically-directed decolonisation movements such as Rhodes Must Fall have emerged and spread across the globe. Both movements, and their eponymous slogans, intervene in a historically unprecedented moment, where identity-based social justice politics have largely replaced class politics. While Union density in Europe and North America is waning and the language of class is increasingly scarce, a new brand of identity politics is on the ascendancy in many arenas, not least university campuses.

Though Afro-pessimism could well do without contemporary identity politics, and intersectionality, its most recognisable watchword – and in many ways is trying to – it is a gap left by intersectionality, in accounting for the existence (rather than nature) of oppression that has brought it into political spaces. Thus, in order to understand the zeitgeist of anti-racist organising today, we must be allowed to fearlessly interrogate the two as integrative, with an implicit social theory which is profoundly limited in what it conceives of as politically possible. Without the transformative and clarifying power of struggle, the theoretical tension between individual and structure with which Afro-pessimism is confronted, just like in Crenshaw’s juridical theory, is resolved through a particular concept of identity as the manner in which structure manifests in individuals. This leaves us with a social theory that treats structures of domination as pathogenic, creating multiple oppressor and oppressed binaries. Against the pathologisation of the oppressed, this politics pathologises ‘privilege’. It results in a logic which dictates that not to share in the experiences which are generalised among a given group is to be implicated in the oppression of that group. In other words, it means the impossibility of genuine solidarity.

Afro-pessimism meets this charge by positing an ‘anti-black’ solidarity among ‘non-black’ people. Thus, it is concerning that the framework acts as a mechanism of determining social power (the right to speak on or organise around issues) in political spaces with three key premises: Firstly, collapsing the distinction between ‘blackness’ as a project of mystification – along with its social, political and economic processes of non-consensual ethnicisation – and ‘Africanness’ as a historical fact. Secondly, the essentialisation of blackness, as a coherent and stable category that was invested with a set of stigmatising values by imperial encounters, rather than being de facto created by the imperial encounters themselves. Third, the collectivisation of ‘black’ trauma within an imaginary, which is reminiscent of Black Nationalism, and sees the transatlantic slave trade as simultaneously an origin-story and an (albeit crucial) event in the longer trajectory of a coherent people.

What, then, are we fighting for? I want to open the door to this critical, but absent, conversation around anti-racist organising – the space for such conversations is desperately needed. Indeed, many of the claims about race that I have challenged created a suffocating climate in the last decade in which dissent from shared assumptions and attempts to develop theoretical grounds for solidarity are routinely characterised as ‘anti-black’.

Thinking back to the words of Fanon and Wilderson which opened this conclusion, we see a contrast that illuminates phenomena responsible for the contemporary prominence of this particular language of black exceptionalism. However, the best that this politics can offer us is a fight without a purpose. Since this account of how the world works genuinely believe that these identities – and the conflicts which they purportedly entail – are insurmountable, its conception of emancipation is either messianic, genocidal, or it otherwise does not believe that emancipation is possible. Thus, anti-blackness, an unrelenting and totalising beast, an omnipresent hindrance to selfhood, is impossible to effectively resist. Like Fanon’s French negro, freedom in this account must come to blacks from without – to struggle is pointless. And yet, for this very reason, having abdicated liberatory struggle in favour of despair, when dancing in the ashes at the end of the world, we would still ‘[know] nothing of the cost of freedom’.


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* I would like thank Barnaby Raine for his incredibly useful comments on so many drafts of this paper, as well as Tessa Frost, Orlando Lazar, Mezna Qato, Chi Chi Shi, Omar Sweiki and Aliya Yule for their support throughout the germination of these ideas into this project. I would further like to thank the editors of this special issue, in particular Ashok Kumar, for their gentle patience through a difficult year of writing. Above all, I would like to express my eternal gratitude to Titilola Olaloku and Olukorede Teriba for giving me the strength and inspiration to finish what I started.

[1] BBC Trending 2015.

[2] Arias 2015; Larkins 2015; Muslim Reverie 2015; Sabah 2015.

[3] Sabah 2015.

[4] See Hussain 2016; Nakagawa 2012; Shenwar, Macare and Price 2016, pp. 69–78.

[5] For a detailed discussion of the conditions for and nature of ‘universal identity’ in Huey’s thinking, see Newton and Erikson 1974. See also Newton and Brown 2009, pp. 20–38.

[6] Plank 2016.

[7] See discussion in Tuck 2011, pp. 327–43. 

[8] Ravenna Lilith 2014.

[9] Sexton 2016.

[10] Fanon 2007b, p. 155.

[11] Sexton 2016.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Moten 2013, p. 737.

[14] Moten 2009. For Sexton’s somewhat predictable response to Fred Moten’s bending of the Afro-pessimist stick – a neat resolution of these ‘two sides of the same analytical coin’, see Sexton 2012.

[15] Case of blackness 

[16] Moten 2013.

[17] Sexton 2010.

[18] Wilderson 2014, p. 8.

[19] See ‘People-of-Colour-Blindness’, which is dedicated entirely to this. Sexton 2010.

[20] @so_treu 2016.

[21] jones 2016.

[22] Wilderson 2014, pp. 13–14.

[23] Ibid.

[24] My invocation here is reminiscent of John Lonsdale’s account of colonial identity as ‘a palimpsest of contradictions’ and its elaboration in Berman 2004.

[25] Wilderson 2008, p. 104.

[26] Fanon 2007a, pp. 171–2.

[27] Chang 1975, pp. 1–3. 

[28] Both the examples of alternatives in the history of Black Liberation, and the empirical and theoretical advances such as those in Fields and Fields’ 2014 work Racecraft and Wolfe’s Traces of History, are strikingly absent from socialist anti-racism.

[29] Wilderson 2003, p. 225.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Wolfe 2016, pp. 6–7.

[32] Wilderson 2014, p. 8.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Wilderson 2014, p. 8.

[35] Wilderson 2008, p. 104.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Fanon 2008, p. 5.

[38] UC Berkeley Events 2011. The irony that Afro-pessimism relies precisely on the conflation of distinct technologies of repression targeted at Afro-Americans and Africans (a distinction which Fanon is at pains to highlight) is apparently lost on Sexton. See for example Fanon 2008, p. 5; Fanon 2007b, pp. 152–7.

[39] Fanon 2008, p. 172, n. 8.

[40] Fanon 2008, p. 169.

[41] According to Fanon, whites both dupe and are duped by race. See Fanon 2008, p. 17. Richard Philcox’s 2007 translation for Grove Press, ‘mystifying and mystified’, is even more illuminating – Fanon 2007a, p. 12.

[42] Fanon 2007b, p. 154.

[43] Fanon 2008, p. 12.

[44] Wilderson 2010, p. 55.

[45] Interestingly, Hortense Spillers and Steve Biko, both theorists that Wilderson and Sexton have conscripted into their project, mean black in this sense – while I will elaborate Biko’s politics further elsewhere, see for example Spillers’ comments in UWaterlooEnglish 2013.

[46] Sexton 2010, p. 38.

[47] Parker 2015, p. 94.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Parker 2015, p. 97.

[50] Parker 2015, p. 93.

[51] Parker 2015, p. 86.

[52] Parker 2015, p. 99.

[53] It is not until less than two decades before abolition that the enslavement of whites was formally barred. See Parker 2015, p. 86.

[54] James Baldwin has a striking elaboration of this in Horace Ové’s documentary ‘Baldwin’s Nigger’: ‘When I became Baldwin’s nigger, it’s also very important to point out, I was handcuffed to another man from another tribe whose language I did not speak. We did not know each other. And we could not speak to each other because if we could’ve spoken to each other then we might have been able to figure out what was happening to us, and if we could’ve figured out what was happening to us, we might have been able to prevent it. We would have had, in short, a kind of solidarity, which is a kind of identity which might have allowed us, which might have made the history of slavery very different.’

[55] Fanon 2007b, p. 169.

[56] Wilderson 2014, p. 8.

[57] Sexton 2010, p. 53, n. 56.

[58] Fanon 2007b, pp. 179–80.

[59] Fanon 2008, p. 102.

[60] Fanon 2007b, pp. 152–3.

[61] Fanon 2007b, pp. 153–4.

[62] Marx and Engels 2010, p. 110.                           

[63] Cliffe 1978, pp. 326–46.

[64] Bozzoli 1983, p. 151.

[65] Wallerstein and Bragança (eds.) 1983, p. iv.

[66] This was supplemented by a juridical technology of special control and ethnicised authority. See Mamdani 2002, pp. 132–51.

[67] My treatment of this has been regrettably brief, as an in-depth analysis is beyond the scope of this article and would require far more space than is available, but I would also suggest Berry 2000.

[68] Fanon 2007b, pp. 153–7. See also the problematic established in the introductory chapter of Patrick Wolfe’s Traces of History.

[69] Biko 1971; Fanon 2008, p. 153.

[70] Consider, for example, the way in which, outside of Africa, ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are seen as exchangeable.

[71] See, for example, Money 2015, pp. 225–55.

[72] Fanon 2008, p. 173.

[73] Wilderson 2014, p. 10.

[74] Haider 2016.

[75] Foner (ed.) 1995, pp. 154–5.

[76] Klein 1970.

[77] Shih and Williams (eds.) 2016, p. 13.

More from this Writer

Annie Olaloku-Teriba

Thinking and writing about the theory and history of ‘Blackness’. Student of the National Liberation tradition. Mama-bear. My mum won the Jollof Wars.