On The End of The World

Glenn Ligon, Condition Report, 2000, Iris print, screenprint. Tate

Afropessimism by Frank B. Wilderson III, 352 pp. Liverlight

For me, reading Frank B Wilderson III’s Afropessimism requires sitting in discomfort. Wilderson’s articulation of this theoretical framework of Afropessimism proposes that in our current reality “the Human Other is Black” and asks “why is anti-Black violence not a form of racist hatred but the genome of human renewal…? Why must the world find its nourishment in Black flesh?” Wilderson’s most startling, seemingly anti-coalitional views on the particular structural function of anti-Blackness have come into sharp relief since I read his book. In understanding a moment in which COVID-19 continues to disproportionately claim African-American lives, as disproportionate police brutality continues, and as a new and inspiring wave of Black Lives Matter protests continue, Afropessimism is prescient. Wilderson’s willingness to face anti-Blackness as a structuring force in our current world, even for other marginalized groups, is what makes his book so essential. To face anti-Blackness head on requires a shift in how we conceive of the world. It is worth considering the fraught terrain of the Human and the ways in which it is parasitically built on anti-Blackness, particularly in a country such as the United States built from slavery.

Wilderson’s description of “a form of solidarity,” in a workshop with political activists in Copenhagen, is worth reading closely:

The important things we need to understand are the ways non-Black people of color can crowd out discussion of a Black grammar of suffering by insisting that the coalition needs to focus on what we all have in common. It is true that we all suffer from police aggression; that we all suffer from capitalist domination. But we should use the space opened up by political organizing which is geared toward reformist objectives—like stopping police brutality and ending racist immigration policies—as an opportunity to explore problems for which there is no coherent form of redress, other than Frantz Fanon’s ‘the end of the world.’

The end of the world—this passage echoes in my thinking as abolitionist visions become more widespread and meaningful change feels newly possible. Wilderson’s work is not easy, emotionally or conceptually. It involves sitting with difficulty. He doesn’t offer easy lessons, but rather opens up a texture of experience. A frequent subject of conversation when I described the book to others was what the pragmatic reasons to read it were. Theory is often regarded as an abstract realm, far from political organizing or activism. The type of skepticism recurs in the text, at one point from Wilderson’s mother.

“What’s the use of Afropessimism? What practical use does it have?” she asks.

“It’s not a tractor, it can’t mow your lawn, if that’s what you mean. But it makes us worthy of our suffering.” Wilderson responds, going on to say that most people don’t engage with Afropessimism because they are afraid “of a problem in which everyone is complicit and for which no sentence can be written that would explain how to remedy it. Most people, Mom…are emotionally unable to wallow in a problem which has no solution. Black suffering is that problem.”

How do we sit with this problem? Perhaps through the texture of experience in language which allows us to hold this suffering with care. Wilderson’s book is a theoretical text which can also be read, richly, as literature. Similar to the juxtapositions in Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play or Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Wilderson mixes theoretical material with narratives of his lived experience. He captures moments and narratives: his breakdown in graduate school, being forced on the run and his complex experiences in South Africa. The theoretical questions of Afropessimism are, Wilderson writes, “an unflinching resonance” of “the imaginations of Black people on the ground, and the intellectual labors of Black people in revolt…” The shared resonances of life, activism and theory is made clear through Wilderson’s approach.

Yet, Wilderson’s Afropessimism should only be an opening to many engagements with how the world could be otherwise. Saidiya Hartman, an author of many foundational texts in Afropessimism, was quoted recently in the New York Times saying, “Recently, I heard Angela Davis talk about the radical imagination. And a fundamental requirement is believing that the world you want to come into existence can happen.” Building on her earlier writing on the long afterlife of slavery, Hartman’s recent work is concerned with practices of freedom. Engaging with texts like Wilderson’s and Hartman’s can contribute to engaging meaningfully with this moment. By seeing the world and the all pervasive anti-Black structures clearly, we can come closer to “the end of the world” through language and the radical imagination.