Anonymous asked: love the blog! wondering if you could help me out: i was trying to explain the concept of afro pess. & social death to someone & basically they said well that's a great but how is it going to help our families back in the hood? So how do i explain its practical applications? I know it can be used to explain what happens on the streets but like what good does it do it explain to a poor, black sista why she is poor and still have her ask well how is this theory going to feed me you know? thanks!
first, thanks for checking out my blog! i’m not posting as regularly anymore (partly writers block & partly my own personal struggle to engage truthfully and carefully the very set of questions you pose to me), so i truly appreciate those few still out there reading and engaging my work.
Afro-pessimism & social death are two terms I’ve spoken very little since being out of school, each perhaps the two most important concepts I’ve retained. And though I have not actually verbalized them, they continue to shape my thoughts and in a way (through my knowing/understanding) dictate the ways in which I process my surroundings.
However, while it makes sense to ask me about afro-pessimism and social death in one breath, the two operate differently for me; the former being a concept/framework with which to work through and the latter being a condition or an ontological position(ing)—that which I’ve attempted to understand better through the few scholars Frank Wilderson has termed “Afro-pessimists” (among a few others) and some efforts (visual and literary) of a few artist I have understood to be articulating an afro-pessimist framework or grappling with the structural position of Blackness, the positionality of social death.
(and all that is fancy speak to ease myself into in complexity and importance of your question)
To jump to your point I would say (borrowing from lectures of Wilderson & Jared Sexton) there is ‘power’ to be found in the ability to explain. Afro-pessimism possess a strong explanatory ‘power.’ The word power appearing within scare quotes to signify my own distinctions between a personal-power (or what I would liken to Audre Lorde’s “erotic”) versus a position of power, or the ability to exude/wield acts that matter.
Matter to whom?The world, empire, civil society, Humans, the stuff that dictates the time and space you, myself, & society have deemed the “hood,” and the logic that conditions “poor” a thing, and this theory an impossibility toward feeding, that sista.
But, first we must pause, and dig ourselves out of particular hole your question has dug and tends to trip people up when attempting to explain the “practical applications” of afro-pessimism. If I’m working with the sista on trying to understand why she is poor, maybe a brash dose of afro-pessimism and a lesson on Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death (or what I would call a Paul Mooney “Nigga wake up call”) is not the best approach? Not to say it does not have nuanced clarities and valuable insights to offer, but if our conversation is already plagued with the common question “what can we do?” (the “feed me” portion of your question), then we’ve started in the wrong place to adequately and thoughtfully engage the work of afro-pessimism. Further, if we are in search of an immediate action/remedy, perhaps we have missed the complexity, direness, and frankly frightening position of social death.
But again, this is the place I struggle with daily. Has my writing above been an engagement with the poor sista on the streets, or a productive dialogue with an anonymous questioner (I’m assuming to be an academic), or remnants of a meditation from some region in my mind? Where do the differentials collapse upon one another and I call my work a political act, which I beat myself up for going back on my words—an offering of some type of remedy?
What if you said, “I can’t help your families back in the hood”? Much the same way I can’t help the Black President defend himself against attacks that he is “not one of us” or quell the desire for some to secede from the empire. Further, I have no plausible solution for ending the prison-industrial complex (at least not one I’d write down), or weaning society off the pleasures (read ease) of Black Death. And while I could walk through a pretty thorough discussion of capitalism, class warfare, and class based violence, the crux of my conversation would have to be slavery, Blackness, and further anti-blackness—which is an irrational structure (anti-blackness). Why do you expect a rational answer/remedy for hundreds upon hundreds of (ongoing) years of an anti-black violent structuring of our very real (not theoretical) world? But again, what do we say to that sista?
I can offer you two avenues of thought streaming from my mind, transformed by my experience as a student, political activist, out-of-work activist, blogger, and Black person.
1) When I first read Orlando Patterson’s book, it was in conjunction with some of David Marriott’s work. I was later confronted with Wilderson’s “Gramsci’s Black Marx,” which led me to read Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. When I first read Hortense Spillers’ “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” it forced me to revisit The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, plus Spillers’ made me (re)read and understand differently the work Dorothy Roberts was doing. As an activist, I armed myself with Sexton and Martinot’s “Avante Garde of White Supremacy.” And then of course there was Saidiya Hartman, who pushed me (back) into the archive, sifting through court cases, (re)reading Tocqueville, understanding Barthes a bit differently. It was all so much.[i] A paradigm shift, if you will.
My world wasn’t changing, but things were beginning to look different. It was something I resisted at first. The knowing. Who in their right mind would want to believe in an “after-life of slavery?” But there I was, forced to reckon the findings in Loic Wacquant’s “Slavery to Mass Incarceration,” yet powerless (settling with Patterson’s constituent elements of social death) to remedy the world. Remedy the rupture of identity. Remedy the violence known in history, but (for a time) I did not understand in the present. I read and I read (and I continue to read); the more I began to think I understood, the more I realized I really didn’t understand. But that became okay because the more answers I did not have, meant my reach for remedy became less urgent and my thirst for knowledge more powerful. And I became comfortable, not complacent, less reactionary. My expectation(s) for remedy became different. But, what of that sistas expectation(s)? Does her experience dictate differently?
2) Oscar Grant proved to be a situation we weren’t quite prepared to deal with. I was on the Black Student Union executive board at the time along with my three closest friends. And the four of us read together, and discussed. We were lucky that way, so young to be thinking through complex issues like social death and reckoning the ghost of slavery, the victims of unspeakable/unknowable violence. But at least we had each other, a kind of afro-pessimist support group. And there were others in our group, but the four of us were the only ones (stupid enough to be) on the BSU board.
A rally was planned in LA at the beginning of the pig’s trial (the one that shot Oscar). The week before, all the BSU’s in the UC system planned to discuss the situation with their respective constituents and jointly support the rally’s efforts. It was the beginning of the year, and the four of us arrogantly perceived we had a better way of doing things. On our campus, we pushed the rest of our board in abstaining from a Black Student Union endorsement of the rally, thereby breaking from the general flow of Black student political activism in California and leaving our constituents questioning the direction of the Black Student Union. This infuriated some of the Black student leaders on our campus (past board members & some Black alumni).
We did hold an Oscar Grant meeting though. We discussed the history of policing in the country in conjunction with the Fugitive Slave Codes, the long history of ‘Black bodies magnetizing police bullets,’ and even gave a brief history of anti-police brutality efforts. We sought to effectively inform our constituents, ease the shock of the death of Oscar and place it into a long and tortured history. We felt despite the intentions of the rally organizers, and the ambitions of the Black student activist across the state, the rally would work to pacify the population by centering reform as redress, instead of the destruction of the institution of policing. We were arrogant.
I have yet to figure out if we were wrong, but we were effective in changing the expectation of protest on our campus. I see that now as I look at the younger generations continue the work my three friends and I began. I also see it in how the number of board members vocalizing an afro-pessimist framework changed from four to at least seven by the end of the year. Our form of protest nuanced. It became angry in a different way, less about remedy and more about shining a light on the irrationality of anti-blackness—implicating the world, subtended by it’s chaos. Building a mentality that some things need to be destroyed.
But how do we feed her? If I had a nice answer to that, I’d be working in a liberal non-profit, most likely profiting off the system that keeps her hungry. And why haven’t I destroyed something yet? Most likely because I’m no longer arrogant enough to think I can do it alone (or with four-seven others). So I write, and engage conversations that I believe “sharpen our tools,” because I believe in Revolution and nothing short. She’ll stay hungry till then.
[i] This is in no way a definitive list of what I read to understand “social death” or attempt to formulate my own “afro-pessimist” arguments. Much, much more was read, and much, much more was gained around seminar tables, study sessions, office hours, and the small moments in between classes, meetings, book talks, panel discussion, coffee shops, and dorm rooms.
yesterday i ventured back to california to escape the winter cold of chicago for a few days. one would assume i was coming home for thanksgiving, but in actuality im heading back to chicago thanksgiving morning for multiple reasons:
1) family time is a love-hate relationship. a large family gathering tends to tilt sentiment towards that latter side of the scale.
2) i got work to do.
3) its really cheap to fly on holidays (at least the ones considered family holidays in the empire).
4) im going to see Meshell Ndegeocello perform a tribute concert to Nina Simone (in chicago).
with number 4 being the most important reason, i digress.
im going through airport security at O’hare, placed my bag on the table and watched it roll through machine. shuffled in line, shoeless, pockets empty, and stepped into the scanning machine. passed through and on the other side a TSA woman was holding my bag asking “whose is this?”
‘shit’ i thought. hoping it was simply a “random check,” and not the walls closing in on a Black radical romantic, i signaled it was my bag and walked over through an embarrased shame. she began to dig through the bag. i thought perhaps my moroccan hair oil was past the limits acceptable. and then i thought, ‘damn, that shit is expensive, what is my hair going to do over the next few days.’ and as i began to contemplate having to buy new oil in california, the lady pulled out an eight inch serrated knife from the bottom of my bag. ’oh shit.’
i was mugged a few months ago, in an uncomfortable situation that wreaked of physically sexual and sexually physical undertones. i’m a small guy, so i started carrying a knife in my bag, just in case. one of the few benefits of growing up with a father who happens to be an ex-navy seal; i was actually taught close combat maneuvers, how to defend myself, and some light weapons training (one being a knife). how i forgot the knife was in my bag, i do not know. what if i would had been violated again on the way to the aiport? would i have even remembered to defend myself?
so the lady escorted me to another station where i was asked multiple questions by two different TSA officers. All my answers ended with, ‘i dont much care, you can keep the knife, i don’t want to check my bag.’
they decided to “properly” inspect me. asked me to take off my sweater, and of course underneath i just so happened to be wearing a “Negroes With Guns” shirt. They looked at it, looked at me, looked at each other. I looked down, smiled, and got ready to be there for a while.
another officer entered the scene, inspected the knife, and said “…with blades of acertain size we usually have to fill out a report, this is about that size.” i replied, ‘okay, should i call my lawyer?’ they all looked at each other.
they let me go.
and here i sit, in sunny southern california. hair properly oiled. but now i have to buy a new knife when i get back to chicago.
With the tension of election season finally lifted I feel as if I can write, be Black, and retrospectively postulate arrogance of a non-voter mentality. And while I would also like to make leaps toward suggestions (or assumptions) of well-intentioned in/action and airtight reasoning—that would require a stake in the process. But, my position, out side the box and away from the ballot, is not a stance but rather a realization of the predetermined outside position in which I seem to only see the ballot box through a haze of arsonist reverie.
And tensions mounted in my relationship. He asked if I was going to vote, and I laughed it off. It was a question that had been leveled at me from co-workers and family members all season, and every-time, I would reply, “I mailed my absentee ballot back to Orange County, CA.” A lie I would tell to make myself appear invested in the process, and avoid the awkward conversation of Black radicalism. But in a relationship, it is supposed to be different, right? If I could not be open and honest with him about my distaste for liberal politics and disgust for a US civil procedure predicated on the division of slave v. citizen or Black v. white, who could I be open and honest with? negrosunshine.
The tension produced by laughing off the question was only surpassed by my admission that I do not and would not vote, which was even furthered by arrogant posturing of a superior intellectual reasoning as to why not to vote. Which I had my reasons (superior or not), but I struggle to share them.
He sifted through his mail to find his voter registration card before we went to breakfast, and then we sat, in an awkward silence that has become common place largely because I find it hard to share my analysis, my viewpoint of the world. How does one converse about the conditions of Blackness, or the Black condition, outside of an academic and/or political setting (not to divorce the two)? Or how do I engage the popular conversation of elections outside of the frame of Obama v. Romney, Democrats v. Republicans, liberals v. conservatives, and progress vis-a-vis the first Black president, and redirect an indictment (a term of the state) of the process and implicate all of it in an anti-black violent structure. Further, and maybe more practical, does one bring this up on the first or second date? Or 8.5 months into a quaint relationship, over eggs and pancakes on election morning?
I find it hard to say:
voting implies i want something from the state. it wraps me in the one dimensional option of change within and confided to an unethical structure of violence, historically and primarily targeted at the Black body, which would branch into a conversation about the prison-industrial complex, Wacquant’s “Slavery to Mass Incarceration” thesis, and police brutality most easily conveyed through the Trayvon Martin narrative (at this time). voting would force me to choose in the broad sense between two political parties which are popularly believed to hold diverse and conflicting political opinions but in actuality are a very small portion of a political spectrum that spans much further right and left of either of them. and of course there is another point, which i dare not write here on negrosunshine, but ill just hint it has much to do with Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death, and slave rebellion, in the Turnerian sense.
There is no proper way to end this post, much like there is no proper answer to my predicament, so i will not attempt one.
Anonymous asked: You seem cool as fuck that I have a lot of respect for you. What's your favorite book that I should read? I want to read something relates to our community and build intellectual in me.
they aren’t necessarily my favorites, but they are wildly important and helped me tremendously in my (still in progress) development:
Anonymous asked: just seems funny to me that he could say all that then marry the whitest white woman he could find..
im still not positive what you are getting at…
ill say though: his marrying a white woman does not and should not negate his analysis of the world. “…being black as a condition which you had no control…”
to start there, from Himes’ words (or the insights of his character Bob Jones), is a perplexing yet marvelous frame to begin. the realization of Blackness, the realization of a certain and predetermined powerlessness. But, just as perplexing as his starting point, is his next move, “…then go on from there.” How does one move through the chaos, or the ‘structuring irrationality’ of anti-blackness? To “accept” and “live” in the place on the outside of common sense, how does one do this?
For a while I reasoned and argued the “answer” to Black death and white violence was Black love, the realization of life through the affirmation of those in common condition or position. I believed the urgency of Revolution was only matched by the urgency of affirming life through desire, the unexplainable and complex need to belong, not to civil society but to Revolution and revolutionary subjects.
i can laugh now at the highly romanticized aspects of my revolutionary dreams. but again, i can challenge your statement with, perhaps Black love is not the answer.
do you care to go further? if so, i would also caution, when i speak of Black and white, i’m thinking through structural positions -a place of social life versus social death or the question of the cow Frank Wilderson posed in his “Gramsci’s Black Marx.” so the term “whitest white woman” is irrelevant. i won’t begin to analyze the psychic battles engaged for folks who can realize and articulate the paradigm of anti-blackness while still commit to interracial relationships. i try to stay away from analyzing myself too much, lol. but as i said, perhaps Black love isn’t the answer (for what safe place can be built for Black “life”?), and the other side of my statement is not, the actualization of mixed race society will bring about the “change” we “hope” for…
Anonymous asked: Did Chester not have a choice either when he married that blonde white lady?
hi. who are you and what are you asking? sorry, i don’t know much about the life of Chester Himes. and forgive my ignorance, but i’ve only been around discussions of and read references to If He Hollers Let Him Go. But, by your word choice and word order, I’m led to believe your question has less to do with Chester Himes, or his book, and more to do with race at large (Blackness in the specific) and sexuality. Care to ask it again, in a more direct way?
“From the viewpoint of my hangover it didn’t seem a hard thing to do. You simply had to accept being black as a condition over which you had no control, then go on from there. Glorify your black heritage, revere your black heroes, laud your black leaders, cheat your black brothers, worship your white fathers (be sure and do that), segregate yourself; then make yourself believe that you have made great progress, that you would continue to make great progress, that in time the white folks would appreciate all of this and pat you on the head and say, ‘You been a good nigger for a long time. Now we’re going to let you in.’ Of course you’d have to believe that white folks were generous, unselfish, and loved you so much they wanted to share their world with you, but if you could believe all the rest, you could believe that too. And it didn’t seem like a hard thing for a nigger to believe, because he didn’t have any other choice.”
It’s becoming clear finding friends will be difficult. And where I once blamed it on this new city, place, & adventure, clarity sets in: Chicago is not the end to an answer, but rather a beginning of a lesson. One of those pesky life experiences that really never (truly) sets in until you find yourself face planted between dust tracks on some mysterious road.
And here I am, finding myself struggling to write about nothing. Because once upon a time it used to flow from me like some note ascension out of Coltrane’s horn. Blackness. It hasn’t gone anywhere; still taunts me in those waking nightmares. Structured by it, with an analysis I’m finding increasingly difficult to articulate. But perhaps I was always never, really, saying anything at all.
i had this friend. She was my everything. Best friends and all. i remember that was solidified the day after my mother died. We were in seventh grade, 13 year olds, separated by only five days. My mom passed on a Tuesday, i think (that doesn’t matter much, but i know i stayed home from school). And on Wednesday, still away from institution, perhaps it was Thursday, she showed up. My friend. Her mom brought her by my grand-parents house to sit with me. And she did, she sat with me and made me smile.We were pretty inseparable after that, for at least the next five or so years. Then we went our separate ways for college, and i got enlightened. Black and or queer, however you like it. Perhaps that doesn’t matter much either.
i came queer to her first. i told her i like the [boys]. She didn’t say much. Asked me some pretty inappropriate and uncomfortable questions about my sex, then asked if i liked white boys. That one was to be expected. i was always confused. So was she, about me. Had the nerve to get mad at me because she said she had been defending me all them five or so years. i wasn’t supposed to be gay, i guess. Or queer. Does it even matter now?
i came Black to her later. Not like real Black, because what’s that? Would that even matter? But i told her i dream, i dream of revolution, which really meant i fear and nightmare Black death and or life. Or perhaps more-or-and-less clearly, i recognize the ghost and stench all around us. Who is the ‘us,’ she asked, and revolution she smiled, and wished away.
i never really understood why we stopped talking. i knew the [boys] drove a distance between us. she would tell me she’d pray for me, all random and such. i told her i’d do a shot for her. And the more i talked about my politics the more disinterested she became. but in actuality who in their [right] mind would want to ponder the after-life of slavery. though she would try to fain excitement on my behalf, but remind me she doesn’t know about gay-marriage. which i would politely respond, i know about it, i don’t really care for it—much like the tone in your voice. queer, yet Black, not like real Black. Slave. Nigger. Peculiar.
i haven’t talked to my friend in a very long time. And she was Black. Or did that matter?
a new piece of fiction by a friend, John Murillo. It reads as mysterious as its main “character” B—-. and the marks around the word character matter for me, as John has painted an image where Blackness, or perhaps more specifically the Black body, loses, while at times inherits, its construct through (and beholden to) the objects in proximity. Where person, work, and thing blend for Blackness like paints on a canvass, John has, through intense imagery, attempted a map of the ‘violently silent space through which Black soles shuffle.’
I encourage, urge, everyone to read, re-read, and discuss.