African American Studies Afro-Pessimism
Patrice Douglass, Selamawit D. Terrefe, Frank B. Wilderson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0056


Afro-pessimism is a lens of interpretation that accounts for civil society’s dependence on antiblack violence—a regime of violence that positions black people as internal enemies of civil society, and cannot be analogized with the regimes of violence that disciplines the Marxist subaltern, the postcolonial subaltern, the colored but nonblack Western immigrant, the nonblack queer, or the nonblack woman. Most critical theorists are convinced that though structural violence performs differently on different populations (e.g., domestic violence against women in the home has a different performativity than the violence against striking workers), a common regime of violence (i.e., capitalism) undergirds the subjugation of all sentient beings, and, furthermore, it is assumed all sentient beings are human beings. Afro-pessimists argue that critical theory’s lumping of blacks into the category of the human (so that black suffering is theorized as homologous to the suffering of, say, Native Americans or workers or nonblack queers, or nonblack women) is critical theory’s besetting hobble—a hobble subtending another false assumption: that all sentient beings possess the discursive capacity to transform limitless space into nameable place and endless duration into recognized and incorporated events. At every scale of abstraction, from psychoanalysis’s topography of the psyche or the Bakhtinian chronotope, ascending to Gramsci’s civil society or the dream of a new, postindustrial commons calved from the glacier of globalization, cultural optimism, or optimism in culture’s emancipatory potential, prevails—as though the transformative powers of discursive capacity were hardwired into being itself. Afro-pessimists interrogate this optimism by arguing that the black (or slave) is an unspoken and/or unthought sentience for whom the transformative powers of discursive capacity are foreclosed ab initio—and that violence is at the heart of this foreclosure. Furthermore, discursive capacity’s condition of possibility is vouchsafed not through speech (Lacan), nor in the inaugural division between proletariat and capitalist, arising from the reification of the commodity form (Marx), but in a prior distinction between the regime of violence that positions blackness and the regime of violence that disciplines human subjectivity. These irreconcilable regimes of violence create a structural antagonism between humans and blacks: the cultural production and ontological coherence of the human (the various incarnations of subaltern identities) are secured through the impossibility of analogizing violence that disciplines the subaltern with violence that positions the black (or slave).

General Overview

The claim that humanity is made legible through the irreconcilable distinction between humans and blackness is one of the first principles of Afro-Pessimism, and it is supported by the argument that blackness is a paradigmatic position, rather than an ensemble of cultural, social, and sexual orientations. For Afro-pessimists, the black is positioned, a priori, as slave. The definition of slave is taken from Orlando Patterson who theorizes slavery as a relational dynamic between “social death” (the slave) and “social life” (the human). Afro-pessimism is as indebted to black feminist theory as it is to Patterson’s definition of slavery. The black feminist interventions of Afro-pessimism privilege position (or paradigm) over performance. To this end, Afro-pessimist feminism is a critique of the theoretical orientation of nonblack feminist theory. Afro-pessimism theorizes blackness as an effect of structural violence, as opposed to thinking of blackness as a performance and embodiment of cultural and/or anthropological attributes. Most scholars would argue that what is essential about blackness is (a) the diversity of cultural expressions it elaborates or (b) the specificity of the socio-political terrains blacks occupy around the world. Humanists and sociologists might argue that what it means to be black in the United States, where the one-drop rule is in effect, is completely different than what it means to be black in most of Latin America, where a range of hues are named and experience uneven development as a consequence of that naming. Afro-pessimists would not deny the facticity of such claims but would relegate the distinction between a North American and Latin American orientation toward blackness as being important but inessential to a paradigmatic analysis. What is essential is neither the interpersonal nor institutional orientation toward blackness, but the fact that blackness is the essence of that which orients. Put differently, the coherence of reality (be it institutional or interpersonal coherence) is secured by anxiety over both the idea and the presence of blacks. The black, to paraphrase Frantz Fanon (Fanon 1967, cited under Afro-Pessimism and Psychoanalysis), is a stimulus to anxiety, and it is the anxiety of antagonism (Sexton 2016) represented and embodied by blackness that creates the condition of possibility for both the rigid one-drop rule and the catholic plethora of shades that are named in countries like Cuba and Brazil. Afro-pessimism implores us to think blackness at a level of abstraction that scholars heretofore have thought the worker (Marxism), the woman (nonblack feminism), and the native (postcolonial studies) and to think the human as a fetishized form rather than as a universal given.

  • Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Toronto, ON: Vintage Canada, 2002.

    The title of this sensitive and poetic book announces its originary impasse: a mapping to a threshold, real and imagined, beyond which names and places, past and present, are eviscerated. Through lexical shards that navigate the terrain of familial lore, literature, encyclopedic entries, and dreams, Brand’s poetic cartography crosses the Atlantic and circumnavigates Canada and the Caribbean to centralize captivity as a “cognitive schema.” Its singular achievement is the aesthetic inhabitation of a riven blackness.

  • Chapman, Matthieu. Anti-Black Racism in Early Modern English Drama: The Other “Other.” London: Routledge, 2017.

    This is the first Afro-pessimist interrogation of the methods of Early Modern English studies. By locating notions of black inhumanity in England prior to chattel slavery, Chapman argues the Triangular Slave Trade is a result of, rather than the cause of, black inhumanity. It also challenges the common scholarly assumption that all varying types of human identity in Early Modern England were equally fluid by arguing that blackness functioned as an immutable constant.

  • Douglass, Patrice, and Frank B. Wilderson III. “The Violence of Presence: Metaphysics in a Blackened World.” The Black Scholar 3.4 (Winter 2013): 117–123.

    Douglass and Wilderson interrogate the widely held assumption that a metaphysics of presence can exist for blacks as it does for Human subjects. For the black there was no metaphysical plenitude; therefore, disequilibrium is a constant; not a point or event in a narrative progression. Antiblack violence forecloses a metaphysics of presence (even as that which can be, has been, destroyed). Douglass and Wilderson call for a metaphysics of black disequilibrium.

  • Gordon, Lewis R. Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1995.

    Gordon’s groundbreaking monograph presents the logic of the “antiblack world” as a systemic form of bad faith. He analyzes the black and white attitudes that render blackness as an absence—of value, of identity, of meaning—barred from engaging in intersubjective relations.

  • Hartman, Saidiya V. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

    Hartman’s genre-bending book—part memoir, part theoretical exegesis—explores the insistence and failure of the drive to return, remember, and reconstruct and how that insistence reveals a constituent impossibility: the “afterlife” of slavery. Hartman’s juxtaposition of personal and historical dislocation and nonbelonging follows the violent circuit of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in reverse, to the slave dungeons and raiding villages in Ghana, where the past is her irresolvable present.

  • James, Joy, and João Costa Vargas. “Refusing Blackness-as-Victimization: Trayvon Martin and the Black Cyborgs.” In Pursuing Trayvon Martin: Historical Contexts and Contemporary Manifestations of Racial Dynamics. Edited by George Yancy and Janine Jones. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014.

    In this essay, the assassination of Trayvon Martin is considered by the authors to be that which scaffolds American civic coherence—rather than a shocking example of vigilante violence. They argue that the idea of justice and the range of cognitive elements that state institutions as well as the multiracial movements that challenge their unethical conduct, are elaborated and maintained by black death and the foreclosure of black recognition and incorporation.

  • Patterson. Slavery and Social Death. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

    This field-defining text razes previously sacrosanct tenets in slave studies to recompose the slave as an object, not a laborer, formed by three constituent elements: natal alienation, gratuitous violence, and general dishonor. Whereas Patterson hoped to explain social death as a generalizable (and nonracial) condition, infecting every slave’s status since antiquity, Afro-pessimism has distilled and completed his gesture, recognizing social death as a paradigm whose singular relation to blackness furnishes all of human relationality.

  • Sexton, Jared. “Afro-Pessimism: The Unclear Word.” Rhizomes 29 (2016).

    In this article, Sexton addresses many of the leading assumptions, misreadings, and skepticism that the discourse of Afro-pessimism has encountered. Sexton’s eloquent precision outlines the paradigmatic method and theoretical analytics that emerge from Afro-pessimism. He clarifies that, against dominant suspicion and misunderstandings of Afro-pessimism, the discourse centralizes and has its genealogy in black queer feminist theory and continues to critically elaborate on its critical theorizations and inquiry.

  • Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822373452

    In the Wake compels us to attend to the deracinated cartography where black life is lived and how that murderous map prefigures ways of inhabiting black skin and resisting the ubiquity of gratuitous violence. Sharpe theorizes the idea of “wakeness” as a critical black knowledge that emerges from chattel slavery and coalesces around the enduring pains and pleasures mobilized by anti-black violence in the present.

  • Terrefe, Selamawit D. “Phantasmagoria; or, The World Is a Haunted Plantation.” The Feminist Wire, 10 October 2012.

    This short essay reflects on the entanglement of the visual, the spectral, and enjoyment in the popular consumption of social death, linking black cultural performance to the representation of the police murder of black men and women.

  • Wilderson, Frank B., III. Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822374985

    Originally published in 2008. Incognegro portrays Wilderson’s turbulent life in South Africa during the furious last gasps of apartheid and his political maturation in the United States. The sequence of scenes flow from childhood episodes in the (white) Minneapolis enclave “integrated” by Wilderson’s family in the early 1960s to a rebellious adolescence at the student barricades in Berkeley and under tutelage of the Black Panther Party, from unspeakable dilemmas in South Africa to political battles raging quietly on US campuses and in his intimate life.

  • Wynter, Sylvia. “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues.” Forum N.H.I.: Knowledge for the 21st Century 1.1 (Fall 1994): 1–11.

    This open letter titled after the classifying acronym NHI (No Humans Involved; used by police in Los Angeles to designate the status of jobless young black men) clarifies the organizing principles that render antiblackness genocidal. In addition, Wynter illustrates how theocentrism is imbricated in biocentric hierarchies that underpin liberal humanism—both in the academy and in society at large.

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