I Am Not An Afropessimist, But
I understand why it exists
And this blog entry is not written against Afropessimism but rather in response to the attacks on social media personality Son of Baldwin — and those who dare to share his thoughtful writing. I begin with Afropessimism because the tension I see is the unwillingness of many people enmeshed with whiteness to acknowledge why Afropessimism exists in the first place. But where I end is that whether or not we are Afropessimist, notions driving the framework are part of our public discourse about anti-Blackness and far too much attention is being paid to the discomfort those notions induce, rather than the death anti-Blackness produces.
Of course it is important to state that I shouldn’t label Son of Baldwin an Afropessimist because I don’t know if he would identify as one himself. But I often see him dialoguing with ideas that are coming out of that academic framework, questions of how and whether Black people can be constructed as members of humanity, when mainstream frameworks have primarily relied on white supremacy to create definitions of “humanity.”
My answer to these questions are different from people who actively identify as Afropessimists, I think. I also have had repeated, overwhelmingly negative experiences with male/masc people promoting Afropessimist ideas in ways that feel patriarchal and that has repeatedly turned me off from connecting with the theoretical framework. I am also troubled by the way many people people writing in an Afropessimist vein have co-opted people who have actively and openly dis-identified as “Afropessimist” by labeling them as such anyway. Google “Hortense Spillers” and “Afropessimism” and you don’t find her saying she’s not one (which I know she has said) — instead you find lots of people calling her one. To me this labeling without consent smacks of misogynoir, and while I am also very aware that there are Afropessimists who are interested in working against these habits, they are also unfortunately the ones least likely to get published. I think this reality reflects badly on larger academia but also on power dynamics within Afropessimist discourse, since clearly some people are getting published.
I have noticed that a lot of the people capitalizing on Afropessimism are not Black, too. The gleeful participation of white and non-Black POC in amplifying Afropessimism makes me weary. The white faculty member who is teaching Afropessimism and having their students do final “Afrofuturist” projects? What does it mean for Black people that this educator is suggesting to classrooms that include white students that they get a say in Afrofuturism? Bad things, I think.
Yet, with my criticisms of certain corners of Afropessimism and probable fundamental foundational differences, I also recognize and believe we all must that Afropessimism’s popularity with many Black scholars, especially younger ones, as well as young people outside of academia, means we need to pay attention to what drives this interest.
Without homogenizing Afropessimism, which is a framework in production with an increasingly diverse set of participants, I note there is a reason that many people feel: that even those of us who are not incarcerated are slaves; that the police define “who is Black”; that rather than living in a society primarily defined by Black/white, we live in a society primarily defined by Black/non-Black; that society is unsalvageable; that there is no such thing as a true white ally or accomplice; that white people will never care about Black people; that Black people caring about white people is a form of ongoing one-sided servitude.
Which brings me back to Son of Baldwin, who is a social media personality popular with Black folks interested in social commentary, especially young ones, and who has recently penned Afropessimism-inflected essays, Let Them Fucking Die and I Don’t Give a Fuck about Justine Damond. Reactions to these essays have proposed that SoB is a deranged anti-white genocidal maniac.
What a mirror. For 500 years whiteness has self-constructed itself in ways that said daily to Black people (and others) around the world, “You can die in a cotton field, for all we care,” and “I don’t give a fuck about Sojourner Truth or Palestine.” Now a queer Black man has dared to reflect this language back to white people, and far too many are horrified and outraged and way more focused on how this makes them feel than the fact that Black people (and again, others) have been made to feel that way for centuries, all over the world.
In this sense, I actually think it doesn’t matter whether I feel the exact same pessimism that shines through in SoB’s furious response to anti-Blackness. What matters is that I have wept twice this morning because I’m terrified of white supremacy-induced Global Warming and because I am deeply upset about what is happening in Palestine. What matters is that I didn’t use to cry as much as I do these days, but for the last few years a lot of stuff has made me cry. What matters is that I cry a lot not because I’m weak but because I am tired, because empathy is wearing me out. While I’m not in the same emotional place as Son of Baldwin, I understand how one could get there, and I understand, very much, the need to make room for Black people to be honest about the level of rage that they feel. When I say “Black Lives Matter,” I mean that Black feelings and Black rage matter too.
I notice also that even if I am not in the same grief- and rage-induced place as SoB is, that many Black people are. I cannot dispose of those feelings because they are part of my community. But neither should non-Black people try to dispose of those feelings because they are teaching you something about the world we live in. It can be hard to sit with pain and rage, but if we are to move forward with building a better world, we must be willing to reckon with the fact that this pain and rage exists.
“Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing” — Audre Lorde, The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism
I don’t have any interest in or right to be speaking for Son of Baldwin, a loving and kind friend who has held me up with encouraging words when I have been feeling distraught. But I don’t see hatred in his heart for any people. I see deep grief and anger at white supremacy and the white people who continue to benefit from it, uphold it, and replant and water its seeds. And I live on that spectrum of anger. And I know that the white friends who truly love me understand that it is normal and justified for me to feel this way, even if they can’t feel it in the same way.
Rather than judging Son of Baldwin and attacking his livelihood with calls for him to be fired from his job, judge whiteness. Attack murderous white supremacy. Obliterate the social dominance of whiteness. End it. Whether or not you feel Son of Baldwin’s rage, keep your eyes on the prize: agree with him that the anti-Blackness which causes it is simply unacceptable.
for #CharleenaLyles, in dialogue with Biko Mandela Gray’s Fresh out of Fucks to Give: Critical Reflections on Son of Baldwin’s “I Don’t Give a Fuck About Justine Damond”