Afro-Pessimism Part 1

Announcement: While "Brown" is sometimes used as a descriptor specifically for people of color that have Latin or Indian heritage, for this post and the whole blog, I do not make that distinction. See my musings around this here.

So, sometime ago I came upon this term, afro-pessimism. I was curious about it. It seemed like something I'd find really interesting.  So I looked it up. Most of what I found was super dense and hard to comprehend but I did come across two articles where the intention was to make it more comprehensive to the non academic. I also came across a dissertation (I know the person who wrote it) and they have an interesting perspective of it. I want to share what I learned with you. Unfortunately, I have yet to get to the point where I can define it in a few words. But I also think it's a concept that requires a bit of background and context. What I have done is read these articles a couple times and taken notes. I'm going to break this over a couple posts for simple digestible pieces. Original content from the article will be the normal paragraphs. My understanding of it will be a bullet point under it. Ideally my points are shorter, condensed interpretations.

A Very Short Intro to Afro-Pessimism. The preface content from a book titled Afro-Pessimism: An Introduction.

Thinking about this incident, it appears that the Black cop seamlessly moves from being a force of structural white supremacy (as a uniformed cop) to being shot just for being Black. To help make sense of this, it is necessary to understand that anti-Blackness can emerge at any moment with the existence of Blackness. Anti-Blackness does not need any particular behavior to respond to; it is not a causal reaction. All that anti-Blackness needs to violently surface is the presence of Blackness; nothing needs to “happen.”

  • The incident was a Black off duty cop being shot by his fellow, white officers. The point of this snippet is simply, being Black is a crime. Black & Brown doesn't have to DO anything else outside of existing.

My interest in Afro-pessimism comes not as an empathetic ally—as that position only reinforces the racial hierarchy...

  • The author is a white woman. She acknowledges that white allies that behave as saviors fuel anti Blackness.

Whiteness is in the mortar that has constructed this world—which is of course supplemented by settler colonialism, patriarchy, heterosexuality, and so on. This is to say that the foundations and structures of the world we live in are inherently anti-Black; it is not only individuals and old fashioned racists that perpetuate anti-Blackness. Thus to maintain and reform the systems around us is to uphold whiteness, and to uphold or positively identify with whiteness will always be anti-Black.

  • Anti-Blackness is built and woven into everything. I  would even expand this to anti-people of color in general. This is largely due, I think, to the extreme subjugation and cultural suppression executed by Europeans throughout the world.

It is an ongoing struggle experimenting with what it means to abolish whiteness and anti-Blackness, but it certainly involves listening to and learning from those whose lives are defined by systematic exclusion and murder. Afro-pessimism offers a fundamental challenge to concepts of race and racism and provides a framework through which anyone, including non-Black people, might understand their position in society and the struggles for a different world.

  • If you care to aid and support a group that has been oppressed and discriminated against. You have to start with listening to them.
  • Afro-pessimism is a certain way of looking at and understanding life, specifically race and racism.

Afro-pessimism is better thought of as a theoretical lens for situating relations of power, at the level of the political and the libidinal. [1] Libidinal economy – the economy, or distribution and arrangement, of desire and identification, of energies, concerns, points of attention, anxieties, pleasures, appetites, revulsions, and phobias—the whole structure of psychic and emotional life—that are unconscious and invisible but that have a visible effect on the world, including the money economy.

  • Afro-pessimism looks at how power exists and behaves in politics and in the minds of a person and people.

One of the central tenets of Afro-pessimism, which expands upon the erudite work of Orlando Patterson,[2] is a reoriented understanding of the composition of slavery: instead of being defined as a relation of (forced) labor, it is more accurately thought of as a relation of property. ... As such, they are not recognized as a social subject and are thus precluded from the category of “human”—inclusion in humanity being predicated on social recognition, volition, subjecthood, and the valuation of life.

  • So one of the first and key points of Afro-pessimism is that it doesn't look at slavery as forced, unpaid, and involuntary work. It acknowledges that at the time, Africans and Blacks were not even seen as people. They were property.

The slave, as an object, is socially dead, which means they are: 1) open to gratuitous violence, as opposed to violence contingent upon some transgression or crime; 2) natally alienated, their ties of birth not recognized and familial structures intentionally broken apart; and 3) generally dishonored, or disgraced before any thought or action is considered.

  • Black & Brown skin merely needed to be Black & Brown and it instantly is property. Property is not a social being. It doesn't require care, family, connection. It works the way and when you need it to work. It can be used however you want it to be used. 

The social death of the slave goes to the very level of their being, defining their ontology. Thus, according to Afro-pessimism, the slave experiences their “slaveness” ontologically, as a “being forthe captor,”[3] not as an oppressed subject, who experiences exploitation and alienation, but as an object of accumulation and fungibility (exchangeability).

  • Ontology - nature of being. basic elements or components.
  • Humans are oppressed and violated. Property is not. Property is collected and produces value for the owner.

Formally, the Black subject was no longer a slave, but the same formative relation of structural violence that maintained slavery remained—upheld explicitly by the police (former slave catchers) and white supremacy generally—hence preserving the equation that Black equals socially dead. Just as wanton violence was a constituent element of slavery, so it is to Blackness. Given the ongoing accumulation of Black death at the hands of the police—even despite increased visibility in recent years—it becomes apparent that a Black person on the street today faces open vulnerability to violence just as the slave did on the plantation. That there has recently been such an increase in media coverage and yet little decrease in murder reveals the ease with which anti-Black violence can be ignored by white society; at the same time this reveals that when one is Black one needn’t do anything to be targeted, as Blackness itself is criminalized.

  • Though slaves switched identity to Black & Brown people, the anti-Black behaviors and policies remained. Consider slave catchers who became the police force and how the police force has been and continues to be, despite media coverage, grossly violent. Side eye to your white friends.

The distinction that Afro-pessimism makes is important because it problematizes any positive affirmation of identity[7]—as non-Black categories are defined against the Blackness they are not, this relation of race indirectly (and directly, e.g., white teens’ racist snapchats) sustains anti-Blackness by producing and sustaining racialized categories.

  • The boundaries of being non-Black vs being Black are stark. Afro-pessimism says that upholding these categories also upholds anti-blackness, because it is the non-Back category that has for long been capable and guilty of great violence.

If, as Afro-pessimism shows, it is not possible to affirm Blackness itself without at the same time affirming anti-Black violence, then the attempts at recognition and inclusion in society will only ever result in further social and real death. Individuals can of course achieve some status in society through “structural adjustment”[9] (i.e., a kind of “whitening” effect), as has been superficially confirmed, but Blackness as a racialized category remains the object of gratuitous, constituent violence—as demonstrated by police murders, mass incarceration, urban planning, and surveillance (from COINTELPRO to special security codes at stores to indicate when Black customers enter)

  • Because of the strong boundary between being Black & non-Black mentioned before, Afro-pessimism claims that any action to strengthen Black identity only makes the boundaries more clear, strengthening non-Blackness and thus anti-Black behaviors and systems.
  • There's also the concept, "the exception, not the rule." This means that yes, some Black people may enjoy some improvement but it is the community overall that remains stuck. Also, it can come at the cost of Black identity.

The challenges Afro-pessimism poses to the affirmation of Blackness extend to other identities as well and problematize identity-based politics. The efforts, on the part of such a politics, to produce a coherent subject (and movement), and the reduction of antagonisms to a representable position, is not only the total circumscription of liberatory potential, but it is an extinguishment of rage with reform—which is to stake a claim in the state and society, and thus anti-Blackness

  • Afro-pessimism also claims that any attempt to work with and reform "the system" is only buying into the "the system's" power and thus its inherent anti-Blackness. Seeing anti-Blackness as a legitimate political position that can be bargained with through politics is a defeat in and of itself.

This is not to categorically reject every project of reform—for decreased suffering will surely make life momentarily easier—but rather to take to task any movement invested in the preservation of society. This also places undo faith in politicians and police to do something other than maintain, as they always have and will, the institutions—schools, courts, prisons, projects, voting booths, neighborhood associations—sustaining anti-Blackness.

  • The point is not to give up and be defeated. Hopelessness is not the necessary end. Improvement is still improvement. No one would deny the opportunity to enjoy more. As a human, having hope is a better way to exist mentally. What Afro-pessimism calls us to do is to challenge any and every thing or person that works to maintain the status quo. The status quo being anti-Blackness.

Afro-pessimism can also be used to critique prevalent liberal discourses around community, accountability, innocence, and justice. Such notions sit upon anti-Black foundations and only go so far as to reconfigure, rather than abolish, the institutions that produce, control, and murder Black subjects.[12] Take for example the appeal to innocence and demand for accountability, too frequently launched when someone Black is killed by police. The discourse of innocence operates within a binary of innocent/guilty, which is founded on the belief that there is an ultimate fairness to the system and presumes the state to be the protector of all. This fails to understand the state’s fundamental investment in self-preservation, which is indivisible from white supremacy and the interests of capital.

  • Treating and honoring the system as a fair one is making the mistake of thinking anti-Blackness is a rational perspective. A person has to remain critical of all things in order to maintain the awareness that trying to bargain with this system is a bit silly.

Finally, we should add that alongside the valuable theoretical offerings of Afro-pessimism, this reader was also motivated by a desire to contribute to the efforts of bringing these writings out of the ivory towers of the­ academy, the place from which all these writings originated. We wish to remove the materials from this stifling place and see them proliferate among those in the streets and prisons. The topics discussed here may have origins in a place of lofty theory, but they deal with the constant realities of millions of people. We therefore find it imperative that these theories directly inform the practices of everyone desiring a life other than this one—while not simply resorting to the empty gesture of empathy.

  • Conversations like these can often linger in the arenas of university professors, researchers, and academics in the jargon that the layman can't understand. It's time these themes and theories get out of the advanced degrees circle jerk and become part of the everyday dialogue of common people like you and me. Can you imagine if we taught this to our Black and Brown children? The stuff "They" don't want you to know. Is this what is meant by the Miseducation of the Negro? I never read that book.

A Note About Not Being A Note

Black Mental Health & Imprisonment