Introduction to afro-pessimism: The avant-garde of white supemacy by Steve Martinot & Jared Sexton

In 1998, Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex, a national conference and strategy-session, re-posed the question of the relations between white supremacy and state violence. Fascism was the concept often used to link these two terms and the prison industrial complex was considered to be its quintessential practice. The political-intellectual discourse generated at and around Critical Resistance shattered the narrow definitions of racism that characterize many conventional (even leftist) accounts
and produced instead a space for rethinking radical alternatives.This sort of shift in the political landscape has been imperative fora long time now. The police murder of Amadou Diallo comes to mind as an event requiring such re-conceptualization. The Diallo killing was really plural since it involved other police murders as imminent in the same event. Diallo’s killing was plural beyond his own many deaths in those few seconds, a killing that took place in the eyes of his friends and family from as far away as Guinea. In the immediate wake of his killers’ acquittals, the NYPD murdered Malcolm Ferguson, a community organizer who had been active in attempting to get justice for Diallo. (The police harassed the Ferguson’s within the next year and arrested his brother on
trumped up charges.) Two weeks after Ferguson’s murder, the police killed Patrick Dorismund because he refused to buy drugs from an undercover cop, because he fought back when the cop attacked. The police then harassed and attacked Dorismund’s funeral procession in Brooklyn a week later, hospitalizing several in attendance. (The police took the vendetta all the way to the grave.) Tyisha Miller was murdered in her car in Riverside, California by four cops who knocked on the window of her car and found that she simply didn’t respond. Angela Davis tells the story of “Tanya Haggerty in Chicago, whose cell phone was the potential weapon that allowed police to justify her killing,” just as Daillo’s wallet was the “gun” at which four cops fired in unison. To the police, a wallet in the hand of black man is a gun whereas that same wallet in the hand of a white man is just a wallet. A cell phone in the hands of a black woman is a gun; that same phone
in a white woman’s hand is a cell phone.There were local movements in each of these cities to protest acts of police murder and in each case the respective city governments
were solicited to take appropriate action. Under convention aldefinitions of the government, we seem to be restricted to calling upon it for protection from its own agents. But what are we doing when we demonstrate against police brutality, and find
ourselves tacitly calling upon the government to help us do so? These notions of the state as the arbiter of justice and the police as the unaccountable arbiters of lethal violence are two sides of the same coin. Narrow understandings of mere racism are
proving themselves impoverished because they cannot see this fundamental relationship. What is needed is the development of a radical critique of the structure of the coin. There are two possibilities: first, police violence is a deviation from the rules governing police procedures in general. Second, these various forms of violence (e.g., racial profiling, street murders, terrorism) are the rule itself as standard operation procedure. For instance, when the protest movements made public statements they expressed an understanding of police violence as the rule of the day and not as a shocking exception. However, when it came time to formulate practical proposals to change the fundamental nature of policing, all they could come up with concretely were more oversight committees, litigation, and civilian review boards (“with teeth”), none of which lived up to the collective intuition about what the police were actually doing. The protest movements’ readings of these events didn’t seem able to bridge the gap to the programmatic. The language in which we articulate our analyses doesn’t seem to allow for alternatives in practice. Even those who take seriously the second possibility (violence as a rule) find that the language of alternatives and the terms of relevance are constantly dragged into the political discourse they seek to oppose, namely, that the system works and is capable of reform. After the exposure of the LAPD’s videotaped beating of Rodney King, after the rebellions of 1992, police violence only became more rampant and more brazen across the country. After the Justice for Diallo” movement in NYC, the police murders multiplied, and police arrogance increased. It was as if the anti-racist campaigns (or uprisings) against police violence were co-opted by the police to augment their violence, rather than effectively closing it down as they had explicitly intended. In the wake of countless exposés, the prison industrial complex has only expanded; the reportage on the racist operations of capital punishment and the legal system more generally have become absorbed in the acceleration of execution rates. Why do things get worse after each hard fought revelation? Where do we locate the genius of the system? Something is left out of the account; it runs through our fingers, escaping our grasp.If the spectacle of police violence does, in fact, operate according to a rule of its own (as the anti-violence movements argue), what does this suggest about the social institutions that generate it and which it represents despite persistent official disavowals? First, the relationship between police violence and the social institution
of policing is structural, rather than incidental or contingent (i.e., an unfortunate but minor part of the job). Second, the cultural content of the actual policing that we face is to be a law unto itself, not the socially responsible institution it claims to be in its disavowals. Third, a question: is this paradigm of policing a methodology for a form of social organization? If so, of what are the police the avant-garde?They prowl, categorizing and profiling, often turning those profiles into murderous violence without (serious) fear of being called to account, all the while claiming impunity. What jars the imagination is not the fact of impunity itself, but the realization that they are simply people working a job, a job they secured by making an application at the personnel office. In events such as the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the true excessiveness is not in
the massiveness of the shooting, but in the fact that these cops were there on the street looking for this event in the first place, as a matter of routine business. This spectacular evil is encased in a more inarticulable evil of banality, namely, that the state assigns
certain individuals to (well-paying) jobs as hunters of human beings, a furtive protocol for which this shooting is simply the effect. But they do more than prowl. They make problematic the whole notion of social responsibility such that we no longer know if the police are responsible to the judiciary and local administration or if the city is actually responsible to them, duty bound by impunity itself. To the extent to which the police are a law unto themselves, the latter would have to be the case. This unaccountable vector
of inverted social responsibility would resonate in the operating procedures in upper levels of civil administration as well. That is, civil governmental structures would act in accordance with the paradigm of policing—wanton violence legitimized by strict
conformity to procedural regulations.For instance, consider the recent case of a 12 year-old African-American boy sentenced to prison for life without parole for having killed a 6 year-old African-American girl while acting out the moves he had seen in professional wrestling matches on TV. In demanding this sentence, the prosecutor argued that the boy
was a permanent menace to society, and had killed the girl out of extreme malice and consciousness of what he was doing. A 12 year-old child, yet Lionel Tate was given life without parole. In the name of social sanctity, the judicial system successfully
terrorized yet another human being, his friends, and relatives by carrying its proceduralism to the limit. The corporate media did the rest; several “commentators” ridiculed Tate’s claim to have imitated wrestling moves, rewriting his statement as a disreputable excuse: “pro wrestling made me do it” (San Francisco Chronicle,
3/25/01). Thus, they transformed his naïve awareness of bodies into intentional weaponry and cunning. One could surmise, with greater justification than surmising the malice of the child, that the prosecutor made a significant career step by getting this high profile conviction. Beyond the promotion he would secure for a job well done, beyond the mechanical performance of official outrage and the cynicism exhibited in playing the role, what animus drove the prosecutor to demand such a sentence? In the face of the prosecution’s sanctimonious excess, those who bear witness to Tate’s suffering have only inarticulate outrage to offer as consolation. With recourse only to the usual rhetorical
expletives about racism, the procedural ritualism of this white supremacist operation has confronted them with the absence of a real means of discerning the judiciary’s dissimulated machinations. The prosecutor was the banal functionary of a civil structure, a paradigmatic exercise of wanton violence that parades as moral rectitude but whose source is the paradigm of policing. All attempts to explain the malicious standard operating procedure of US white supremacy find themselves hamstrung by conceptual inadequacy; it remains describable, but not comprehensible. The story can be told, as the 41 bullets fired to slaughter Diallo can be counted, but the ethical meaning
remains beyond the discursive resources of civil society, outside the framework for thinkable thought.It is, of course, possible to speak out against such white supremacist violence as immoral, as illegal, even unconstitutional. But the impossibility of thinking through to the ethical dimension has a hidden structural effect. For those who are not racially profiled or tortured when arrested, who are not tried and sentenced
with the presumption of guilt, who are not shot reaching for their identification, all of this is imminently ignorable. Between the inability to see and the refusal to acknowledge, a mode of social organization is being cultivated for which the paradigm of policing is the cutting edge. We shall have to look beyond racialized police violence to see its logic.The impunity of racist police violence is the first implication ofits ignorability to white civil society. The ignorability of police impunity is what renders it inarticulable outside of that hegemonic formation. If ethics is possible for white civil society within its
social discourses, it is rendered irrelevant to the systematic violence deployed against the outside precisely because it is ignorable. Indeed, that ignorability becomes the condition of possibility for the ethical coherence of the inside. The dichotomy between a white ethical dimension and its irrelevance to the violence of police profiling is the very structure of racialization today. It is a twin structure, a regime of violence that operates in two registers, terror and the seduction into the fraudulent ethics of social order;
a double economy of terror, structured by a ritual of incessant performance. And into the gap between them, common sense, which cannot account for the double register or twin structure of this ritual, disappears into incomprehensibility. The language of
common sense, through which we bespeak our social world in the most common way, leaves us speechless before the enormity of the usual, of the business of civil procedures.

Afro Pessimism an introduction

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. The slave is objectified in such a way that they are legally made an object (a commodity) to be used and exchanged. It is not just their labor-power that is commodified—as with the worker—but their very being. 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, subject hood, and the valuation of life. 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. 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 for the captor,”3 not as an oppressed subject, who experiences exploitation and alienation, but as an object of accumulation and fungibility (exchangeability). After the “nonevent of emancipation,”4 slavery did not simply give way to freedom. Instead, the legal disavowal of ownership reorganized domination and the former slave became the radicalized Black “subject,” whose position was marked epidermally, per Frantz Fanon.5 What followed was a profound entrenchment of the concept of race, both psychically and juridically. 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. With this understanding of slavery and Blackness, Afro-pessimism makes a critical shift in focus by moving away from the Black/ white binary and reframing it as Black/non-Black, in order to de-emphasize the status of whiteness and to center analysis, rather, on the anti-Black foundations of race and modern society. In other words, “it is racial blackness as a necessary condition for enslavement that matters most, rather than whiteness as a sufficient condition for freedom.”6 As a result, it is Blackness, and more specifically anti-Blackness, that gives coherence to categories of non-Black—white, worker, gay, i.e., “human.” Categories of non-Black must establish their boundaries for inclusion in a group (humanity) by having a recognizable self within. There must also, consequently, be an outside to each group, and, as with the concept of humanity, it is Blackness that
is without; it is Blackness that is the dark matter surrounding and holding together the categories of non-Black. Experientially, subjects, even Black ones, can obviously find themselves with any myriad identities, but ontologically Blackness is still violently excluded from even the meager scraps given when recognized. The distinction that Afro-pessimism makes is important because it problematizes any positive affirmation of identity7—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. Stated otherwise, “the violence of antiblackness produces black existence; there is no prior positive
blackness that could be potentially appropriated. Black existence is simultaneously produced and negated by racial domination, both as presupposition and consequence. Affirmation of blackness proves to be impossible without simultaneously affirming the violence that structures black subjectivity itself.”8 Afro-pessimism departs with this understanding and illuminates the limits and failures of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, such as their reformist ideologies concerning progress and their disastrous integration with bureaucratic machinery. 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). As Blackness is negated by the relations and structures of society, Afro-pessimism posits that the only way out is to negate that negation. 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 apolitics, 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. Against this, we choose, following Afro-pessimism, to understand Black liberation as a negative dialectic, a politics of refusal, and a refusal to affirm; as an embrace of disorder and incoherence;10 and as an act of political apostasy.11 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. Were they not to decry every action that didn’t fit within their rigid framework, then they might not fortify anti-Blackness as fully as they do. It is in the effort to garner legitimacy (an appeal to whiteness) that reformism requires a representable identity and code of actions, which excludes, and actually endangers, those who would reject such pandering. 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. 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. The discourse goes that if someone innocent is killed, an individual (the villainous cop) must be held accountable as a solution to this so-called injustice. The structural reality of anti-Black violence is completely obfuscated and justice is mistook as a concept independent from anti-Blackness. Discrimination is indeed tragic, but systematic dispossession and murder is designedly more—it is the justice system—and no amount of imprisoned cops, body cameras or citizen review boards will eliminate this. Furthermore, Afro-pessimist analysis exposes the often unacknowledged ways that radical movements perpetuate anti-Black racism. One such way is in the rhetoric repeatedly used that takes an assumed (historically oppressed) subject at its center—e.g., workers or women.13 This conflates experience with existence and fails to acknowledge the incommensurate ontologies between, for instance, white women and Black women. To speak in generalities, of simply workers or women, is to speak from a position of anti-Blackness, for the non-racialized subject is the white, or at least non-Black, subject. For this reason, movements against capitalism, patriarchy, or gender mean unfortunately little if they don’t elucidate ontological disparities within a given site of oppression; and if they don’t unqualifiedly seek to abolish the totality of race and anti-Blackness. This is not to privilege anti- Black racism on a hierarchy of oppression, but to assert—against the disparaging lack of analysis—the unlivability of life for Blacks over centuries of social death and physical murder, perpetuated (at varying times) by all non-Black subjects in society.

Time for action

Its time for the people to start rising up and breaking their chains. We must start taking direct action against the threats that face us. From the climate disasters that we face, inequality of economic and political power, to a disillusioned youth and the rebirth of fascism. There are many more threats, and these threats are here. They have been building up and it’s only a few drops away until they spill over. 

We know reform will never do anything. Tale a look at the civil rights movement. Whites may think otherwise but black people know that very little has changed. Blackness is still criminalised and considered inhuman, most of our family line has been in poverty ever since the passing of the thirteenth amendment, and even still it allowed slavery in prisons. 

A lot of blacks have been virtually inslaved dued to laws that target petty drug offense from a drug that does almost no harm to you. Also from another drug that has been distributed throughout black neighborhoods by the US from cartels that were pro US rebels against Soviet satellites. Our history is white washed and this white washed history is fed to our children every day we put them in school.

We have more than an excuse to uprise and rebel. We have more than the needed argument for action against the systematic violence that the state throws at us. We all know that nothing will happen as long as we sit down and remain complacent to the status quo. It doesn’t matter who we vote into office. We all know nothing will change.

Sources

A very short intro to afro-pessimism

This reader is intended to be an introduction to the theory called Afro-pessimism. Collected in this volume are articles spanning three decades of thought, with topics ranging from police violence, the labor of Black women, and the slave’s transformation following emancipation, to the struggles of the Black Liberation Army and elements of anti-Blackness in Indigenous struggles for sovereignty. Although the authors use differing methods of analysis, they all approach them with a shared theoretical understanding of slavery, race, and the totality of anti-Blackness; it is this shared understanding that has been called Afro-pessimism. Importantly though, rather than a fixed ideology, 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] Afro-pessimism, in many ways, picks up the critiques started by Black revolutionaries in the 1960s and 70s, elaborating their short-comings and addressing their failures. While we don’t intend to explicate at great length the theory of Afro-pessimism here—this will be done by the articles—it may be helpful to start with a brief overview to give those readers without a context some footing with which to go forward.

*

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. The slave is objectified in such a way that they are legally made an object (a commodity) to be used and exchanged. It is not just their labor-power that is commodified—as with the worker—but their very being. 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.

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.

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 for the captor,”[3] not as an oppressed subject, who experiences exploitation and alienation, but as an object of accumulation and fungibility (exchangeability).

After the “nonevent of emancipation,”[4] slavery did not simply give way to freedom. Instead, the legal disavowal of ownership reorganized domination and the former slave became the racialized Black “subject,” whose position was marked epidermally, per Frantz Fanon.[5] What followed was a profound entrenchment of the concept of race, both psychically and juridically. 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.

With this understanding of slavery and Blackness, Afro-pessimism makes a critical shift in focus by moving away from the Black/white binary and reframing it as Black/non-Black, in order to deemphasize the status of whiteness and to center analysis, rather, on the anti-Black foundations of race and modern society. In other words, “it is racial blackness as a necessary condition for enslavement that matters most, rather than whiteness as a sufficient condition for freedom.”[6] As a result, it is Blackness, and more specifically anti-Blackness, that gives coherence to categories of non-Black—white, worker, gay, i.e., “human.” Categories of non-Black must establish their boundaries for inclusion in a group (humanity) by having a recognizable self within. There must also, consequently, be an outside to each group, and, as with the concept of humanity, it is Blackness that is without; it is Blackness that is the dark matter surrounding and holding together the categories of non-Black. Experientially, subjects, even Black ones, can obviously find themselves with any myriad identities, but ontologically Blackness is still violently excluded from even the meager scraps given when recognized.

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. Stated otherwise, “the violence of anti-blackness produces black existence; there is no prior positive blackness that could be potentially appropriated. Black existence is simultaneously produced and negated by racial domination, both as presupposition and consequence. Affirmation of blackness proves to be impossible without simultaneously affirming the violence that structures black subjectivity itself.”[8]

Afro-pessimism departs with this understanding and illuminates the limits and failures of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, such as their reformist ideologies concerning progress and their disastrous integration with bureaucratic machinery. 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 realdeath. 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). As Blackness is negated by the relations and structures of society, Afro-pessimism posits that the only way out is to negate that negation.

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. Against this, we choose, following Afro-pessimism, to understand Black liberation as a negative dialectic, a politics of refusal, and a refusal to affirm; as an embrace of disorder and incoherence;[10] and as an act of political apostasy.[11] 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. Were they not to decry every action that didn’t fit within their rigid framework, then they might not fortify anti-Blackness as fully as they do. It is in the effort to garner legitimacy (an appeal to whiteness) that reformism requires a representable identity and code of actions, which excludes, and actually endangers, those who would reject such pandering. 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.

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. The discourse goes that if someone innocent is killed, an individual (the villainous cop) must be held accountable as a solution to this so-called injustice. The structural reality of anti-Black violence is completely obfuscated and justice is mistook as a concept independent from anti-Blackness. Discrimination is indeed tragic, but systematic dispossession and murder is designedly more—it isthe justice system—and no amount of imprisoned cops, body cameras or citizen review boards will eliminate this.

Furthermore, Afro-pessimist analysis exposes the often unacknowledged ways that radical movements perpetuate anti-Black racism. One such way is in the rhetoric repeatedly used that takes an assumed (historically oppressed) subject at its center—e.g., workers or women.[13] This conflates experience with existence and fails to acknowledge the incommensurate ontologies between, for instance, white women and Black women. To speak in generalities, of simply workers or women, is to speak from a position of anti-Blackness, for the non-racialized subject is the white, or at least non-Black, subject. For this reason, movements against capitalism, patriarchy, or gender mean unfortunately little if they don’t elucidate ontological disparities within a given site of oppression; and if they don’t unqualifiedly seek to abolish the totality of race and anti-Blackness. This is not to privilege anti-Black racism on a hierarchy of oppression, but to assert—against the disparaging lack of analysis—the unlivability of life for Blacks over centuries of social death and physical murder, perpetuated (at varying times) by all non-Black subjects in society.

*

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.[14]

We must acknowledge the fact that non-Blacks have a complicity in perpetuating anti-Blackness and face the necessity of abolishing all notions of the self and identity, practicing an anti-racism with a view toward the total abolition of the state, and developing an anti-capitalism aimed at the destitution of race. We take heed of the following statement: “If we are to be honest with ourselves, we must admit that the ‘Negro’ has been inviting whites, as well as civil society’s junior partners, to the dance of social death for hundreds of years, but few have wanted to learn the steps.”[15] Consider this project an opening sashay.

[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. See Wilderson, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms and Chico, cosmic hoboes in “Further Reading.” [All further references here will be listed in “Further Reading” unless otherwise noted.]

[2] Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study.

[3] See in this volume Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe.”

[4] See in this volume Hartman, “The Burdened Individuality of Freedom.”

[5] Black Skin, White Masks.

[6] Sexton, “People-of-Color-Blindness: Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery.”

[7] This doesn’t altogether eliminate the possibilities for organizing around identities. There are very real reasons why this is often necessary and groups are experimenting with ways of building autonomy that are also anti-essentialist and recognize the heterogeneity of supposedly static categories. One example is a negative affirmation of identity (the exclusion of cis men) in order to prevent any positive affirmation of another (a static notion of “womanhood”). See LIES, especially Vol. II.

[8] R.L., “Wanderings of the Slave: Black Life and Social Death.”

[9] Wilderson, Red, White & Black.

[10] See in this volume Wilderson, “The Prison Slave as Hegemony’s (Silent) Scandal.”

[11] Apostasy – the total abandonment of one’s belief in a religion, party, or cause; Warren, “Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope.”

[12] Needless to say, these institutions are also, in general, meant to create productive, governable subjects and, therefore, all those deemed non-normative are either assimilated—via their identity being formally recognized and incorporated into culture and society—or they are met with a similar murderous violence. This violence, however, is contingent upon a refusal, transgression, or crime, which is to say it results from some action or identity, rather than a constituent element as it is with Blackness.

[13] While not strictly in the purview of Afro-pessimism, it’s important to note the ways that subject-oriented movements have included/excluded various identities over time—e.g., both discursively and explicitly, worker’s movements mostly omitted women, and women’s movements mostly omitted trans people. The point is not to decry exclusion, but to encourage moving destructively through and out of all such gross limitations to being.

[14] “[T]he effort to counteract the commonplace callousness to black suffering requires that the white body be positioned in the place of the black body in order to make this suffering visible and intelligible. Yet if this violence can become palpable and indignation can be fully aroused only through the masochistic fantasy, then it becomes clear that empathy is double-edged, for in making the other’s suffering one’s own, this suffering is occluded by the other’s obliteration” (Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America).