Bad Faith and Afropessimism: Notes Toward a Debate

"...the social world is not a product of natural laws, but is sustained by free human activity... voluntary human attitudes can make a difference in shaping the structures and outcomes of that world."

Bad Faith and Afropessimism: Notes Toward a Debate


is a concept developed by Frank Wilderson III, professor of Drama and African American Studies at UC Irvine, that attempts to frame the desperate global situation of people of (specifically Black) African descent as an ontological crisis; as a problem of Black being that defies optimistic political/cultural strategies of revolutionary and reformist coalition-building between Black and non-Black peoples, including other nonwhites. Because modern life is built on the basic assumption of Black inhumanity, such that non-Black ways of life rely upon Blackness as the negation of order and value, there are supposedly no resources within the modern world for Black ‘subjects’ (whose very status as subjects, even humans, becomes problematic) to free ourselves – no natural allies in our struggle against capitalist white supremacy.

A fairly new intellectual trend, its adherents draw inspiration from, inter alia, Pan-Africanist thinkers such as Frantz Fanon and Aime Cesaire; the Africana philosopher Lewis Gordon, whose Bad Faith and Anti-black Racism is especially important for its ontologizing claims about antiblackness; and the sociologist Orlando Patterson, whose Slavery and Social Death enters its canon as the definitive account of the dialectical relation between slavery and freedom. In addition, several of its prominent representatives, such as Hortense Spillers, Jared Sexton, and Saidiya Hartman, appear to subscribe to forms of postmodern/post-structuralist thinking, by which progressive historical narratives — indeed, coherent narratives of any kind — are viewed with deep suspicion, along with the self-identical ‘subjects’ whose conscious actions are the content of these histories.

This last point has caused some confusion in the activist reception of Afropessimism, since postmodern ‘incredulity toward meta-narratives’ is usually regarded as a middle-class reflex against revolutionary struggle. But while some leftist critics have dismissed Afropessimism in toto as an ideology of political resignation, it would be dishonest to call it avowedly un-revolutionary. The beautifully rendered account of Wilderson’s participation in uMkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of South Africa’s ANC, provided in his memoir (Incognegro) gives the lie to the canard of ‘armchair intellectual’ in his case. Additionally, in several of his theoretical works and interviews (most notably in Red, White, and Black, his provocative study of race and cinema), Wilderson displays a deep familiarity with the varieties of Marxist discourse. It’s not from want of acquaintance with Marx, Lenin, and Gramsci that he questions the prospects for Black liberation through existing socialist movements. However, Wilderson is highly critical of the class-reductive tendencies within classical and Western-Marxist theory, since these tend to overlook the extra-economic role played by race in the structure of global capitalist relations and the non-market relations of domination between Blacks and non-Blacks. In this sense, Wilderson joins ranks with WEB Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, Queen Mother Moore, CLR James, Cedric Robinson, Claudia Jones, and a host of other Black leftists in condemning the white left’s inattention to racial-colonial oppression, that hidden tangle in Marx’s historical dialectic.

Unlike these critics, though, and in line with Patterson’s semi-Nietzschean account of the collective cultural-psychological utility of slavery for slaveholding societies, Wilderson’s racial critique of white Marxism shows a marked tendency toward disassociating race and class (“Blacks and the Master/Slave Relation,” 2015 interview). This precedent doubtlessly contributes to the ‘unrevolutionary’ turns taken by other Afropessimists, as well as some of his own more questionable remarks on the uniquely alienated status of Black ‘subjects’ across class lines. His analysis also follows Patterson by taking its bearings not from the experience of Black subjects, as do Du Bois’ canonical ‘double consciousness’ and Reconstruction ‘Jubilee,’ or Robinson’s ‘African metaphysics’ of Afro-diasporic rebellion. Wilderson’s starting-point is not the self-concept of the slave, with its affirmative elements that are too easily co-opted by reformist projects; but the slavish existence imposed from outside upon Africans even under the guise of these reforms, an acute condition of social death that screams for the destruction of the Black unperson along with the anti-Black world that deforms her. This ‘negative dialectic’ has clear resonances with the post-humanist critiques of the subject familiar from Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan; but there are just as clearly self-conscious echoes of Fanon’s celebrated critique of Negritude, whose thrust (unlike much of postmodern "critique" ) is activistic, not contemplative.

As should by now be obvious, my intent in drafting these notes is not to call Wilderson up to the pillory. There is much to be admired in both the form and content of his books, essays, and interviews. He is a captivating narrator and prose stylist; and the thick splotches of pathos that sometimes distract from his arguments are regularly broken by ironic caesuras that prevent the reader's suffocating on Black pain. Compared with some of his colleagues and disciples, his arguments are mercifully lucid, capable of connection into something like an account of the social whole. Yet that whole turns out to be false, and not in the Adornian, but in the classical sense: Wilderson’s adopted standpoint fails to yield a coherent account of the contradictions that rend our social totality, or an actionable program for liberation from racial capitalism, because it mistakes a chimerical subject-position (the natally alienated Black subject) for the Archimedean point of a global modernity in crisis.

Wilderson’s flawed standpoint has two regrettable consequences for Afropessimist thought. First, it limits Afropessimist sources of Black rebellion to our dehumanized being-for-others (the white other), rather than acknowledging positive forms of self-regard and communal recognition among Black folk that are reservoirs of resistance against white supremacy. Second, in overemphasizing the role of antiblackness in the constitution of Black and non-Black lifeworlds, Wilderson and his cohort seem deliberately to overlook the Fanonist basis for revolutionary internationalism: since the major antagonism in modern life centers on colonized versus non-colonized nations, the presence of un-reflective anti-Blackness among non-Black people of color does not prevent radical coalition with them, any more than similarly reactionary beliefs among and between Black groups cut off our shared revolutionary potential. Both positions ultimately land the Afropessimists on an error whose irony is underlined by their collective Francophilia. That error is Sartrean mauvaise-foi, or bad faith, the paradoxical human capacity to lie to ourselves about what we know to be true concerning our facticity (the inescapable accretion of our past decisions) and our freedom (to transcend what we have been toward what we are not yet).

To my first criticism, I would like to invoke the modified Du Boisian concept of potentiated double-consciousness. Double consciousness, in Du Bois's classic formulation from Souls of Black Folk, is the ability of the colonized/racialized subject to see themselves not only through their own eyes, but also through the eyes of their oppressor. As Lewis Gordon and Paget Henry have argued, Du Boisian double consciousness is not just the undialectical opposition within the Black subject of our self-concept with that of the racial other—such an opposition, as even Du Bois understood, is not in itself productive of a radical politics. As their argument goes, the self-concept with which the Black subject begins must be affirmative of their humanity and value as a Black human being. If the Black subject understands that the imperatives of an antiblack world are the real source of degrading racial archetypes —and not their private inability to meet the unrealistic standards of white oppressors—then, they will not succumb to these archetypes by tragically identifying with them, or by neurotically avoiding them in slavish imitation of whites (as do the colonized petits-bourgeois of Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks). Instead they will actively confront and resist them and the structures that produce them, as do the (Black and non-Black) makers of history in Wretched of the Earth. (Outside of Gordon’s Existentia Africana, the best brief description of potentiated double-consciousness can be found in Henry’s article “Africana Phenomenology: Its Philosophical Implications.”) This stance needs a positive self-conception of the colonized, in contrast with the Afropessimist position that defines Blackness, in Patterson’s term, strictly as ‘social death,’ i.e. as fully determined by the project of an antiblack world. Consistently with the Hegelian theory of recognition against which it nonetheless rises in critique, double consciousness implies the simultaneous acknowledgment of our human freedom to produce and sustain values as well as its limitation by social nonrecognition. This freedom is rejected in bad faith by our Afropessimist inscription outside of the human condition.

In fact, it can be argued that the ideal Afropessimist consciousness is not doubled, but single, and singularly racist. The wholly negative conception of what it means to be Black is especially evident in the works of Saidiya Hartman. Already in Patterson’s account, there is a deliberate focus on the formative role of the slave for the identity of the master, and a corresponding neglect of the slave's psychic life. Hartman dutifully threshes out the Nietzschean-Foucauldian implications in her Scenes of Subjection, where to be Afro-American is simply to be a victim of existential disruption by the slave trade; and maintained in that slavery to the present, even with our dubious legal ‘progress’ from irresponsible human property to the ‘burdened individual’ personhood of liberal contractual relations (1997: 115-123). The play of continuity and rupture in this work has the predictable effect of preserving us as slaves (i.e., as antiblack society has constructed us), but denying our Africanity (i.e., how our ancestors chose to construct themselves) as positive content in our resistance to enslavement. In discussing collective memory on the plantation, Hartman rejects even the search for African cultural survivals conducted by Blassingame, Stuckey, and other scholars as a mythological-primitivist search for an unrecoverable past (ibid 72-75). For Hartman, the horizon of Blackness is traced by the pendulous swinging of a lynched slave. But more than that: the very humanist project of liberating Black folk from the literal-figurative rope and lash is but another technique in the subjection of those who are constructed as Black. Like Foucault’s imprisoned madman in Discipline and Punish, the Black subject acquires their Black identity inseparably with their powerlessness. An acquisition that, by a double move, also constitutes the liberal white spectator as conscience-stricken liberator, as the empowered possessor of a conscience.

There is something to be said for Hartman’s hermeneutics of the white gaze; and no critical theorist can afford to be ignorant of the dialectic of freedom and slavery, of personal liberty and indebtedness, in modern liberal thought, least of all a Black theorist. The contradictions of white liberalism do concern us, no doubt; but where the majority of us must work, play, love, reflect, and die, they do not define us, even while they indicate the basic existential threat. Mute, dead objects cannot revolt against the possibility of having no possibilities. Unless they actually possess the human freedom to make the world other than it is at present, they could not possibly know or fight for what they would lose in the total objectification of real death.

Which brings us to the second prong of Afropessimist bad faith. According to this camp, anti-blackness supposedly pervades the entire world, so that no existing social or political tendencies within it can lead to Black emancipation. Consequently, the non-Black ‘allies’ of the Bandung World are bound to betray us once a common tactical goal has been achieved—Du Bois’s Dark Princess vision dissolves in a vat of Bollywood antiblackness. But since the social world is not a product of natural laws, but is sustained by free human activity, then it follows that voluntary human attitudes can make a difference in shaping the structures and outcomes of that world. The point here is that commitment to the project of a new world in spite of all apparent evidence of its futility has made a difference in the Black freedom struggles of the past, and can make a difference in the future, even if it’s not guaranteed to do so in our lifetime. Like Fanon, Sartre, and Gordon, this counter-argument emphasizes that the terrible weight of the past hangs on the literal nothingness that is human freedom; that to discard the choice of struggle on the heap of past failure, cannot save us from our burning consciousness of even that choice.

This has implications especially for the Afropessimist position on coalition-building. Let’s concede to the Afropessimist the antiblack structuration of the entire world. To then assume that any attempt to liberate oneself through coalition with the other victims of Western modernity is bound to be betrayed by non-Blacks, is nonetheless to reify an antiblackness that originates, after all, in the mutable attitudes of human beings. It’s to assume, like De Beauvoir’s polemical targets in The Second Sex, that what has always characterized relations between two antagonistic groups, always will. It’s to flee in bad faith from the anxiety of producing new strategies for Third World liberation, into a historically-grounded (merely factical) assurance that we can't collectively win because of the pervasive antiblackness that grips even our potential allies in the world of color. And then there is the real question of where custom’s inertia ends. Why shouldn’t the obvious normative roles played by heterosexism, national chauvinism, and other reactionary attitudes among Black people throughout the diaspora, similarly compromise Black liberation, but from within?

How the Afropessimist squares all of this with those passages throughout Fanon’s oeuvre that urgently call for solidarity with all Third World peoples in the project of a new humanism, even while he acknowledges antiblackness among Arabs, for example, is unclear. Maybe it’s by the same selective reading that, in their review of anticolonial freedom struggles, allows them to overlook the many instances of Black folks working successfully with non-Blacks in anti-colonial struggles (in e.g. the Working People’s Alliance of Guyana, or the various Third World coalitions in the US New Communist Movement). But what it cannot be is the product of an authentic confrontation with the subjective and objective risks incurred by joining our energies in good faith with all of decolonizing humanity.