Frank Wilderson III (1956-) has become a central figure in Black studies. Though his work ranges across film studies, political theory, and social ontology, he is perhaps best known for how he weaves all three fields together in his development of Afropessimism. Afropessimism is difficult to definitionally pin down, as it is, all at once, an ontological discourse, a non/ethics, and a political/analytic lens for understanding the nature of the world.
That last phrase—“nature of the world”—is crucial. At first glance, one might read Wilderson as a “race” scholar. This wouldn’t be totally wrong. He is clearly interested in the dimensions, and the brutality, of racism, but his work exceeds the sociological, political, or even cultural understandings of race and racism as mere dimensions of the world within which we live. Wilderson sees antiblackness as exceeding the analytics of race and racism. Antiblackness is, as Wilderson sees it, an ontology. In other words, antiblackness is what governs the being of this world; it supports its existence, sustaining its being.
In this regard, perhaps one of the most profound contributions Wilderson makes is to the philosophical discourse of the relationship between the “particular” and the “universal.” Wilderson mines the depths of Blackness as a commentary on the general structure of existence in the West and the world more generally. In this way, Wilderson exemplifies the shared understanding that Black Study is always and already a critical discourse that exceeds its purported object—namely, Black people and Black communities. To show this, I want to go to a popular culture artifact: zombies.
Wilderson doesn’t use the term “zombies” in his work. But his Afropessimist stance includes a set of concepts—social death, gratuitous violence, sentient (but not living) existence—that could be easily applied to any episode of The Walking Dead. Although zombies look like humans, you know they’re not. And more to the point, zombies threaten, but also somehow secure, the certainty of human existence itself. They might have arms, legs, and a head, but you know better; you know that if they remain, you might become one of them. So, with no questions asked, you kill them.
Or at least you try. Wielding your knife, tomahawk, pistol, pipe, or piece of broken glass, you stab them, shoot them, mutilate them; you build walls to keep them out; you might dissect one of them, subjecting them to “the calculated work of iron, whips, chains, knives, the canine patrol, the bullet” in order to understand and control their existence. You have to keep those damned zombies at bay, for if you don’t, the certainty of your existence would be fully called into question—you might become one of them.
None of this, however, keeps zombies from coming. They remain. And somehow, the fact that they remain gives you some existential, though not necessarily physical, comfort. You see them and are glad that you haven’t been resigned to the same fate. The difference isn’t physiological or biochemical; it’s ontological. They have a different existence. That difference is precisely what gives you comfort, purpose: it becomes your job to kill them.
Maybe the reason why Wilderson doesn’t use the term “zombie” is because zombies were once human. For Wilderson, Black people were never human. They’ve always been Slaves: “Blackness is coterminous with Slaveness,” Wilderson writes. “There was never a prior moment of plenitude, never equilibrium, never a moment of social life” (Afropessimism, 226). While zombies might have once been human, Blacks (and that collective noun matters—for Wilderson, there aren’t Black people, only sentient beings who are structurally locked in the position of the Black—hence the collective proper noun) have never been given access to such plenitude, such possibility.
Wilderson calls his thinking Afropessimism. In concrete terms, Afropessmism describes the world as separated out into two forms of existence: the Humans (or, more precisely, white people) who live, and the socially and physically dead Slaves/Blacks who don’t live so much as they exist to secure the existential and ontological comfort of Humans.
Death is a crucial term for Wilderson. It includes physical death, but it also (and perhaps primarily) means social death, a concept he draws from Orlando Patterson’s work. Wilderson follows Patterson in identifying three features of social death: gratuitous violence, natal alienation, and general dishonor. By gratuitous violence, Wilderson means that the violence is a structural, not contingent, reality. Blacks are ontologically subject to violence because it sustains the normative world. By natal alienation, Wilderson means to point us to the idea that Blacks’ “claims to ascending and descending generations are… denied them”; and by general dishonor, Wilderson calls our attention to the fact that Blacks are “stigmatized in their being prior to any transgressive act or behavior” (Red, White, and Black, 14).
This tripartite structure ontologically bars Blacks from the domain of the human. Unable to claim kinship, unable to stop the violence levied against them, and unable to release themselves from perpetual stigmatization, Blacks have no way of becoming Human. They are, always and already, not Human—and therefore not (socially) alive. No human would invite a zombie to dinner, let alone marry one, unless, of course, they had a death wish. And more to the point, zombies wouldn’t be able to commune socially anyway. They don’t make meaning, meaning is made from them. To the Human world of meaning, zombies (and, for the moment, Blacks) are nothing worth engaging with, except to kill them.
Social death opens up the terrain for another set of terms that are central to Wilderson’s analysis, namely conflict and antagonism. Conflicts are contingent. The violence of conflict has a reason. A state will deny rights to undocumented immigrants, because they are not from the country in which they reside; nonblack women fight with nonblack men on the basis of gender disparity.
But antagonism doesn’t work this way. Antagonism is a structural, not a contingent, reality. According to Wilderson, antiblack violence is necessary for this world, because it keeps the world going. Violence against Blacks, especially lethal violence, keeps the certainty of the world intact. It maintains the distinction between Humans and non-Humans. Humans need to know that they are in fact Human, and the main, perhaps only, way for them to know this is to encounter and then enact violence against that which isn’t Human. You kill a zombie because they are not you. And their very existence calls yours into question: don’t let them bite or even touch you, for the consequences would be too great.
Ironically, Wilderson’s notion of antagonism is where the zombie metaphor breaks down. In a zombie world, there are only two forms of existence: the zombie and the Human. There are no in-between realities; one can’t be part-zombie. But according to Wilderson, the Human can have what he calls “junior partners,” those nonblack people who might be oppressed by white people but will nevertheless carry out the ontological project of antiblackness. In Afropessimism, Wilderson tells a story about his Palestinian friend, Sameer, who shared many of Wilderson’s political convictions—until it came to Blackness. In one of their conversations, Sameer described the humiliation of being “stopped and searched at Israeli checkpoints.” But then Sameer says something curious: “the shame and humiliation [of being searched and fondled] runs even deeper if the Israeli soldier is an Ethiopian Jew.” Upon hearing this, “The earth gave way… How was it that the people who stole his land and slaughtered his relatives were somehow less of a threat in his imagination than Black Jews, often implements of Israeli madness, who sometimes do their dirty work?” (Afropessimism, 11-12). For Wilderson, this was an example of the globality of antiblackness: nonblack people can be oppressed, but at the end of the day, at least they’re not Black. To be Black is to be beyond the pale.
For Wilderson, the world is ontologically antiblack. Drawing from semiotic and semantic analysis, Wilderson claims that antiblackness is a grammar of the world. It is the often unspoken and unaddressed set of rules that govern how the world moves and operates. This means that any liberatory project for Blacks is impossible within the world as it stands. No political activity—not even those deemed most “revolutionary”—will end the violence of antiblackness in this world. For Wilderson, the only liberatory possibility is found in the destruction of the world itself. Nothing less will do. Does Wilderson desire a new world in the wake of the current world’s destruction? It remains unclear. What remains crystal clear is that, for Wilderson, if antiblackness is to be done away with, this world must go, too.
The impossibility of liberation opens political-theological considerations. If Wilderson desires an end to this world, then perhaps his Afropessimist discourse approaches eschatology. Wilderson’s desire for the end of this world allows for a serious consideration of what the end might look like, of what apocalyptic possibilities might await us beyond the end of this world and its structuring violence of antiblackness.
Wilderson’s desire for the end might offer the tiniest of openings for a consideration of something other than what we have now. It might authorize attempts to write a new grammar—or to write without a grammar at all. It might develop a vision of the world freed from the limitations of structure; it might cohere around incoherence, calling into existence (not being) modes of engagement that do not privilege particular modes of life over others.
While Wilderson doesn’t engage in political theology in a sustained or explicit way, his work has implications for those who engage in this discourse. There are resonances, for example, between Wilderson’s ontological claims and the work of philosopher of religion William Jones. In 1975, Jones penned a text called Is God a White Racist? Jones anticipates many of Wilderson’s claims. He names antiblackness as an ontological, if not outright metaphysical issue, and he describes Black suffering as a structural, interminable, and therefore intergenerational reality. He also highlights, along with Frantz Fanon and others, that Black suffering is unique in its character. While he might not agree with Wilderson that making analogies to Black suffering is a “ruse,” he nevertheless highlights the uniqueness of Black suffering, contrasting it to the Jewish Holocaust.
Also like Wilderson, Jones locates antiblackness beyond the immanent structures of this world. He contends that antiblackness is a theological, and therefore ontological (or better put, metaphysical), problem of “divine racism.” While Wilderson analyzes the ontology of antiblackness, he doesn’t seriously reckon with the fact that ontology is often ontotheology; antiblackness is organized around a transcendental agent which carries the trace, if not the outright presence, of the divine. Jones proposes atheistic (or what he calls “secular”) humanism as a response to this problem of divine racism. Perhaps a political-theological reading of Afropessimism would be an atheology of Black life.
I’m not sure Wilderson would agree with such a project. Wilderson’s work is not speculative; it’s descriptive and explanatory. Wilderson’s Afropessimism is powerful in its capacity to describe and therefore diagnose the violence of this world. His work offers a lens through which to understand the profoundly sedimented nature of antiblackness. It calls us to recognize that antiblackness is not a contingent reality of this world but is instead its bedrock, its foundation. In this regard, Wilderson’s project is profoundly useful.
Wilderson has a tendency to raise a theoretical lens to the level of an analytic identity. For Wilderson, people can be, and often are, Afropessimists. When this happens, Afropessimism becomes an exclusive interpretive frame that determines its conclusions in advance. For someone like myself, then—a person who agrees with Wilderson’s diagnostic claims while disagreeing with the totalizing scope of such claims—Afropessimism is one of many analytic tools we can deploy to understand the world. Afropessimism allows us to find powerful ways to destroy the world, even as we continue to live in it.
Wilderson, “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society?” Social Identities, Vol. 9, Number 2 (2003).
Widely read and engaged, “Gramsci’s Black Marx” is Wilderson’s critical assessment of historical materialism as it is conceived through Antonio Gramsci. Claiming that “marxism assumes a subaltern structured by capital, not white supremacy,” Wilderson undertakes a critical analysis of Gramsci’s approach, suggesting that the existential dynamics of the slave do not rise to the level of recognition in class struggle.
Wilderson, Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015 )
Incognegro is Wilderson’s first memoir. It chronicles his political involvement in South Africa during the years of 1991-1996 while also discussing his life in the United States. This dual life, between South Africa and the United States, placed him in a position of both privilege and suspicion. Conceptually, Incognegro announces the early dimensions of his thinking about global antiblackness.
Wilderson, Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010)
Red, White, and Black turns to a series of films to disclose the political dimensions of antiblackness. Wilderson expounds and elaborates on the tripartite structure of social death in service of a comparative analysis of how Black people and Indigenous people are treated. Calling analogous treatments of suffering—“this kind of suffering is similar to other kinds”— a “ruse,” Wilderson makes the case that, despite the violence enacted against Indigenous communities, they nevertheless have an ontological standing that Black people do not.
Wilderson, Afropessimism (New York: Liveright Press, 2020)
Perhaps the most personal of his texts, Afropessmism is part memoir, part treatise. Whereas Red, White, and Black offered a reading of antiblackness through film criticism, Afropessimism has a wider scope—filtered through his personal experiences, to be sure—that underscores the unique nature of Black suffering. Here, Wilderson treats subjects ranging from gender to global solidarity to apartheid in South Africa. What results is a passionate and compelling memoir of a man grappling with what it means to be Black in this world.
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