Rather than celebrate Blackness as a cultural identity, Afropessimism theorizes it as a position of accumulation and fungibility (Saidiya Hartman); that is, as condition—or relation—of ontological death. One of the guiding questions of Frank B. Wilderson III’s engagement with Afropessimism asks, How are the political stakes of analysis and aesthetics raised and altered if we theorize the structural relation between Blacks and Humanity as an antagonism (an irreconcilable encounter) as opposed to a (reconcilable) conflict?

Like the work of Jared Sexton, Saidiya Hartman, David Marriott, Hortense Spillers, Frantz Fanon, Joy James, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, John Murillo, Christina Sharpe, Sora Han, Jaime Amparo Alves, João Costa Vargas, Sylvia Wynter and others, Wilderson’s poetry, creative prose, scholarly work, and film production are predicated on the notion that slavery did not end in the 19th century. The world simply made adjustments to the force of Black resistance without diminishing the centrality of Black captivity to the stability and coherence of global civil society.

The following question was asked on a graduate student exam for a Critical Theory Seminar, entitled “Sentient Objects and the Crisis of Critical Theory,” that he taught Fall Quarter 2006.

Question: Why are the theorists under consideration [in this seminar] called “Afropessimists,” and what characteristics do they have in common?


Here are samplings of graduate student responses:

“Afropessimists…theorize an antagonism, rather than a conflict—i.e. they perform a kind of ‘work of understanding’ rather than that of liberation, refusing to posit seemingly untenable solutions to the problems they raise.”

“[The Afropessimists argue] that violence toward the black person happens gratuitously, hence without former transgression, and the even if the means of repression change (plantation was replaced by prison, etc.), that doesn’t change the structure of the repression itself. Finally (and this is important in terms of the self-definition of the white person), a lot of repression happens on the level of representation, which then infiltrates the unconscious of both the black and the white person…Since these structures are ontological, they cannot be resolved (there is no way of changing this unless the world as we know it comes an end…); this is why the [Afropessimist relational-schema] would be seen as the only true antagonism (while other repressive relations like class and gender would take place on the level of conflict—they can be resolved, hence they are not ontological).”

“Afropessimists all seek to…stage a metacritique of the current discourse identified as “critical theory” by excavating an antagonism that exceeds it; to recognize this antagonism forces a mode of death that expels subjecthood and forces objecthood [upon Blacks].”

“For Fanon, the solution to the black presence in the white world is not to retrieve and celebrate our African heritage, as was one of the goals of the Negritude project. For Fanon, a revolution that would destroy civil society, as we know it would be a more adequate response. I think the Afropessimist such as Hartman, Spillers, and Marriott would argue there is no place for the black, only prosthetics, techniques which give the illusion of a relationality in the world.”