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Afropessimism
Cover of Afropessimism
Afropessimism
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Combining trenchant philosophy with lyrical memoir, Afropessimism is an unparalleled account of Blackness.

Why does race seem to color almost every feature of our moral and political universe? Why does a perpetual cycle of slavery—in all its political, intellectual, and cultural forms—continue to define the Black experience? And why is anti-Black violence such a predominant feature not only in the United States but around the world? These are just some of the compelling questions that animate Afropessimism, Frank B. Wilderson III's seminal work on the philosophy of Blackness.

Combining precise philosophy with a torrent of memories, Wilderson presents the tenets of an increasingly prominent intellectual movement that sees Blackness through the lens of perpetual slavery. Drawing on works of philosophy, literature, film, and critical theory, he shows that the social construct of slavery, as seen through pervasive anti-Black subjugation and violence, is hardly a relic of the past but the very engine that powers our civilization, and that without this master-slave dynamic, the calculus bolstering world civilization would collapse. Unlike any other disenfranchised group, Wilderson argues, Blacks alone will remain essentially slaves in the larger Human world, where they can never be truly regarded as Human beings, where, "at every scale of abstraction, violence saturates Black life."

And while Afropessimism delivers a formidable philosophical account of being Black, it is also interwoven with dramatic set pieces, autobiographical stories that juxtapose Wilderson's seemingly idyllic upbringing in mid-century Minneapolis with the abject racism he later encounters—whether in late 1960s Berkeley or in apartheid South Africa, where he joins forces with the African National Congress. Afropessimism provides no restorative solution to the hatred that abounds; rather, Wilderson believes that acknowledging these historical and social conditions will result in personal enlightenment about the reality of our inherently racialized existence.

Radical in conception, remarkably poignant, and with soaring flights of lyrical prose, Afropessimism reverberates with wisdom and painful clarity in the fractured world we inhabit. It positions Wilderson as a paradigmatic thinker and as a twenty-first-century inheritor of many of the African American literary traditions established in centuries past.

Combining trenchant philosophy with lyrical memoir, Afropessimism is an unparalleled account of Blackness.

Why does race seem to color almost every feature of our moral and political universe? Why does a perpetual cycle of slavery—in all its political, intellectual, and cultural forms—continue to define the Black experience? And why is anti-Black violence such a predominant feature not only in the United States but around the world? These are just some of the compelling questions that animate Afropessimism, Frank B. Wilderson III's seminal work on the philosophy of Blackness.

Combining precise philosophy with a torrent of memories, Wilderson presents the tenets of an increasingly prominent intellectual movement that sees Blackness through the lens of perpetual slavery. Drawing on works of philosophy, literature, film, and critical theory, he shows that the social construct of slavery, as seen through pervasive anti-Black subjugation and violence, is hardly a relic of the past but the very engine that powers our civilization, and that without this master-slave dynamic, the calculus bolstering world civilization would collapse. Unlike any other disenfranchised group, Wilderson argues, Blacks alone will remain essentially slaves in the larger Human world, where they can never be truly regarded as Human beings, where, "at every scale of abstraction, violence saturates Black life."

And while Afropessimism delivers a formidable philosophical account of being Black, it is also interwoven with dramatic set pieces, autobiographical stories that juxtapose Wilderson's seemingly idyllic upbringing in mid-century Minneapolis with the abject racism he later encounters—whether in late 1960s Berkeley or in apartheid South Africa, where he joins forces with the African National Congress. Afropessimism provides no restorative solution to the hatred that abounds; rather, Wilderson believes that acknowledging these historical and social conditions will result in personal enlightenment about the reality of our inherently racialized existence.

Radical in conception, remarkably poignant, and with soaring flights of lyrical prose, Afropessimism reverberates with wisdom and painful clarity in the fractured world we inhabit. It positions Wilderson as a paradigmatic thinker and as a twenty-first-century inheritor of many of the African American literary traditions established in centuries past.

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About the Author-
  • Professor and chair of African American studies at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid, Frank B. Wilderson III has received an NEA Literature Fellowship and a Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Award for Creative Nonfiction, among other awards.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    January 20, 2020
    Racism is a virulent, intractable feature of modern society, argues this vehement memoir-cum-manifesto. Wilderson (Incognegro), a professor of African-American studies at U.C.-Irvine, recollects his experiences of living while black through the lens of Afropessimism, a radical philosophy that, in his telling, views all relationships between blacks and other races—including Wilderson’s own mixed-race marriage—as forms of master-slave domination, and sees antiblack racism at the mystical core of all social ideologies. (“f Black people were recognized and incorporated as Human Beings,” he writes, “Humanity would cease to exist; because it would lose its conceptual coherence, having lost it baseline other.”) These ideas frame a loose-limbed memoir of racial antagonisms great (battling apartheid in South Africa in the 1990s), small (growing up amid microaggressions in Minneapolis) and mysterious. (He and a girlfriend fled their apartment believing that a white neighbor deliberately contaminated it with radioactive material.) Wilderson’s academic theorizing can be turgid and overwrought—“he very paradigm of electoral politics is predicated on sexualized violence against Black people”—but when he sticks to his personal experience of racial alienation, his writing is powerful, nuanced, and lyrical. (“Her hair was white and thin as dandelion puffs,” he recalls of a visit to his aged mother.) Wilderson’s passionate account of racism’s malevolent influence is engrossing, but not always convincing.

  • Kirkus

    February 1, 2020
    A compelling, profoundly unsettling blend of memoir and manifesto that proposes that--by design--matters will never improve for African Americans. To be black, writes Wilderson III, who chairs the African American Studies program at the University of California, Irvine, is not just likely to descend from slaves, but to be forever condemned to the existential condition of a slave. As he writes, "slavery did not end in 1865. It is a relational dynamic...[that] can continue to exist once the settler has left or ceded governmental power." No other ethnic group--not Native Americans, Asian Americans, Arab Americans, or Hispanic Americans--in the U.S. suffers the same institutional violence, and, Wilderson suggests, all others are more structurally aligned with the white oppressor than with the oppressed African American in a system that hinges on violence. Blending affecting memoir that touches on such matters as mental illness, alienation, exile, and a transcendent maternal love with brittle condemnation of a condition of unfreedom and relentless othering, the author delivers a difficult but necessary argument. It is difficult because it demands that readers of any ethnicity confront hard truths and also because it is densely written, with thickets of postmodern tropes to work through ("blackness is a locus of abjection to be instrumentalized on a whim...a disfigured and disfiguring phobic phenomenon"). The book is deeply pessimistic indeed, as Wilderson rejects any possibility of racial reconciliation in these two-steps-backward times. Perhaps the greatest value of the book is in its posing of questions that may seem rhetorical but in fact probe at interethnic conflicts that are hundreds, even thousands of years old. Wilderson advances a growing body of theory that must be reckoned with and that "has secured a mandate from Black people at their best; which is to say, a mandate to speak the analysis and rage that most Black people are free only to whisper." An essential contribution to any discussion of race and likely to be a standard text in cultural studies for years to come.

    COPYRIGHT(2020) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    March 15, 2020
    Wilderson, a professor and chair of African American Studies at University of California, Irvine, blends expressive accounts of his experiences from adolescence through middle age, a roller coaster of highs and lows, with an intellectually sophisticated exposition of his philosophy of life, race, and the world. He describes his development of a metatheory, which he calls afropessimism, and which he defines as a critical project that, by deploying Blackness as a lens of interpretation, interrogates the unspoken, assumptive logic of Marxism, postcolonialism, psychoanalysis, and feminism. The result is a highly charged combination of memoir, criticism, and reflection. On the personal side, Wilderson shares memories of Minneapolis, Berkeley, and South Africa, and candidly recounts his mental breakdown while in graduate school. On a larger scale, he charts the endless repercussions of slavery within Black lives. Looking to literature, film, and philosophy, he traces the profound impact of violent subjugation, the role of the enslaved in building nations, and how pervasive and profound the damage remains. A hard-hitting and mind-expanding introduction to a new way of viewing the past and the present.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2020, American Library Association.)

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