Afropessimism: A Talk With Frank B. Wilderson III

 Frank B. Wilderson III visited USF to discuss his newest book “Afropessimism.” / PHOTO BY EBRAHIM SAFI COURTESY OF THE CENTER FOR TEACHING EXCELLENCE

Despite recovering from COVID-19 and still sounding like a self-proclaimed “Mickey Mouse doing a Mussolini impression,” acclaimed filmmaker, dramatist, critic, and author Professor Frank B. Wilderson III came to campus last Thursday, April 21, to discuss his newest book, “Afropessimism.” 

He explained the titular word, “Afropessimism,” as “a lens of interpretation that is a way of critiquing critiques of relational dynamics.” Wilderson recognized a lapse in multi-cultural political work and education that ignored the full extent of anti-Blackness. He explained that the “sense that I could be acted upon violently without there being a coherent rationale was not something the classroom wanted to explore.” This disconnect was a motivating factor in the creation of his book. 

The accomplished writer is known for the diverse range of creative works he produces, including poetry and film among other disciplines, which have often connected to his history of activism. Wilderson, for example, previously served as an elected official for the African National Congress during South Africa’s transition from apartheid. Currently, he teaches Drama and African American studies at UC Irvine, and his lived experience as an activist and educator has continued to inform and reflect the realities he examines in his written work.

The talk, which was followed by a Q&A with Professor Wilderson, was organized by the Center for Research, Artistic, and Scholarly Excellence (CRASE) in conjunction with USF’s El Círculo, a staff and faculty critical theory reading group. Art and architecture professor and co-director of CRASE Tanu Sankalia stated that “The reason for creating El Círculo was so that we could collectively read critical theory — challenging texts that are often best approached in a group.” Professor Sankalia clarified that El Círculo is a reading group and not a book club because the members “take one text and deep dive into it over an entire semester.”

During his talk, Wilderson recalled the impactful moment when he began to recognize a jarring pattern within generational anti-Black violence. “I was working in Oakland at a retirement home for inner-city Black people,” he said. “All I was hearing were stories of a kind of violence they had experienced 60 years ago, which my students were experiencing today; a violence that is not subjected to a rational transgression.” 

Wilderson also listed conflicts that have the potential to rationalize group violence, such as intentional political provocation or border disputes, but none of these situations serve as an excuse for the abuse Black people endure. 

Wilderson stressed how society has been dependent on those “who have consented to be abdicated and those for whom consent doesn’t exist at all.” He explained that anti-Black violence is not discriminatory but instead a “glue that holds together the psychic reality of everyone else.” Wilderson discussed the historic frequency of Black people being robbed of their autonomy, and the detrimental effect it has had on their place in society. “We’re not agents of civil society, we’re instruments of civil society.”

He further claimed that most forms of discourse depend on “two kinds of rhetorical planks.” The first plank is descriptive and seeks to understand the “structure of suffering.” The second plank is the prescriptive gesture that considers “what is to be done.” He asserted that “you will not find the descriptive gesture in afropessimism.” Wilderson clarified that this distinction “doesn’t mean that we’re not verbally engaged, it comes out of critical engagement. It just means that Black liberation is not liberation in the world. It’s a liberation from the world,” he said.

Towards the end of his address, Wilderson hopefully imagined that “Once there is Black liberation there will be no more Blacks, there will be no more humans. We’ll be at the cusp of an epistemological shift and sentient beings will change into something else.”

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