Against Afro-Pessimism

Afro-pessimism has become a highly influential school of thought. This is unfortunate: Afro-pessimism flattens blackness and insists overcoming racism is impossible. Socialists offer a stronger interpretation of where racism comes from — and how to defeat it.

Painting by Earle Richardson, 1934. (Heritage Images via Getty Images)

“Bassem was one of us,” said US Representative and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member Cori Bush, a Democrat from Missouri. Speaking on the House floor in May 2021 during Israel’s latest all-out assault on Palestinians, Bush honored the memory of Bassem Masri, who died in November 2018 at age thirty-one. Masri was a local resident and Palestinian American who was on the front lines of the protests that engulfed the ghettoized St Louis suburb of Ferguson after Michael Brown’s murder by local police.

“As a Palestinian,” Bush went on, Masri “was ready to resist, to rebel, to rise up with us,” to fight for “an end to the militarized police occupations of our communities.” This speech was embedded in an official tweet, clearly stating a position that has become axiomatic on the US left: the fight for black lives and the fight for Palestinian liberation are interconnected.

In May 2021, the Washington Post declared that Black Lives Matter (BLM) “changed the US debate” on Palestine, reporting on official declarations of solidarity from BLM activists and leaders as well as a ten-day trip to the Palestinian territories and Israel by BLM leaders. Many on the Left know of the long history of black and Third-Worldist internationalism that such statements from prominent black movement leaders, intellectuals, and activists today are a part of. Black American solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for self-determination is blossoming.

This is a welcome development: today’s racial justice activists increasingly see solidarity with the struggles of the oppressed of all kinds as key to liberation.

But the rise of “Afro-pessimism” as a philosophy in academic and intellectual spaces threatens to undermine a politics rooted in such a sense of solidarity, in favor of one that essentializes black identity and exceptionalizes black suffering as intrinsically unanalogous to the oppression of other people. Afro-pessimism argues that “anti-blackness” trumps all other systems of oppression and exploitation, whether the racism that faces nonblack people of color such as Palestinians or indigenous Americans, antisemitism, capitalism, sexism, or transphobia.

At the core of this philosophy is the belief that the world’s basic breakdown of humans is between Humans and Slaves, with the latter being the cross that all black people of every distinction are born to bear to their grave regardless of status or class. The essence of blackness is to be a slave, at every level and in every sense.

By grouping together all blacks today as slaves — from striking black Starbucks baristas to black presidents, millionaires, and landlords — Afro-pessimism’s proponents render a socialist anti-racist politics null and void. After all, if you cannot solve the problem of racism because to be black means to be essentially and eternally enslaved, then you cannot change it. By placing race and blackness outside of history, Afro-pessimism makes white supremacy unsolvable. Furthermore, by dividing the world in all of its mind-boggling complexity into a battle between blacks and nonblacks or between Humans and Slaves renders solidarity amongst blacks and others impossible and the presence of a black ruling-class invisible.

The problems with this approach are many: Afro-pessimists take the flattened definitions of blackness preached by white supremacists — a state of universal and transhistorical abjection — seemingly at their word and warp it into a badge of pride, as black people become a race of eternal victims. But what is particularly troubling about this schema is the fact that Afro-pessimists reserve much of their ire not for the overwhelmingly white bourgeoisie who lord over Western societies, and they remain largely silent around the sexism as well as the homo-/transphobia facing black women and queers, because anti-blackness is believed to be uniquely worse than other forms of identity-based discrimination.

The ire of Afro-pessimists is rather reserved for other people of color. Asians, indigenous Americans, and other nonblack people of color, such as even Palestinians, are categorized as the “junior partners” of white supremacy and racial capitalism. The Afro-pessimist argument is that whites and nonblack people of color are so psychologically invested in not being burdened with the enslaving essence of blackness that solidarity with blacks in any sort of political struggle is ultimately a fool’s errand.

Beset on all sides by enemies or false friends, the only logical conclusion to this worldview would be black separatist politics — a tired and exhausted politics, if there ever was one. Afro-pessimism is the old wine of black nationalism and separatism in the new bottle of an alienated black middle-class intelligentsia.

At a certain level, one can understand why Afro-pessimism appears to be on the rise in certain academic quarters: despite the ascendancy of a select few black people into US politics and business, American racism still rages on, most gruesomely sensationalized in police killing after police killing of innocent black people. Racism is everywhere. Yet the racism faced by a black single mother in a housing project in Jamaica, Queens is evidently different from the experiences of tenured black academics and graduate students at predominantly white Ivy League universities.

This is the classic history of ethno-racial nationalist and separatist ideologies. Claiming to speak on behalf of an ideologically constructed “nation” or “race,” the educated, bourgeois sections of an ethnicity or racial group suppress class and other divisions within the group in order to amass power. By propagating the idea of universal injury, an elite within such a community can deflect attention from the enactment of their power either against the social lessers or in brokering power with existing, traditional elites outside of the so-called race or nation.

This dynamic is also the story of another flavor of diasporic ethno-nationalism: Zionism. Afro-pessimism and Zionism rip identity-based oppressions out of their historical contexts, conjure up essential identities in their place, and mock multiracial coexistence and integration as mere fantasies.

For Afro-pessimists, nonblacks will forever leech and feast off of black suffering, all of history reduced to an unrelenting anti-blackness. As for Zionists, antisemitism is everywhere, in every time. Such pessimistic and nationalistic worldviews halt the ability to extend solidarity across different forms of oppression. They are thus the opposite of the socialist project’s goal of building a coalition of the vast majority of the working class across lines of race, ethnicity, and other divisions. By mystifying and flattening black identity, Afro-pessimism robs its followers of the ability to discern class and other divisions among black people themselves — eerily similar to how Zionists cannot recognize the world-historic irony of an oppressed minority, Jews, donning the role of oppressor in another context, the settler-colonial state of Israel.

This isn’t just an abstract worry, either. To understand the potential harm that such willful ideological blindness can cause, we can look at the history of Liberia as an African American settler-colony. That history has been all but forgotten today, but the history of African American settler colonialism in Liberia presents numerous questions about class, identity, and nationalism that are important for socialists today to think through, considering the popularity of Afro-pessimism among some in the academy.

Time and again, from Liberia to Palestine, the historical record is clear: the solution to any identity-based oppression cannot rely on nationalist and separatist ideologies, but on a socialist politics that cuts across oppressions — and puts class at its center.

The Agonists of the Black Intelligentsia

The exact meaning of Afro-pessimism as a philosophy is still being teased out in academia and on social media. At its center is Frank Wilderson III, especially after the 2020 publication of his half-memoir, half-treatise work of what he calls “auto-theory,” Afropessimism. In it, Wilderson narrates stories from his life, especially episodes between him and his coworkers, partners, friends, and others, in which his blackness is made to be painfully visible and repelled. His conclusion is that “at every scale of abstraction, violence saturates black life,” consigning blacks to perpetual enslavement.

This argument lies at the core of Afro-pessimism as a philosophy: the belief that the world’s basic breakdown of humans is between Humans and Slaves, and all black people are the latter, regardless of status or class. The essence of blackness is to be a slave.

Though beautifully told at times, the psychodrama of this relatively blue-blooded, tenured University of California professor morphs into an ideology that comes to some unsavory conclusions.

Illustrative of the black exceptionalism that characterizes Wilderson’s thinking and Afro-pessimism as a philosophy is an episode in the memory of an interaction between a younger Wilderson and a Palestinian friend. Sameer, Wilderson’s friend, recounts life in the Occupied Territories, lamenting the “shameful and humiliating way the soldiers run their hands up and down your body” at checkpoints — but then slips that “the shame and humiliation runs even deeper if the Israeli soldier is an Ethiopian Jew.”

For Wilderson, this statement made the “earth [give] way,” causing him to spiral to a shocking conclusion: “I was faced with the realization that in the collective unconscious, Palestinian insurgents have more in common with the Israeli state and civil society than they do with Black people.”

The irrationality of assigning an implacable anti-blackness to an entire people of millions based on a singular encounter ought to be clear enough. It also ignores the existence of, say, Fatima Barnawi, a Nigerian Palestianian detained in 1967 who, according to residents of the Afro-Palestinian Jerusalem enclave was called “Little Harlem,” was the first Palestinian woman to be imprisoned for a paramilitary operation against Israel.

Another indicative episode concerns when his father, an official at the University of Minnesota, jointly runs a program with a tribal government on a reservation outside of Minneapolis. Conflict ensues over rules and funding, Native Americans and others gather into a room, and a Native American man near a young Wilderson shouts, “We don’t want you, a nigger man, telling us what to do!” to applause.

This prompts Wilderson to conclude that the “wealthy White housewives” that his parents, middle-class figures of the ivory tower, knew and worked with “shared the same psychic space as the Indians in the underserved neighborhoods of South Minneapolis.” And that within the “collective unconscious” of indigenous Americans, “the specter of Blackness was a greater threat than the settler institution that had dispatched a Black professor to do its dirty work.”

Over and over, these snapshots of Wilderson’s life scaffold into a bleak assessment rendering the central struggle of the world to be one of whites and their non-white “junior partners” against all black people, no matter their position.

This is an incredibly flattened worldview, allowing Wilderson to mask the actual class differences that splinter the “races.” One chief example is the fact that his parents are middle-class intellectuals who gave him an upbringing of socioeconomic advantages far out of the reach of most working people of all colors, whites included. Wilderson spent his youth hopping from Ann Arbor to Berkeley to Chicago as his parents’ faculty positions changed. In Minneapolis, they lived in the tony neighborhood of Kenwood, with the mansion of local hero and future vice president Walter Mondale nearby — a man who cavorted with Wilderson’s father so much that Mondale tried to convince him to run for Congress. Afro-pessimism, according to Wilderson’s telling, makes the existence of black members of an elite or bourgeoisie illegible, and solidarity among other racially oppressed peoples impossible.

Compiled by an anonymous group of editors at the blog Racked and Dispatched, the introduction to the anthology Afro-Pessimism: An Introduction presents a number of works, including Wilderson’s, to shape the contours of this still-emergent school of thought. Works include scholars who are self-consciously cheerleaders of Afro-pessimism’s popularity, such as Jared Sexton, and other scholars who might not claim the label for themselves yet are still esteemed as some of Afro-pessimism’s foundational thinkers, such as the Columbia University professor and inventor of “critical fabulation,” Saidiya Hartman. Although these thinkers may not share all of Wilderson’s conclusions, there is still a shared lack of care about the historical craft and its concern for the contexts, contingencies, and structures that gave rise to blackness as we have come to know it.

Black Lives Matter protest in London, 2016. (Alisdare Hickson / Flickr)

For the Afro-pessimism anthology’s chosen scholars, enslavement is not a class relation existing within history, but an everlasting, totalizing psychological trauma that can never be mitigated or transcended.

The anthology’s editors use sociologist Orlando Patterson’s concept of the “social death” of slaves to reorient understandings of the peculiar institution from a fundamentally contestable and economic relation to a fixed, metaphysical state. To Patterson, social death meant a “substitute” for the actual execution of, say, captives of war and a condemnation to a radical state of unfreedom and excommunication from a community. For Patterson, slavery is “the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons.”

Patterson argues for his idea of “natal alienation,” the state of being a “genealogical isolate” severed from kinship. Yet when it comes to “natal alienation,” the historical record is replete with examples of enslaved people throughout the Americas demonstrating agency in forming and protecting their own kin and progeny, as well as creating and maintaining creolized cultures throughout the hemisphere and maintaining differences of rank among the enslaved themselves.

For example, in Fractional Freedoms: Slavery, Intimacy, and Legal Mobilization in Colonial Lima, 1600-1700, Michelle A. McKinley uses a wealth of archival material to tell the stories of how enslaved Limeño litigants used the courts to keep their families together. She found two hundred fifty spousal unity cases between 1593 and 1699 from the ecclesiastical court records, detailing the struggles of slaves like María de Terranova, who protested the prolonged absence of her husband Francisco in Lima’s ecclesiastical court in January 1693.

If enslavement rendered its victims into a class of the living dead, as non-persons, as Patterson’s absolutist thesis holds, then how do we explain the widespread survival of creolized Afro-diasporic cultures throughout the hemisphere? How do we explain the differences of rank among the enslaved themselves?

Historians have provided answers to both questions. Take, for example, Juan Nepomuceno Prieto. According to historian Henry B. Lovejoy’s Prieto: Yorùbá Kingship in Colonial Cuba during the Age of Revolutions, Prieto was of Yorùbá descent, enslaved in Cuba, and, after winning manumission while serving in the militia, became leader of a Havana cabildo, or religious brotherhood, that preserved African culture in the form of Santeria.

Through the centuries, in country after country, the enslaved resisted the threat of social death, natal alienation, and psychic annihilation in a variety of ways, some quiet and subtle, others bloody and tumultuous. The enslaved constantly reinvented themselves in newer contexts, always reaching out to others and thus creating new bonds in the process. They enforced a continuum between accommodation and resistance, the pendulum swinging either way for any number of historically contingent reasons.

As Vincent Brown has asserted, “To see social death as a productive peril entails a subtle but significant shift in perspective, from seeing slavery as a condition to viewing enslavement as a predicament, in which enslaved Africans and their descendants never ceased to pursue a politics of belonging, mourning, accounting, and regeneration.” Social death and natal alienation were perhaps the goals of a slaveholding class that never could accomplish them in the face of the slaves’ dogged reassertions of their humanity.

The significance of this argument is much greater than petty academic sniping. Like Patterson, Afro-pessimists take the slaveholders at their word and mourn that the nonhumanness of the slave is marked onto their very being — ignoring the tenacious humanity exercised by the enslaved at every turn.

Taking modern-day racists at their word again, all Afro-pessimists see in the “black” experience is despair and alienation, not agency and reinvention. Afro-pessimists observe the trauma of black history, see such trauma as belonging to black folks alone, and see nothing else. All that is seen is rupture and injury.

For Afro-pessimists, the theft of slaves’ humanity is so profound and complete that even abolition is a nonevent — because if to be black means to be a slave, full stop, then emancipation means next to nothing. To the Afro-pessimist, the past endeavors of black people who struggled for a better life for themselves and their loved ones were foolhardy. Slavery’s afterlife collapses past, present, and future, weighing like an anvil even in an age in which slavery and legal segregation have been dismantled by struggle from below. Essentially, eternally, and exceptionally degraded, blackness then becomes an entirely separate vector of oppression from other kinds of oppression.

“Blackness, and more specifically anti-Blackness . . . gives coherence to categories of non-Black — white, worker, gay, i.e., the “human,” they write. “It is not possible to affirm Blackness itself without at the same time affirming anti-Black violence, then the attempts at recognition and inclusion in society will only ever result in further social and real death.”

What do the authors offer for the race of Eternal Slaves beset by a structurally anti-black world? “Negation,” or what Frank Wilderson somewhat nebulously calls, “the end of the world” — is not defined by the unnamed authors or really any Afro-pessimist. Yet their essentialist theory of race, with the world timelessly and violently divided between blacks and everyone else, can only practically mean a political solution relying on either a nationalist or separatist solution. The other alternative is a nihilistic and irresponsible quiescence in a burning world, full of flesh-and-blood black people, that calls out for rescue in any way, great or small. This is a politics of narcissism.

This nonsolution to the problem of white supremacy and anti-black racism threads much of the emerging Afro-pessimist canon, castigating both revolutionary and reformist black politics. Apparently, nowhere in the Afro-pessimist canon can a viable political solution be found to the ever-persistent problem of anti-black racism except merely personal revelation or intellectual exercises.

Indeed, as Sexton himself says, Afro-pessimism “is not an intervention so much as it is a reading” — a supposedly novel way of interpreting the world, not a way to change it. To Afro-pessimists like Wilderson and Sexton, sitting back and succumbing to fatalism is a revolutionary act in and of itself.

Writing in the Nation last year, Wilderson justifiably grieves black death at the hands of America’s killer cops. Yet this mourning degenerates into a toxic sense of despair that becomes untenable for anyone actually doing politics in the real world.

He rightfully groans that “the state kills and contains Black bodies”; meanwhile, “the left kills and contains Black desire, erases Black cognitive maps that explain the singularity of Black suffering, and, most of all, fatally constricts the horizon of Black liberation.” There are no friends to be found in the struggle for black betterment, in Wilderson’s eyes. All are suspect to him.

Wilderson’s call to “end the world,” the ultimate negation, has become a darkly cheeky answer among Afro-pessimists who insist that the world is so mired in anti-blackness, that Humans’s dependence on the existence of Slaves for their own self-regard and identity is so essential to their psyche, that an alternative in this life is almost unthinkable. Something radically otherworldly would have to take place.

The Eternal Slave and the Eternal Shtetl

One possible solution to this bleak state of affairs is an old one: black nationalism and separatism. If all but black people are anti-black, then logically, for flesh-and-blood black people, true safety is only to be found in a separate, all-black polity. Yet well over a century of black politics, and separatist politics taken up by oppressed groups of all kinds, has shown the limits and problems with such a race-based nationalism.

The dangers of solving the problem of centuries-old oppression with race-/ethnic-based nationalist solutions is seen in the experience of the Zionist settlement and colonization of Palestine. Although the histories of Jews and the descendants of African slaves in the United States are nowhere near to being perfectly analogous, there are lessons in how each group has made sense of the injustices dealt against them through the sordid ages.

Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian during a protest. (Aafar Ashtiyeh / AFP via Getty Images)

Jewish studies scholar Shaul Magid has written about the implications that Afro-pessimism’s fatalistic and metaphysical brand of black identity has for the politics of Jewishness. He brings into dialogue Jewish and black thinkers who conceive of their own identities in transhistorical, “ontological,” and even theological ways. Afro-pessimists and Zionists both posit a politics of identity in which, respectively, blackness and Jewishness are simply what one is, regardless of context and outside of history. Essentializing blackness or Jewishness makes these historically constructed social categories into pure states of being.

Magid juxtaposes approaches to antisemitism, such as Hannah Arendt’s, which see antisemitism as a product of complex historical factors, with those of Deborah Lipstadt or David Patterson’s, who see antisemitism as never-ending and inescapable. Magid concludes that if one is to see antisemitism as an ever-present, unique, transhistorical phenomenon intrinsic to civilization, the goyim, or humanity itself, that means nothing can be done about it in this world except for trying to “manage” antisemitism. Here, the Eternal Slave meets the Eternal Shtetl.

In Shaul Magid’s biography of Meir Kahane, who lived from 1932 to 1990, we are given an illustration of such an ethnicity-/race-first politics. Kahane, a Brooklyn-born Israeli ultra-nationalist and cofounder of the thuggish Jewish Defense League, was a “Judeo-pessimist,” according to Magid. Kahane, like Afro-pessimists, believed in an essentialized and exceptional Jewish identity. For him, antisemitism was primordial and ever-present, thus coexistence and solidarity with the goyim was a fool’s errand.

Whereas Afro-pessimists might brush off antisemitism as just a “family feud” between fellow whites, for Kahane “anti-Semitism is in the DNA of the gentile” — so much so that “there is no solution to anti-Semitism.” Galvanized by the breakdown in relations between black and Jewish New Yorkers during the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers strike, Kahane would stoke further tensions in the city by mobilizing Jewish Defense League goons against black militants. Kahane would go on to found in Israel the far-right Kach party that was so notoriously racist toward Arabs that the Knesset banned it from the 1988 legislative elections. Like in Wilderson and other Afro-pessimists’ perspectives, the dangers in Meir Kahane’s trajectory of ethno-racial essentialism, separatism, and nationalism are plain.

But the historical, and not essential, character of Jewishness ought to be evident in analyzing the Ashkenazi Jews in the modern-day US — Jews who are of European descent and are today considered white. Eric Goldstein’s The Price of Whiteness details the “wrenching dilemma” of a people whose self-image was bound up in the oppression they faced in Central and Eastern European societies, yet in the US context, these same people found themselves moving up the social ladder into the dominant white society — a process that necessarily meant a distancing from people of color, most of all African Americans.

James Baldwin’s 1967 essay “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White” spoke to this historical shift, arguing, “In the American context, the most ironical thing about Negro anti-Semitism is that the Negro is really condemning the Jew for having become an American white man — or having become, in effect, a Christian.” In light of Jewish Americans’ complicated and negotiated absorption into becoming white, it is difficult to argue that the essential characteristic of Jewishness is simply eternal degradation. What it means to be Jewish has shifted according to time and place.

Goldstein’s book shows that in the later decades of the nineteenth century, Jewish self-identification became “rooted not in cultural particularity but in biology, shared ancestry, and blood” — echoing, ironically, the rhetoric of antisemites. The backdrop of this pivot was an unprecedented level of social inclusion, much unlike that of the Old World, and that this “blurring of social boundaries created a feeling of uncertainty and uneasiness on the part of Jews and non-Jews.” Essentialist ideas of Jewishness tied to race, blood, and the like was the solution, a glue that transcended and bound together all Jews anxious to maintain their distinctiveness while integrating into American institutions.

Perhaps we can see a similar dynamic at play with Afro-pessimism.

Both of these nationalist ideologies, Afro-pessimism and Zionism, are tied to a particular social base. Michael Berkowitz notes in Zionist Culture and West European Jewry before the First World War that Zionism’s early reception, similar to Afro-pessimism’s today, was strongest amongst middle-class Western and Central European Jews with a “high degree of assimilation  . . . a completed secondary school degree, and a strong likelihood of university or professional education.”

As for Afro-pessimism, Wilderson, Sexton, Hartman, Hortense Spillers, and other Afro-pessimist luminaries are professors, most tenured, at renowned American universities, occupying positions far out of reach of an overwhelming majority of black people and other people of color (or white people, for that matter). They have integrated quite comfortably into ruling-class institutions whose donors and administrators are still predominantly white and thoroughly bourgeois.

Thoroughly integrated into US power structures due to their class position and education, this black intelligentsia takes on an identity of eternal victims. The black bourgeoisie and literati, comfortable yet conflicted, usurp the struggle of the present-day black poor and the latter-day enslaved, enabling them to masquerade as victims while enjoying the fruits of past struggles — and not lifting a finger to aid in the struggle of working people of all colors in the present.

This is a toxic, tragic brew of anxious, middle-class in-betweenness inflected by a racial double consciousness of a sort particular to integrated black elites. Integrated into the US power structure yet still racialized, this anxious black intelligentsia gazes into the navel of some black “essence” to solidify a fragile sense of identity, turning to the rupture of the Middle Passage as the birth of this race of Eternal Victims or Slaves. Uneasy with being integrated as a diasporic population, Afro-pessimists don an identity as slaves in their quest for authenticity as the solution to their anxious in-betweeness.

We are in an age of more black mayors and millionaires than ever before. And we are witness to black police chiefs siccing black cops on white and Asian BLM protesters, as well as a neoliberal black president using drones to attack brown refugees in distant lands. The US ruling class is becoming increasingly black. Latin American, Caribbean, and African migrants as well as increasing numbers of multiracial children of partial black ancestry are making the idea of blackness ever more unstable. After all, Nigerian Americans are the most highly educated of any ethnicity in the United States. And as any Ghanaian or Dominican immigrant could tell you, “blackness” outside of the United States can possess quite a different meaning in different contexts.

Blackness itself is undergoing a historic phase of instability. In this context, the idea that to be black means to be universally, essentially, and forever oppressed is an increasingly absurd one that does more mystifying than clarifying.

Black Israel

Perhaps comparing Zionist conceptions of Jewishness to Afro-pessimist claims of blackness can seem inappropriate, considering the widely differing situations and contexts of black oppression in the United States, white Jewish Americans in the United States, and Jewish supremacy in Israeli society. Yet there is one, little-known and curiously understudied historical example of an African American settler-colonial state that can help us expand our notions of blackness: Liberia.

The histories of Liberia and Israel, like the histories of African and Jewish Americans, are not perfectly analogous. But key similarities are there. Liberia and Israel were founded by the descendants of oppressed peoples whose self-conceptions were strongly tied to being an oppressed and dehumanized people. These are nation-states conceived as refuges from ancient and lethal hatreds in faraway lands.

Ironically, the respective settlers of both countries became a dominating group themselves, building up states and societies that served their interests as a group, particularly a clique of ruling elites among them. Yet in Israel, Jews were able to achieve a demographic majority and maintain it today through an apartheid system; rhetoric and action against Palestinians in everyday Israeli politics smacks of ethnic cleansing or even genocide. Palestinian birth rates are described in apocalyptic terms of “demographic time bombs.”’ In Liberia, the manumitted slaves, free blacks, and “mulattoes” who made up the Americo-Liberian and West Indian–Liberian dominant groups were consistently outnumbered by the masses of indigenous Africans that they quarreled and traded with.

In 1816, the slaveholder-dominated Virginian statehouse asked the US Congress to find a territory on the African coast to become a refuge for free blacks and emancipated slaves. Both slaveholders and abolitionists gathered at a Washington, DC hotel in December of that year and founded the American Colonization Society (ACS). Colonizationists came to believe that only by exporting blacks to a separate country could their plight find resolution because of the impossibility of racial harmony in the United States.

As Eric Burin writes in Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society, the ACS “hoped to rid the United States of both slavery and black people.” Exporting America’s “Negro problem” was initially a political outgrowth of early black nationalists such as Paul Cuffe to address the plight of African Americans in the antebellum republic. Cuffe, a sailor of mixed-race heritage, visited Sierra Leone in 1811 to think through how the United States could establish a similar project.

Sierra Leone was established in the late eighteenth century by black and white British abolitionists as a “homeland,” drawing black Britons, Nova Scotians, and West Indians. Soon enough, British squadrons were intercepting illegal, mostly Havana- and Rio de Janeiro–bound slave ships, “liberating” the enslaved Africans on board and bringing them to Sierra Leone, creating a polyglot and multireligious community. As the nineteenth century progressed, Liberian colonization grew more and more popular, with proponents growing to include US presidents James Monroe and Andrew Jackson. Even Abraham Lincoln would flirt with the idea as president.

Historians have concluded that paternalism and racism motivated the ACS’s actions. For example, many of its Southern slaveholding members believed that free blacks posed a problem to their interests and dreamed of shipping them all off to Liberia. Yet in his earlier years, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison promoted the colonization of and the sending off of free blacks to Liberia as the most strategic pathway to furthering slavery’s demise. It was only when Garrison was shown by black allies that the masses of African Americans were not pro-colonization that he became an opponent of the Liberian settler-colonial project.

Against assimilationists like Frederick Douglass, black nationalists such as Martin Delany also looked to Liberia to solve the problems of black America. Delany declared that “only through wielding the national helm could Africans in the Americas achieve their quest for representation and preserve their distinctiveness.” Douglass and the overwhelming majority of African Americans, now generations removed from the Middle Passage and made into a new people born through that rupture, believed that only struggling for their liberation in their new homeland was the path forward.

Yet in Liberia, slaveholders, black nationalists, and do-good white abolitionists pushed on. There, their thinking converged — none of them thinking for a second that the United States could actually be a multiracial democracy.

Like the Afro-pessimists today who fatalistically believe in the existence of a timeless and intractable anti-black racism, proponents of Liberian colonization could not imagine that racism could be consciously eliminated by the same human beings that gave birth to it. Racial animosity between blacks and whites was imagined to be ingrained and unstoppable. And even if emancipation could be won, peaceful, multiracial coexistence and equality would be an impossible dream. Afro-pessimists today are like the recalcitrant ACS members who kept promoting the fantasies of Liberian colonization and back-to-Africa efforts, even as strong majorities of black folks looked to more practical solutions within their own environments, oftentimes allying with whites themselves.

However, with Reconstruction’s defeat in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, it is understandable why a minority of African Americans looked to emigration and Liberia as a solution to their plight in the United States as the century drew to a close. The Jim Crow counterrevolution began to solidify, pushed by a frightened Northern and Southern ruling class anxious to snuff out the democratic and interracial popular energies unleashed by Reconstruction. This only bolstered the claims of the ACS, in the ears of some. As Burin wrote, “Insisting that African-Americans were unfit for citizenship in the United States and that white people would inevitably crush black aspirations, Society officials eagerly anticipated a postwar upsurge in emigration.”

Any upsurge in post–Civil War back-to-Africa efforts, however broadly unpopular, grew in times wherein racism became so intense that exasperated African Americans could not help but seriously doubt that they had a future in the United States. As Kenneth C. Barnes concludes in Journey to Hope: The Back-to-Africa Movement in Arkansas in the Late 1800s, “Interest in African emigration peaked among black southerners in the 1890s, a time when cotton prices hit rock bottom and white racism reached its zenith.”

In this rightward lurch in US national politics, black emigration and racial pessimism becomes tragically sensible — paralleling the context of Afro-pessimism’s growing popularity in our own bleak times of primetime-televised police killings and growing inequality.

In the beginning, the Liberian settlements were collaboratively run by black settlers as well as white philanthropists and governors who sincerely wanted to solve the United States’ “Negro problem” through exporting it. With independence in 1847, state affairs were fully in black settler hands, in an effort driven by “well-heeled” elites, in James Ciment’s observations. Through colonization efforts across the United States and even the West Indies, blacks developed a diasporic identity, mythologizing Africa as their “homeland” in spite of the cultural differences and distance from the continent through the abortive rupture of the Middle Passage.

Yet almost from the very start of this unique and black settler-colonial experiment, tensions emerged between the black settlers and the indigenous Africans that unraveled meanings of blackness as well as exposed the limits of black nationalism and separatism.

African Americans depart for Liberia, 1896. The American Colonization Society sent its last emigrants to Liberia in 1904. (Wikimedia Commons)

In an essay titled, “Black Imperialism: Americo-Liberian Rule over the African Peoples of Liberia, 1841–1964”, M. B. Akpan observes that due to a variety of cultural differences between African American settlers and indigenous Africans in Liberia that, “in spite of their color, they were, as a rule, as foreign, and lacking in sentimental attachment to Africa as were European colonialists elsewhere in Africa like the British, the French, the Portuguese, and the Spaniards.” Americo-Liberian families carved up the tropical land amongst themselves, dressed in the woolens of their respectable white counterparts back in New York and Baltimore despite the oppressive heat and scorning local fare like cassava for familiar tastes like pickled beef.

Americo-Liberians had become, as indigenous Africans would call them, the “black white people.” As Caree A. Banton argues in her book More Auspicious Shores: Barbadian Migration to Liberia, Blackness, and the Making of an African Republic, “When black migrants believed they had gotten away from the dread and terror of white supremacy and colonialism, different aspects of the ideologies traveled to Liberia through black migrants’ own internalization of them.”

Though indigenous Liberians outnumbered settlers a hundred to one, Liberia’s 1847 constitution didn’t afford natives any rights or privileges. Supported by US funds and arms, the settlers forcibly put Africans into a “protectorate” relationship, requiring subjected peoples to acknowledge the supremacy of the settler state over their own governments in exchange for civilizing goods such as an assimilation policy.

African youths, particularly illegitimate children, would be sired in settler households to work as servants and be educated. Hinterland villages were subjected to an onerous “hut tax” starting in 1916, and such revenue was siphoned into the pockets of corrupt village and settler elites. With later, twentieth-century pushes to centralize settler governance, indigenous rebellions broke out among the ethnic Grebos in 1910, the Krus in 1915, among others — all defeated with the help of US arms, personnel, and training.

Perhaps the most sensational example of Americo-Liberian abuse against indigenous Africans was the scandal and League of Nations investigation into forced labor recruitment and shipping of indigenous Liberians by Americo-Liberian elites to work the plantations on the Spanish island colony of Fernando Po, the northernmost part of Equatorial Guinea. Americo-Liberians would turn a profit for this traffic in a scheme eerily reminiscent of the crimes done to their ancestors. I. K. Sundiata writes in “Prelude to Scandal: Liberia and Fernando Po, 1880-1930” in the Journal of African History, “Thus, the laborer found himself working for the period of the advance, three months, as unpaid labor.” Americo-Liberian settlers ironically recreated the centuries-old tradition of African rulers selling their own subjects to European merchants in exchange for power and wealth over their remaining charges.

When the Jamaican Marcus Garvey’s exploding back-to-Africa movement and his Universal Negro Improvement Association made links with Monrovia envoys, eyeing Liberia as a place to settle masses of followers in the Americas, Americo-Liberian elites eventually responded with coldness because they looked at Garvey as a contender for the power they had over the country. Instead, Americo-Liberian elites looked to a white man named Harvey Firestone, Sr who led the world’s largest tire company and who offered that the government pay off all of their debts in exchange for more control over state affairs. In sidelining Garveyism while putting the Liberian state once again under effective tutelage to white capitalists in exchange for maintaining power over indigenous Africans and others, Liberian settler elites once again found, in blackness, a useful cover for justifying an abusive ruling class.

From Racial Pessimism to Democratic Socialism

Frantz Fanon once wrote in Black Skin, White Masks that the “inferiority complex” of black people was a product of a “double process,” “primarily . . . economic,” that then manifests itself ideologically and culturally into an “internalization — or, better, the epidermalization — of this inferiority.” The evocative prose of Afro-pessimist thinkers such as Wilderson, the way they beautifully describe the psychological terror and debilitating anxieties of racism’s effect on black people, can all too often distract readers from the philosophy’s shortcomings and theoretical muddles. Many whites and non-blacks act deferential to Afro-pessimism’s claims, not wanting to offend or seem insensitive to black people’s suffering. Black critics of Afro-pessimism are often castigated as dupes and race traitors feverishly trying to integrate their people into a burning house.

Afro-pessimism’s popularity is coming at a moment in academia, especially in black studies departments, wherein the linguistic or cultural turn of the 1980s in which materialist interpretations of race and enslavement have lost out to ideational postmodern or post-structuralist conceptions. Vivek Chibber describes this cultural turn as “the view that social practice cannot be understood outside of the ideological and cultural frames that actors carry with them — their subjective understandings of their place in the world.” Marxism, in this view, is obsolete, reductive, and, at worst, racist.

In this intellectual regime, accounts of blackness that are unmoored from materialist analyses concerned with political and economic history founded on scrupulous archival work, dominate many if not most black studies departments. Enslavement and thus race then becomes an almost entirely psycho-linguistic phenomenon of symbols, grammars, meanings, and so forth, unreachable to the tools of a properly historical analysis. Lost in this miasma is the fact that Atlantic slavery was, more than anything, a socioeconomic and political relationship that changed throughout — and was eventually vanquished.

Even though contemporary black thinkers like Saidiya Hartman, Christina Sharpe, or Fred Moten might not self-identify as “Afro-pessimists,” a through line runs through all of their work in that blackness is a flattened, pure-and-simple metaphysic outside the scope of history, and outside of materialist or Marxist explanations. This is why Afro-pessimists, believing in a black racial essence that always has been and always will be, have made a school of thought out of their scholarship.

Marxist accounts of race and enslavement emphasize the point that the ideas in our heads flow out of the manufactured structures of our societies. Understanding that our history is the product of actions taken by living, breathing humans throughout time and space gives us the conceptual tools we need to best analyze racism against black people. Afro-pessimism does not and cannot do this.

It is only by understanding race and ethnicity as historical, man-made categories can we understand that it is within our grasp to struggle against, and, hopefully, defeat all forms of discrimination. After all, how can you struggle against something that has no beginning or an end?