Afro-pessimism is a framework and critical idiom that describes the ongoing effects of racism, colonialism, and historical processes of enslavement including the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and their impact on structural conditions as well as personal, subjective, and lived experience, and embodied reality.
The term was first coined in 1990 in an article in Jeune Afrique Economie by Francophone Congolese author Sony Lab'ou Tansi. Writer and intellectual Frank B. Wilderson III developed the term in his political memoir about his time spent teaching and participating in the African National Congress in South Africa during apartheid.
According to Tansi, "Afro-pessimism [is] a terrible word used to conceal the greatest mess of all time," which is the "tragedy" that Africa's position "dooms us to construct and build garbage economies in the depths of the most cruel, unbearable, and inhuman form of indignity that humans can swallow" (as translated by John Conteh-Morgan). According to Wilderson, afro-pessimism theorizes blackness as a position of "accumulation and fungibility" (Saidiya Hartman); that is, as condition—or relation—of ontological death, as opposed to a cultural identity or human subjectivity.
Wilderson, along with Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Achille Mbembe, Jared Sexton, and others who have contributed to afro-pessimist thought, cite the Martinician psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer Frantz Fanon as a foundational figure in the tradition of Afro-pessimism.
Afro-pessimism has been constructed in many ways and with different aims. But Afro-pessimism is chiefly approached a transcendent position, not as a negative or disaffected political attitude in the sense that pessimism might seemingly connote. The Black radical tradition has drawn upon the term as a way to acknowledge the power, depth, and vitality of the resilience and radical imagination of people of African descent. Within this same critique, some have used Afro-pessimism to articulate the subject-position of renunciation, refusal, distancing, dread, doubt and abjection in response to the multitude and ongoing effects and historical traumas of colonialism. This includes the view that dismantling white supremacy would mean dismantling much of the social and political institutions of the modern world.
Afro-pessimist ideas have been part of ongoing conversations about pan-African identity, as an inclusionary concept of blackness among all people of African descent. Pan-African thought has drawn attention to the shared racial identity and also the particulars of the expression of African identity among the African Diaspora and peoples on the African continent. Pan-African thought has analyzed the ongoing struggles of African peoples, and the power of Afrocentricity as a move away from the colonialism and violence of Eurocentricity. The writings of Frantz Fanon, a Martinican psychiatrist, intellectual, and revolutionary, reflect pan-African and Afro-pessimistic approaches to decolonization and black liberation.
The Pan-African movement négritude represents pessimism as a kind of realist recognition of the historical traumas of colonialism, from an existentialist position. A key figure in the movement, Aimé Césaire, uses pessimism to consider transcendence and a recognition of the breadth of the cultural imagination and perseverance of people of African descent.
In international relations theory
Afro-pessimism has also been employed as a term describing a narrative in Western media and International relations theory that portrays post-colonial Africa as unlikely to achieve economic growth and democratic governance. This use of Afro-pessimism has nothing to with Wilderson's definition. This form of Afro-pessimism has been criticized as a Western construct regarding the ongoing portrayal of Africa and African people in Western media, overwhelmingly in terms of tragedy, doom, victimization, and victim-hood. Scholar Toussaint Nothias has characterized these discussions by the components, "essentialism, racialization, selectivity, ranking framework, and prediction." From this Afro-pessimistic perspective, news media that portray Africa and African people by the trope of victimhood, mirror the Eurocentric and ethnocentric of the Western media, language, images, and rhetoric. In this ways the media tends to victimize and exoticize Africa for its going struggles with poverty, health-crisis, famine, and lack of modern development. The victimization is then visible in the humanitarian and development projects, which sometimes use the language of "saving" African people from such "humanitarian disasters".
- Tansi, Sony Labou (2007). "An Open Letter to Africans c/o The Punic One Party State". African literature : an anthology of criticism and theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub. pp. 54–60. ISBN 1405112018. OCLC 71173671.
- Sony Labou Tansi, "Lettre aux Africains... sous couvert du parti punique," Jeune Afrique Economie 136 (1990): 8-9.
- "3", Incognegro, Duke University Press, pp. 96–146, ISBN 9780822374985, retrieved 2018-10-17
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- Nothias, Toussaint (December 2012). Plastow, Jane, ed. "Definition and scope of Afro-pessimism: Mapping the concept and its usefulness for analysing news media coverage of Africa". Leeds African Studies Bulletin. 74 (Winter 2012/13): 54–62. Archived from the original on 2017-09-04.
- Wilderson, Frank (2010). Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham: Duke University Press. p. 346. ISBN 978-0-8223-4692-0. OCLC 457770963.
- de B’béri, Boulou Ebanda; Louw, P. Eric (2011-10-13). "Afropessimism: a genealogy of discourse". Critical Arts: South-North Cultural and Media Studies. Taylor & Francis. 25 (3): 335–346. doi:10.1080/02560046.2011.615118.
- Botes, Janeske (2011-02-25). The Hopeless Continent?: 2007/2008 Local and International Media Representations of Africa (Monograph). Saarbrucken: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller. ISBN 978-3639331486. OCLC 918945435.
- Schmidt, Sandra; Garrett, H. James (2011-10-13). "Reconstituting Pessimistic Discourses". Critical Arts: South-North Cultural and Media Studies. Taylor & Francis. 25 (3): 423–440. doi:10.1080/02560046.2011.615143. ISSN 0256-0046.
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- Wilderson, Frank (2010). Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-4692-0.
- Patterson, Orlando (March 1985). Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674810839. OCLC 165068032. OL 7693539M.
- Wilderson, Frank B. (2008). Burrell, Jocelyn, ed. Incognegro: a memoir of exile and apartheid (1. ed.). Cambridge, Mass: South End Press. ISBN 978-0896087835. OCLC 934269072.
- Fanon, Frantz. (1952). Black Skin, White Masks. (1967 translation by Charles Lam Markmann: New York: Grove Press)
- Sexton, Jared (2016-03-15). "Chapter 3. The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism". In Agathangelou, Anna M.; Killian, Kyle D. Time, temporality and violence in international relations: (de)fatalizing the present, forging radical alternatives (Paperback). Interventions (1. ed.). London and New York: Routledge. doi:10.4324/9781315883700. ISBN 978-0-415-71271-2. OCLC 859585160.
- Rieff, David (1998). "In Defense of Afro-Pessimism". World Policy Journal. 15 (4 (Winter 1998/1999)): 10–22. ISSN 0740-2775. JSTOR 40209594. OCLC 205900677.
- Dienstag, Joshua Foa (2009). Pessimism Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit (Hardback). Princeton, N.J. and Oxford, UK: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-14112-1. JSTOR j.ctt7sw6h. OCLC 5559552758.
- Wilderson, Frank (2009-02-09). "Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid w author Frank Wilderson" (mp3). IMIXWHATILIKE.ORG Podcast (Interview). Interviewed by Jared Ball. Archived from the original on 2017-09-04. Retrieved 2017-09-04.
- Wilderson, Frank (2013-07-05). "Dr. Frank Wilderson on Nelson Mandela, South Africa and Afro-Pessimism" (mp3). IMIXWHATILIKE.ORG Podcast (Interview). Interviewed by Jared Ball. Archived from the original on 2017-09-04. Retrieved 2017-09-04.