In his new book, “Afropessimism,” Frank B. Wilderson III writes that earlier in life he saw himself, as an African-American, “as a degraded Human,” his plight “analogous to the plight of the Palestinians, the Native American and the working class.” But at some point he came to question this comparison.
Instead, as he described in an interview, “there is something essential about the suffering of black people that can’t be reconciled with the suffering of other people.” The title of his book is the name for this school of thought.
Wilderson, who leads the African-American Studies department at the University of California, Irvine, mixes both memoir and theory in “Afropessimism,” moving from his childhood in Minnesota to academic ideas about why black people “are not Human subjects, but are instead structurally inert props.” Below, he talks about pivotal time he spent in South Africa during apartheid, the tensions between theory and storytelling, and the inspiration he’s taken from the singer Sarah Vaughan.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
It’s like there’s two trains running on tracks right next to each other. And I’m trying to use a milder metaphor than “they collide.” They meld together. One is the critical theory and political theory track, and the other is creative writing.
I was in the MFA program at Columbia from 1989 to 1991, and I was writing a novel. There was a day when it had to be workshopped. I didn’t have my chapter ready, so I wrote about a harrowing experience from my childhood. There was such a firewall between nonfiction and fiction at the time, so I lied and said, “Here’s a short story I wrote.” The way in which people responded to this story was amazing. I began, on the side, writing vignettes about my childhood.
So the memoir writing starts in the fiction program. And then I went to South Africa. I was working outside Johannesburg, where I wrote about the massacres. And by night (in the metaphorical sense), we helped provide arms to self-defense units in paramilitary units. There were two warring factions of the African National Congress where we were, in the Vaal Triangle, south of Johannesburg, and we needed them to stop the tit for tat. Chris Hani was the only person on the national executive committee who I could get to come to the Triangle to stop the violence. He was also the only person who said that we needed a “revolutionary theory,” a book like Frantz Fanon wrote for Algeria, “The Wretched of the Earth.” We needed that book for South Africa. Chris knew the value of intellectual writing as well as action. His generosity of spirit, and the way he saw the need to do critical theory while you’re fighting a revolution, really sparked my imagination.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
I’m trained as a traditional storyteller, and I’m also trained as a critical theorist in narratology, psychoanalysis, Marxism. I had never tried to map story — the elements of narrative that move from a state of equilibrium for the protagonist to disequilibrium to equilibrium restored — onto theory. I had never interrogated that artistically. That arc is not available to blackness, there is no equilibrium to be regained. It was painful to find that in the episodes of my life, and to work with what we call gratuitous violence. In a narrative in which someone experiences the violence of the state or interpersonal aggression, it’s often because they’ve transgressed in some way. It’s called contingent violence. But what does it mean to tell the story of a sentient being who does not need to transgress to experience the violence of lynchings, of slavery, of incarceration? What does it mean to not have an arc from innocence to guilt?
My wife taught writing and is a poet, and we have these conversations all the time. What does it mean to be a slave and the subject of narrative? One of her mantras is: “Make the problem your subject.” So rather than try to fix what could not be reconciled, I allowed that sore to fester on the page — as beautifully as I could.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
I did not for the slightest moment think I would begin this book with a psychotic episode that I had at the age of 40-something, and that it would end with the death of my mother. Those two things, which frame the book, were the furthest things from my mind. The first iterations of the book were too direct, too didactic and dry. When I decided to start writing experimentally about this breakdown, I didn’t think I could get it on the page.
I was really fortunate in working with my editor, Bob Weil. He was a godsend. He is a consummate intellectual, and he also knows what makes literary writing sing. He knew I wanted to make people laugh and cry. He was really encouraging.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
Sarah Vaughan. If jazz, opera, the blues and soul were all one voice, that voice would be hers. Which really speaks to my blending of genres. But also on a cosmological level, she was born under the sign of Aries, which I am — and there’s something big and arrogant and sometimes irritating about Aries.
I remember visiting New York City from Minneapolis at 8 years old for the World’s Fair, and the Concorde broke the sound barrier. I asked my mother what that sound was, and she said, “It’s a sonic boom.” And I told her, “That’s what I want to be when I grow up.” “It’s impossible to be a sonic boom,” she said. “You can be a pilot and make a sonic boom, but you can’t be one.”
We got back to Minneapolis, and I heard her playing Sarah Vaughan. I ran to her and said, “That’s the sonic boom. I thought you said no one could be a sonic boom.”
Vaughan gives me permission to write, and to turn moans into music. Back in 1993, on April 10, my patron saint Chris Hani was assassinated. I attended a lot of rallies and demonstrations afterward with rage and anger, but at night I would cry to sleep with Sarah Vaughan’s music. She got me through that.
Persuade someone to read “Afropessimism” in 50 words or less.
With the narrative drive of a captivating novel and the intellectual rigor of critical theory, “Afropessimism” illustrates how black death is necessary for the material and psychic life of the human species. A high-wire act between rage and paranoia, or a breath of sanity? Read it and decide.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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