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The Afro-Pessimist Temptation

Amy Sherald/Private Collection/Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago
Amy Sherald: What’s precious inside of him does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence (All American), 2017; from the exhibition ‘Amy Sherald,’ on view at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, May 11–August 19, 2018

Not long ago in the locker room of my Harlem gym, I was the eavesdropping old head who thought Black Panther was another documentary about the militants of the Black Panther Party from the Sixties. I caught on from what the young white guy and the young black guy were talking about that Kendrick Lamar had written some of the film’s soundtrack. I almost said, “Lamar is woke,” but the memory of the first time I heard my father say a thing was “fly” rose up and shut my mouth.

In the current political backlash—the only notion the current administration has is to undo whatever President Obama did, to wipe him out—black America is nevertheless a cultural boomtown. My maternal cousins e-mailed everyone to go to Black Panther that first record-breaking weekend, like they were getting out the vote. Twenty-five years ago black people were the lost population, abandoned in inner cities overrun with drugs, exhorted by politicians and preachers to mend the broken black family. Black intellectuals were on the defensive, and bell hooks talked of the resentment she encountered from white people when she spoke of white supremacy instead of racism. Now white people are the ones who seem lost, who don’t seem to know who they are, except for those white Americans who join the resistance against white supremacy and make apologies to black friends for white privilege because, although they don’t know where else to begin, they do know that they don’t want to be associated anymore with the how-long-has-this-been-going-on.

For eight years, I didn’t care what right-wing white people had to say about anything. Obama’s presence on the international stage decriminalized at home the image of the black man; and the murdered black men around whom black women founded Black Lives Matter were regarded more as the fallen in battle than as victims. The vigils of Black Lives Matter drew strength from memories of the marches of the civil rights movement, just as the protesters of the 1960s were aware of the unfinished business of the Civil War as their moral inheritance. Obama’s presidency made black neoconservatives irrelevant. They fumed that on paper he should have added up to be one of them, but instead Obama paid homage to John Lewis. That was Eric Holder in the Justice Department. But as it turned out, not everyone was vibing with the triumphant celebrations at David Adjaye’s beautiful National Museum of African American History and Culture.

White supremacy isn’t back; it never went away, though we thought it had become marginal or been contained as a political force, and maybe it has, which only adds to the unhelpful feeling that this should not have happened, that the government has been hijacked. I think of the Harvard sociologist Lawrence Bobo in the election’s aftermath telling a meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association that, had the same number of black people who voted in Milwaukee, Detroit, and Philadelphia in 2012 come to the polls in 2016, Hillary Clinton would have won in the Electoral College. What the 2016 presidential election demonstrated is that, as David Foster Wallace put it, there is no such thing as not voting.

I mind this happening when I am getting too old to run from it. Shit, do not hit that fan. My father’s siblings, in their late eighties and early nineties, assure me that we have survived worse. They grew up on Negro History Week. The Great Depression shaped their childhoods; McCarthyism their college years. My father lived to see Obama’s election in 2008, but not the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. He would have said that the struggle for freedom is ongoing. Look at how “they” managed to get around Brown v. Board of Education; look at Citizens United, he would say, he who hawked NAACP memberships in airport men’s rooms or read from William Julius Wilson at Christmas dinner. I longed for him to change the subject, to talk to my Jewish friends about science, not racism.

In 1895, the year Frederick Douglass died, Booker T. Washington gave an address in Atlanta cautioning black people to cast down their buckets where they were. The black and white races would be like the fingers of the hand, separate but working together on essential matters. White people took Washington to mean that blacks would accept Jim Crow and not agitate for restoration of the civil rights they had exercised during Reconstruction. They would concentrate instead on self-improvement and economic development. Washington’s conciliatory philosophy made his autobiography, Up from Slavery (1901), a best seller. He was hailed as the most influential black spokesman of his day. Theodore Roosevelt invited him to dine at the White House, much to the consternation of Washington’s white southern supporters.

Washington’s program may have won him admiration among whites, but he never persuaded black people, as far as an angry W.E.B. Du Bois was concerned. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois argued that the influence of three main attitudes could be traced throughout the history of black Americans in response to their condition:

a feeling of revolt and revenge; an attempt to adjust all thought and action to the will of the greater group; or, finally, a determined effort at self-realization and self-development despite environing opinion.

For Du Bois, Washington represented the attitude of submission. He had no trouble with Washington preaching thrift, patience, and industrial training for the masses, but to be silent in the face of injustice was not being a man:

Negroes must insist continually, in season and out of season, that voting is necessary to modern manhood, that color discrimination is barbarism, and that black boys need education as well as white boys.

Du Bois was not alone among black intellectuals in his condemnation of Washington, but it was not true that Washington had no black followers. For Washington, the withdrawal of black people from American political life was to be temporary. Black people would earn white respect by acquiring skills and becoming economically stable. If they couldn’t vote, then they could acquire property. However, Du Bois and his allies maintained that disenfranchisement was a significant obstacle to economic opportunity. Black prosperity was taken by whites as a form of being uppity: white people burned down the black business section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921, furious at its success. Moreover, black Marxist critics of the 1930s held that Washington’s program to produce craftsmen and laborers uninterested in unions had been made obsolete by the mass manufacturing economy. Washington’s Tuskegee Movement came to stand for backwater gradualism, of which the guesthouse for white visitors to the Tuskegee Institute was a symbol.

The Du Bois–Washington controversy described basic oppositions—North/South, urban/rural—that defined black America at the time. Identifying what Arnold Rampersad has called “an essential dualism in the black American soul,” Du Bois also explored the concept of “double-consciousness”:

One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.

The conflict between national and racial identity has had political expression—integrationist/separatist—as well as psychological meaning: good black/bad black, masked black self/real black self. “Free your mind and your ass will follow,” Funkadelic sang in 1970, by which time the authentic black was always assumed to be militant: there is a Malcolm X in every black person, the saying went.

Ta-Nehisi Coates says that he came to understand as a grown-up the limits of anger, but he is in a fed-up, secessionist mood by the end of We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. His collection of eight essays on politics and black history written during Obama’s two terms of office, introduced with some new reflections, portrays his post-election disillusionment as a return to his senses. Coates wonders how he could have missed the signs of Trump’s coming: “His ideology is white supremacy in all of its truculent and sanctimonious power.” He strongly disagrees with those who say that racism is too simple an explanation for Trump’s victory. He was not put in office by “an inscrutable” white working class; he had the support of the white upper classes to which belong the very “pundits” who play down racism as an explanation.

The title We Were Eight Years in Power, Coates tells us, is taken from a speech that a South Carolina congressman made in 1895 when Reconstruction in the state was terminated by a white supremacist takeover. Du Bois noted at the time that what white South Carolina feared more than “bad Negro government” was “good Negro government.” Coates finds a parallel in Trump’s succeeding Obama, whose presidency was “a monument to moderation.” Obama’s victories were not racism’s defeat. He trusted white America and underestimated the opposition’s resolve to destroy him. Coates sees Obama as a caretaker, not a revolutionary, and even that was too much for white America. He writes from the perspective that that “end-of-history moment” when Obama was first elected “proved to be wrong.”

In the 1960s frustration with integration as the primary goal of civil rights began Booker T. Washington’s rehabilitation as an early advocate of black self-sufficiency. But it’s still a surprise to find him among Coates’s influences, to be back there again. It is because Coates at first identified with the conservative argument that blacks couldn’t blame all their problems on racism, that they had to take some responsibility for their social ills. He names Washington the father of a black conservative tradition that found “a permanent and natural home in the emerging ideology of Black Nationalism.” He writes, “The rise of the organic black conservative tradition is also a response to America’s retreat from its second attempt at Reconstruction.” As a young man in 1995, Coates experienced the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., at which the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan urged black men to be better fathers.

In their emphasis on defense of black communities against racist agents of the state, the Black Panthers in the 1960s considered themselves revolutionary; so, too, did the FBI, which destroyed the movement. Black nationalism wasn’t necessarily revolutionary: some leaders of the Republic of New Afrika endorsed Nixon in 1972 so that the commune might benefit from his Black Capitalism schemes. In the Reagan era, black conservatives complained that a collective black identity was a tyranny that sacrificed their individualism. What they were really attacking was the idea of black people as a voting bloc for the Democratic Party.

Black conservatism joined with white conservatism in opposing the use of government as the enforcement arm of change. Coates eventually gave up on movements that asked blacks to shape up, even though it gave him a politics “separate from the whims of white people.” What turned him off was that, historically, conservative black nationalism assumed that black people were broken and needed to be fixed, that “black culture in its present form is bastardized and pathological.”

Siegfried Woldhek
Ta-­Nehisi Coates

At every turn, Coates rejects interpretations of black culture as pathological. I am not broken. William Julius Wilson’s theories that link the deterioration of black material conditions to industrial decline “matched the facts of my life, black pathology matched none of it.” Coates holds the 1965 Moynihan Report on the black family accountable as a sexist document that has shaped policy on the mass incarceration of black men. He is done with what he might call the hypocrisy of white standards. “The essence of American racism is disrespect.” There is no such thing as assimilation. Having a father and adhering to middle-class norms have “never shielded black people from plunder.” American democracy is based on “plunder.”

The subject of reparations has been around in radical black politics for some time. But Coates takes the argument beyond the expected confines of slavery and applies the notion of plunder to whites’ relations with blacks in his history of red-lining and racial segregation as urban policy and real estate practice in postwar Chicago. He also cites the psychological and financial good that West Germany’s reparations meant for Israel: “What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.” Reparations are clearly the only solution for him, but he writes as though they will never be paid; therefore nothing else matters.

Between him and the other world, Du Bois said, was the unasked question of what it felt like to be a problem. But white people are the problem. The exclusion of black people transformed “whiteness itself into a monopoly on American possibilities,” Coates says. It used to be that social change for blacks meant concessions on the part of white people. But Coates is not looking for white allies or white sympathy. “Racism was banditry, pure and simple. And the banditry was not incidental to America, it was essential to it.” He has had it with “the great power of white innocence,” he writes. “Progressives are loath to invoke white supremacy as an explanation for anything.” The repeated use of the phrase “white supremacy” is itself a kind of provocation. “Gentrification is white supremacy.”

There may be white people who don’t believe the “comfortable” narratives about American history, but Coates hasn’t time for them either. The “evidence of structural inequality” may be “compelling,” but “the liberal notions that blacks are still, after a century of struggle, victims of pervasive discrimination is the ultimate buzzkill.” He means that the best-intentioned of whites still perceive being black as a social handicap. He wants to tell his son that black people are in charge of their own destinies, that their fates are not determined by the antagonism of others. “White supremacy is a crime and a lie, but it’s also a machine that generates meaning. This existential gift, as much as anything, is the source of its enormous, centuries-spanning power.” That rather makes it sound like hypnosis, but maybe the basic unit of white supremacy is the lynch mob.

Malcolm X thought Du Bois’s double-consciousness a matter for the black middle class—blacks living between two worlds, seeking the approval of both the white and the black and not getting either. But even when black people could see themselves for themselves, there was still the problem of whether white power could be reformed, overthrown, or escaped. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer, D.H. Lawrence said. If white supremacy is still the root of the social order in the US, then so, too, are the temptations of Hate, Despair, and Doubt, as Du Bois put it. “As we move into the mainstream,” Coates says, “black folks are taking a third road—being ourselves.”

It’s as though racism has always been the action and dealing with it the reaction. That is maybe why black thinkers and artists try to turn things around, to transcend race, to get out of white jurisdiction. When black students in the 1970s baited Ralph Ellison for his detachment from protest movements, he said that writing the best novel he could was his contribution to the struggle.

Cornel West blasted Coates for his narrow “defiance,” for choosing a “personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action.”1 He argued that Coates makes a fetish of white supremacy and loses sight of the tradition of resistance. For West, Coates represents the “neoliberal” wing of the black freedom struggle, much like Obama himself. Obama is little more than a symbol to West (and Coates insists that symbols can mean a great deal). Coates’s position amounts to a misguided pessimism, in West’s view. Robin D.G. Kelley, author of the excellent Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2009), attempted to mediate between their positions, saying, in part, that West and Coates share a pessimism of outlook and that black movements have always had a dual purpose: survival and ultimate victory.2

As a dustup encouraged by newspaper editors, West’s attack on Coates has been likened to the battle royal: that scene in Invisible Man where black youth are made to fight one another blindfolded in a ring for the amusement of white men. Richard Wright recounts in his autobiography, Black Boy, how he tried to get the other boy he was to oppose in just such an entertainment to stand with him and refuse to fight. Part of what drove Ellison was his need to one-up Wright, who got to use, in his work before Ellison, metaphors they both shared. But West, however ready he is to say impossible things before breakfast, is the older man, not Coates’s peer, which makes his name-calling—his contempt in the expression “neoliberal”—ineffectual purity.

In pre-Obama times, West warned black youth against the internal and external threats of nihilism. I remember one evening at Howard University in the early 1990s when he and bell hooks rocked the auditorium. I couldn’t hear what they were saying sometimes. But much of Coates’s audience wasn’t of reading age then.

The swagger of 1960s black militancy was absorbed into the rap music of the 1990s. In Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism (2004), West interprets hip-hop culture as an indictment of the older generation, the lyrics of the young proclaiming that they were neglected by self-medicated adults: “Only their beloved mothers—often overworked, underpaid, and wrestling with a paucity of genuine intimacy—are spared.”

Coates is passionate about the music that helped him find himself and a language. His ambivalence about Obama goes away once he claims him as a member of hip-hop’s foundational generation. In his memoir Losing My Cool (2010), Thomas Chatterton Williams recalls that as a teenager immersed in hip-hop, it nagged at him that he and the other black students at his private school couldn’t say when Du Bois died or when King was born, but they were worked up over the anniversary of the assassination of Biggie Smalls. Coates is different from many other black writers of his generation in that he doesn’t come from a middle-class background. His biography is like a hip-hop story.

He grew up in “segregated West Baltimore,” where his father was chapter head of the Black Panther Party. He said he understood black as a culture, not as a minority, until he entered rooms where no one else looked like him. Early on in We Were Eight Years in Power he speaks of “the rage that lives in all African Americans, a collective feeling of disgrace that borders on self-hatred.” You wonder whom he’s speaking for, even as he goes on to say that music cured his generation’s shame, just as to embrace Malcolm X was to be relieved of “the mythical curse of Ham.” It’s been fifty years since Malcolm X talked about brainwashed Negroes becoming black people bragging about being black. It’s been half a century since those books that told us depression and grief among blacks were hatred turned on the black self.

Coates declares that when Obama first ran for president in 2008, the civil rights generation was

exiting the American stage—not in a haze of nostalgia but in a cloud of gloom, troubled by the persistence of racism, the apparent weaknesses of the generation following in its wake, and the seeming indifference of much of the country to black America’s fate.

Obama rose so quickly because African-Americans were

war-weary. It was not simply the country at large that was tired of the old baby boomer debates. Blacks, too, were sick of talking about affirmative action and school busing. There was a broad sense that integration had failed us.

Peril is generational, Coates says. He has given up on the liberal project, castigating liberal thinking for having “white honor” and the maintenance of “whiteness” at its core. King’s “gauzy all-inclusive” dream has been replaced by the reality of an America of competing groups, with blacks tired of being the weakest of the lot. Harold Cruse in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), a vehement work of black nationalism and unique in black intellectual history, said flat out that Washington was right and that Du Bois had ended up on the wrong side, that Marxism was just white people (i.e., Jewish people) telling black people what to think. Cruse was regarded as a crank in his time, but his view of black history in America as a rigged competition is now widely shared, and Cruse was writing before Frantz Fanon’s work on the decolonized mind was available in English.

Afro-pessimism derives in part from Fanon, and maybe it’s another name for something that has been around in black culture for a while. Afro-pessimism found provocative expression in Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid (2008) by Frank B. Wilderson III. A Dartmouth graduate who grew up in the 1960s in the white Minneapolis suburb where Walter Mondale lived, Wilderson is West’s generation. He went to South Africa in the early 1990s and became involved with the revolutionary wing of the ANC that Mandela betrayed. White people are guilty until proven innocent, Wilderson asserts throughout. Fanon is everywhere these days, the way Malcolm X used to be, but Wilderson makes me think of Céline, not Fanon. Coates’s “critique of respectability politics” is in something of the same mood as Wilderson, and, before him, Cruse. He also has that echo of what Fanon called the rejection of neoliberal universalism.

The 1960s and 1970s showed that mass movements could bring about systemic change. Angela Davis said so.3 Unprecedented prosperity made the Great Society possible. But only black people could redefine black people, Stokeley Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton said in Black Power (1967). West has remembered entering Harvard in 1970 and feeling more than prepared by his church and family. The future of the world as he could imagine it then and how it evidently strikes Coates these days is a profound generational difference. “The warlords of history are still kicking our heads in, and no one, not our fathers, not our Gods, is coming to save us.”

Cornel West is right or I am on his side, another old head who believes that history is human-made. Afro-pessimism and its treatment of withdrawal as transcendence is no less pleasing to white supremacy than Booker T. Washington’s strategic retreat into self-help. Afro-pessimism threatens no one, and white audiences confuse having been chastised with learning. Unfortunately, black people who dismiss the idea of progress as a fantasy are incorrect in thinking they are the same as most white people who perhaps believe still that they will be fine no matter who wins our elections. Afro-pessimism is not found in the black church. One of the most eloquent rebuttals to Afro-pessimism came from the white teenage anti-gun lobbyists who opened up their story in the March for Our Lives demonstrations to include all youth trapped in violent cultures.

My father used to say that integration had little to do with sitting next to white people and everything to do with black people gaining access to better neighborhoods, decent schools, their share. Life for blacks was not what it should be, but he saw that as a reason to keep on, not check out. I had no idea how much better things were than they had been when he was my age, he said. That white people spent money in order to suppress the black vote proved that voting was a radical act. Bobby Kennedy happened to be in Indianapolis the day Dr. King was assassinated fifty years ago. I always thought my father had gone downtown to hear Kennedy speak. No, he told me much later, he’d been in the ghetto tavern of a crony, too disgusted to talk. Yet he wouldn’t let me stay home from school the next day.

A couple of decades later I was resenting my father speaking of my expatriate life as a black literary tradition, because I understood him to be saying that I wasn’t doing anything new and, by the way, there was no such thing as getting away from being black, or what others might pretend that meant. Black life is about the group, and even if we tell ourselves that we don’t care anymore that America glorifies the individual in order to disguise what is really happening, this remains a fundamental paradox in the organization of everyday life for a black person. Your head is not a safe space.

  1. 1

    “Ta-Nehisi Coates Is the Neoliberal Face of the Black Freedom Struggle,” The Guardian, December 17, 2017. 

  2. 2

    “Coates and West in Jackson,” Boston Review, December 22, 2017. 

  3. 3

    Angela Y. Davis, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle (Haymarket, 2016).