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…

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