Tracing Historical Specificity: Race and the Colonial Politics of (In)Capacity
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Tracing Historical Specificity:
Race and the Colonial Politics of (In)Capacity

In October 2016 I attended a lecture by Frank B. Wilderson III sponsored by Wesleyan's Center for the Humanities. I had read his book Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms, along with select articles and interviews—but had yet to hear him present his work. The talk was titled "Afro-Pessimism and the Ruse of Analogy." I went in already critical given my familiarity with Afro-Pessimist thought—not only through his work, but that of Jared Sexton and other scholars.1 As Wilderson himself explains, Afro-Pessimism is an "unflinching paradigmatic analysis on the structures of modernity produced by slavery and genocide." Drawing on the works of Orlando Patterson, Saidiya Hartman, and Hortense Spillers (among others), Afro-Pessimists theorize blackness as a position of accumulation and fungibility, that is, as a condition—or relation—of ontological death.2 In Red, White & Black, Wilderson theorizes the structural relation between Blacks and Humanity as an antagonism (an irreconcilable encounter) as opposed to a (reconcilable) conflict. He, along with other Afro-Pessimists, theorizes the workings of civil society as contiguous with slavery and claims the "inability of the slave to translate space into place and time into event."3 Wilderson's insistence of absolute negativity destroys the possibility for coalitional politics because it frames the Black Body as something that will always stand in an antagonistic position to the world.4

At Wilderson's talk I took careful notes, and by the end of the lecture I was so perturbed, I figured I had better attend the faculty seminar the next morning to further engage. There, I mustered up the wherewithal to ask Wilderson about his argument the night before—and in his work at large—that there is no institutional capacity in which Blacks can assert leverage over anyone; that they are only instruments, not agents. I cited the case of Bacon's Rebellion—an armed revolt in 1676 led by Nathaniel Bacon against the rule of the Virginia colonial governor William Berkeley—and asked Wilderson how he could reconcile his position in light of a tough example of black agency in uniting with indentured and other poor Europeans in committing genocidal violence [End Page 257] against Indian tribes. He responded by asking me why I would "privilege Blacks participating in genocide over the role of whites." I did not (and do not)—so I simply reiterated that I wanted to understand how he reconciled his argument with that particular history. He replied by asking me why I didn't instead look to the horses they rode and the bullets they used, provided by the whites that made the Blacks mere "instruments" of their project. I noted that this was during the period prior to the hardening categories that created racially based chattel slavery in the region and that there was variation among African individuals there at that time in terms of their social and legal status. I also added that the question seemed especially pertinent given his assertions in Red, Black & White, in which much of the argument depends on his reading of Indian genocide, since he critiques "the Red Ontologist" for privileging indigenous sovereignty when genocide is essential to the ontology of the Indian.5 But this didn't get us any farther. He pointedly told me, "We are not going to agree on this."

Given this AQ forum on Patrick Wolfe's Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race (2016), I want to take up his work to examine Afro-Pessimism in relation to issues raised by the exchange recounted above. I take up the question of Afro-Pessimism in this context, since Wolfe repeatedly states (and deftly demonstrates), "race is not a static ontology."6 He notes, "As its name suggests, [race] is an ongoing, ever-shifting contest."7 Among many other interventions, Traces of History challenges the understanding that blackness was or is transcendent. To assert blackness as ontological is to recapitulate colonizing thought, to take colonial ideology as truth. However, Wolfe went beyond merely stating that race is a social construct. As Ben Silverstein...