- Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress by Joseph R. Winters
Sayida Hartman's work on the afterlife of slavery—on the continuing way "black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago" (6)—has become a touchstone for a generation of scholars and critics. Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of them. As are prominent Afro-pessimist voices such as Frank Wilderson and Hortense Spillers. In their writings, the concept of "hope" receives rough treatment. Coates is moved, in effect, to renounce hope as a viable or recuperable category within black life: "I think a writer wedded to 'hope' is ultimately divorced from 'truth'" (Coates). Hope is, on Coates's read, an amnesiac that works wholly in the service to "the ahistorical, to the mythical, to the hagiography of humanity itself" (Coates). Afro-pessimist Calvin Warren's rendering of hope is equally withering: "any recourse to the discourse of hope . . . will ultimately reproduce the very metaphysical structures of violence that pulverize black being" (Warren 218). In this key, hope is necessarily distorting and nefarious, generating narratives of optimism and progress that structurally deny the very notion of slavery's afterlife. In denying slavery's afterlife, hope erases black life.
Joseph R. Winters's Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress does not set itself explicitly in contrast to this Afro-pessimist line of thinking. Yet the contrast is unmistakable. Through his reading of figures such as Du Bois, Ellison, Morrison, and [End Page 106] Charles Burnett, Winters works to untether hope from narratives of progress, thus refuting those who would simply conflate hope with an optimism that necessarily stifles black struggle, suffering, and dissent. By "blue-ing" hope, Winters develops a strand of African American literary, political, and filmic traditions in which "conceptions of hope and futurity . . . are mediated by melancholy, loss, and a recalcitrant sense of tragedy" (8). By mediated, Winters does not mean that melancholic hope is simply hope cut with a dash of sorrow or loss. In thinking melancholy and hope together, Winters argues that hope is capable of containing melancholy on its own. This melancholy—"receptivity, vulnerability, and heightened attunement to loss and damage" (213)—constitutes and generates possibilities and imaginaries. These imaginaries of black melancholic hope resist "wishing for some past or future wholeness" but instead work to cultivate practices and communities that reveal the "the breaks, cuts and wounds of history and human existence" (248). Black melancholic hope names an African American tradition in which black life springs from radical modes of acknowledging what it means to face forces of undoing.
Winters's rendering of this heterodox version of hope is vibrant, analytically rich, and deeply rewarding to read. Much of this is the result of Winters's remarkable abilities to read both literary and philosophical texts, including a wide range of voices from the Frankfurt School, with a rare type of clarity and sensitivity. I'll say more about the specifics of those readings in a moment. But it is important to say that there's something vital and pressing for our time about the story Winters tells about melancholic hope. If Winters pushes back against Afro-pessimist accounts of hope, he does so as an internal and engaged critic. For Winters is also Hartman's child. The afterlife of slavery is the ground in which Hope Draped in Black finds its moorings. Winters's account of the nature of melancholy—"It names a way of remembering and being opened up by the often unacknowledged forms of violence and cruelty that social arrangements produce and rely on" (21)—is attuned to Hartman's heightened awareness of endangered traces of blacklife. By limning Hartman toward melancholic hope—in ways that her most prominent readers do not—Winters's work demonstrates an opening up of interpretive possibility in this radical tradition. Winters is not trying to denounce Afro-pessimism. He's trying to explore ways in which its voices ramify in...