Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress by Joseph R. Winters
On November 4, 2008, during his concession speech to (then) President-Elect Barack Obama, Senator John McCain transformed Obama's victory into his (and white America's) theodicy by claiming that the election "proved" that the country had progressed from its days organizing social life around racial exclusion. McCain's speech exemplifies a paradox of "American" progress: black bodies ascending to social heights previously prevented through a particularly pernicious brand of white American antiblack racism, upon whose backs U.S. global financial and military dominance was built, become evidence for justifying American exceptionalism. One tragic irony of American history is that since at least emancipation, "black bodies become readily available signifiers of progress, optimism, and American supremacy" (7), when, equally, those bodies also signify a collective failure on the part of white folk to affect cultural and social change in domains of life that might actually warrant the moniker of "progress." Progress is not a sociological marker of change over time, but a discursive broom used to sweep history's catastrophes under a white rug.
Would a meditation on the failure of social progress in the United States, filtered through a pragmatic focus on black experiences of tragic racial and gender injustice "foreclose a different kind of hope" than expressed in the stories [End Page 95] of exceptionalism exemplified above but also across the political spectrum? Joseph R. Winters's Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress begins with this story of McCain's concession, setting in motion Winters's strong critique of triumphant notions of progress as oxymoronic, in that the first of any kind is always an exception proving and hiding a rule. Appeals to progress maintain various social status quo, particularly raced and gendered power differentials. Rhetorical reliance on this discursive mode of progress "results in the conflation of hope and optimism," with optimism akin to denial of tragedy. In response to this conflation, Winters offers readers "a different kind of hope … melancholic hope," a hope refracted through the prism of the tragic, what he calls a "hope draped in black" (16). Melancholia is here a state of diremption, a painful dis-membering, a condition of active grief and separation from oneself and others. Our memories of others (now gone) construct who we are (today) through a reflection on who we once were (and were not) in the matrix of our social lives. Such a condition "involves wrestling with death, suffering, and absurdity while also affirming moments of freedom, joy, and pleasure" (20). Without re-membering the tragic, not only does progress never occur; our reliance on assumed progress makes such progress impossible. Through an interdisciplinary, intersectional, and methodologically rigorous analysis, Winters travels across genre and authorial posture, engaging sources that include W. E. B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin. With these voices, Winters's first monograph contributes to an ongoing conversation at the intersection of pragmatic thought and the study of black religion that mines black culture for resources responsive to what William R. Jones once referred to as the "non-catastrophic" nature of black ethnic suffering.
If white progress is oxymoronic, black notions of hope are paradoxical. W. E. B. DuBois's classic The Souls of Black Folk teeters between perspectives, providing Winters a stable, if well-worn, foundation. DuBois's reliance on jeremiad-styled rhetoric evinces an optimistic concern to mitigate being a problem in the eyes of another through a synthesis of both self and other into a higher (read: white, American) self. For Winters, the more helpful perspective emerges in DuBois's treatment of the sorrow songs, which enable re-membering of the tragic against the threat of erasure posed by progress rhetoric. As one of many useful insights found, here, Winters discusses DuBois's religious naturalism and nontheistic theologian Anthony B. Pinn's treatment of the sorrow songs. Like Pinn, Winters finds DuBois's treatment of these songs emblematic of the enslaved wrestling with absurdity, making "sense of a senseless predicament" (50). Important for correcting ongoing popular and academic (mis)conceptions that still unduly influence the study of black religion, hope draped in black hails [End Page 96] not from god or belief therein, but from memory. This tracing of the tragic through an existential vernacular is more than lament; it is epistemologically generative for the study of black religion.
Winters moves seamlessly across genre and theme, from philosophical and existential exegesis on the tragic to lengthy analyses of material culture, adding breadth to his argument through an emphasis on literature, music, and film as sites where the tragic is revealed and concealed. Literary and musical devices like improvisation, dissonance, and breaking emerging from Jazz and the Blues disrupt triumphant accounts of American history. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Toni Morrison's Jazz exemplify such disruption, as they offer critiques of singular, linear metanarratives made possible through erasure of competing narratives. One particularly powerful example of Winters's analytical acumen is offered by his inclusion of Claudia Tate's tragic reminder that the visibility of Ellison's invisible man "is made possible because the female characters in the novel are relatively invisible and superficial" (114). At what point does a man's jazz become a black woman's blues? By what tools of analysis would we handle, and by what norms would we even understand, one person or group's improvisation as another's "I can't breathe?" Winters then brings to bear Jewish cultural critic Walter Benjamin's insights into the work of art, suggesting that film reveals "hidden and unknown features of everyday experiences" even as it reinforces tropes, stereotypes, and asymmetrical social and cultural relationships precisely because it is in the business of "reproduction"; it is an (imperfect, complicated, contingent) "site of critique" (145–46). Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1977) and F. Gary Gray's Set It Off (1996) offer sites of resistance to notions of triumphant progress and complicate assumptions about social ascendancy. Burnett's film "frustrates tendencies to absorb race, black bodies, and working-class black experiences into a forward-marching imaginary" (162), while Set It Off demonstrates that achieving the "American Dream" requires economic and ontological theft. It forces pursuers (of it) to steal material resources from others, and pursuers never actually realize the "American Dream" because arrival requires "something vital being lost, taken away, and left behind" (186).
Drawing the book to a strong close, Winters turns to Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope, and then back to Morrison, this time her magisterial Paradise, to complicate the notion of the "postracial" through a typology of "strong" and "weak" varieties (224–28). "Strong" postracialism signifies on a temporal event where it no longer matters to talk about disparate racialized realities. MSNBC host Chris Matthews's response to the 2010 Presidential State of the Union address offers Winters a prototype. Matthews averred to his audience that Obama "is postracial by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight" [End Page 97] (188). "Weak" postracialism is an interpretive threshold, signifying both constant awareness of the tragic refracting any hoped-for arrival, the costs we all—but especially black and brown folk—pay for Obama's arrival, and also Obama's arrival as grounds for continued white denial and black and brown deferral. Obama's ascendancy was made possible by his (and our collective) embrace of a narrative of progress structured by and structuring our domestic and foreign policies that externalize the costs of social advance onto others. Obama is the president of hope and progress, and the standing president during the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and so many more young brown and black folk at home and abroad. We are naïve to think progress doesn't come at someone's cost; we are bad philosophers if we shield our analyses, arguments, and imaginations from those disparately felt costs.
Hope Draped in Black situates Winters as participant in conversations with, while also standing on the shoulders of, some of the leading philosophers of black religion and culture, including Cornel West, Eddie Glaude Jr., William D. Hart, Victor Anderson, David Kim, and the already mentioned Morrison and Pinn. Like many of these well-known thinkers, Winters is motivated to wrestle squarely and honestly with the overwhelming weight of black suffering through the rich, unique cultural resources produced alongside that suffering. The book's reliance on social theory and literature is not altogether novel, but what Winters does with it signals a timely development beyond defenses of pragmatic thought and critiques or defenses of black belief. In this respect, Hope Draped in Black is a classic philosophical defense of hope against the problem of evil in the technical, strict sense of "defense," but in contradistinction to a "theodicy," the book never justifies the practical value of hope. With skill and analytic precision, Winters has effectively demonstrated how hope might be kept as a political or existential option today. The book succeeds in arguing that hope, when draped in black, is not logically incompatible with the preponderance of black suffering, nor does hope necessarily ignore or mitigate the "evil" externalized onto others through discursive appeals to "progress." As this defense of hope, the book is compelling and intellectually inspiring. Yet, as defenses go, its success is also its weakness: What good is keeping hope when hope—even if draped in black—might not be worth keeping? [End Page 98]