- 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...