Check It Out: Afro-pessimism and the ‘social death sentence’

by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier

During the first decade of the 20th century, W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington had a philosophical rivalry.  Dubois predicted the problem of the 20th century would be the color line. He basically forecasted the permanents of White supremacy in America. Before Washington died in 1915, he made a contrasting statement. He didn’t intend to predict the future, but his statement was prophetic.   

Washington said, “There is a class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs—partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some people do not want the Negro to lose his grievance, because they do not want to lose their job.”  

Dubois’ prediction fell short due to the 1954 Brown v. Board Supreme Court desegregation decision, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, The Great Society programs and Affirmative Action. However, at the beginning of the last decade of the 20th century, an academic conference was held that launched a movement called Critical Race Theory. CRT predicted the problem of the 21st century would be systemic racism because racism was permanently embedded in American institutions. Therefore, the traditional civil rights movement’s attempt to create color-blind or race-neutral policies are ineffective, making race-based policies necessary to solve inequality. Critical Race Theorists, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, stated, CRT builds off the American radical tradition exemplified by Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and most of all, W.E.B. Dubois.  

Now, the question becomes, were Critical Race Theorists accurately analyzing America’s transformation, or did they create a theory in order to make Dubois’ failed prediction a reality? If the answer is the latter, then CRT actually fulfills Washington’s prophecy. 

CRT became a controversial topic during the first half of 2021 because Republican legislators insisted CRT was being taught in K-12 schools and sought to ban the theory from public education. Democrats defended CRT, not because of its merits, but out of a moral obligation to oppose the Republicans. The rival parties actually had one thing in common concerning CRT; neither was aware of its existence until 2020, after President Trump signed an executive order banning diversity training programs that incorporated CRT. That was the first national recognition of CRT since the movement was launched over 30 years ago. 

The same year CRT escaped decades of obscurity and entered the mainstream public discourse, Frank B. Wilderson III published a book that provides an introduction to the latest obscure, race-based, academic movement called Afro-pessimism. (Afro-pessimism is also the title of the book.) 

Now, Dubois stated Blacks in America developed double consciousness or conflicting identities…which meant descendants of slaves were forced to balance the fact that they were Black and American but couldn’t be both because America didn’t recognize them as full citizens. Afro-pessimism takes this concept to the extreme and states Black people are Black and human but can’t be both because humanity rejects Blackness. 

Wilderson wrote, “Human life is dependent on Black death for its existence and for its coherence. Blackness and Slaveness are inextricably bound in such a way; whereas Slaveness can be separated from Blackness, Blackness cannot exist as other than Slaveness.” Wilderson also stated, Blackness is often misconstrued as an identity of the human community; however, there is no Black time that precedes the time of the slave. Afro-pessimism suggests that Blackness is a “social death sentence” because Black people never have an “equilibrium of social life” under White supremacy. 

Obviously, Afro-pessimism drags the problem of the color line into the 21st century and makes it eternal. Defenders of CRT don’t realize that if the current generation accepts the premises of CRT, Afro-pessimism will be the byproduct decades down the line. Unfortunately, the reason why defenders of CRT can’t foresee this future is because they haven’t heard of Afro-pessimism yet and won’t discover it until it’s 30 years too late. 


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