To understand blackness, one can begin with the context set by The Black Radical Tradition. Scholars have argued that enslaved African peoples have transferred and edited “historical, cultural, and moral materials” as an ongoing shared resource (Interview). Cedric Robinson argues in Black Marxism for the self-conscious development of those materials into a political project that he calls “The Black Radical Tradition.” Familiar Marxists fill the ranks of the Tradition, namely WEB DuBois, CLR James, and (more recently) Angela Davis. Generalizing the problematic out from individual thinkers, we can think the Lukacsian spirit of the challenge posed by the project of The Black Radical Tradition: how can blackness overcome the self-aware fact of shared condition to become a self-aware political force? Or in the elegant Marxian terms: the transition from a class-in-itself to a class-for-itself (commonly derived from The Poverty of Philosophy).
$$ The print-based work of Black Panther Party Minster of Culture Emory Douglas is an exemplar of black consciousness raising. In a May 2, 1970 poster for The Black Panther, Douglas depicts two militants in the heavy line-work of his classic bold style. The figures are themselves a demonstration, as in a textbook illustration. Both are armed. The man on the left is anxiously awaiting some impending threat, while the woman on the right gives a cold stare as if she sees right through the viewer. Pinned to either’s collar is a button; one says “All Power to the People” and the other “Free All Political Prisoners.” Above their heads, he places a quote from Party Chairman Huey Newton, letting the strength of the words dominate the image through narrative. “Black people can destroy the machinery that’s enslaving them” it begins, “American cannot stand to fight every black country in the world and fight a civil war at the same time,” ending with “It is militarily impossible to do both of these things at once.” The poster offers itself as visual proof of the transformation of object to subject of history.
George Jackson outlines the psychological project of the Black Panther Party as involving three inter-related tasks: establishment of an underground press with an emphasis on ‘mass style,’ popularization of revolutionary culture, direction by an ‘ultra-aggressive’ political party (Blood in My Eye, 43). As such, Douglas’s prints bring the Party to life. His art poses Blacks as strong, militant, and active figures that are too large to be contained by the page. Set off against vibrant backgrounds, he emblazons his subjects with easy-to-read slogans and narratives, which dispels any ambiguity about their purpose.
Afro-pessimism offers a stark assessment of the Black Radicalism’s project of coming into being through such transcendence. Persuasively, both approaches begin with similar assessment of alienation – because even if reality is not dialectical, at the very least, colonialism was. The colonial gaze simultaneously cast blackness as infinitely Other but precisely objectified.
After making silently acknowledging their agreement, the two approaches part ways. On the one hand, the Tradition searches for itself by dialectically negating colonial negation. Black Radicalism plumbs this shared subjection to find the conditions for transforming object into subject recognized by history. And history has spoken back through the self-affirmation of négritude’s poets, the forceful propaganda of Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and the many global tongues of political hip-hop.
As for Afro-pessimism? Jared Sexton convincingly argues that both positions agree that there in the ongoing attempt to reduce black social life to black social death – in that ”black life is lived in social death” (Ante-Anti-Blackness). The disagreement revolves over a question of strategy. Against black optimism’s attempt to “negate black social death by vitalizing it,” afro-pessimism puts “double emphasis, on lived and on death” (Ante-Anti-Blackness). Such a doubling-down does not extend black life as an addition to the multicultural rainbow but offers access to social death’s terrifying economy of violence (Sexton; Patterson).
$$ Hank Willis Thomas’s 2013 sculpture “Raise Up” is a striking embodiment of black social death. Ten brass figures reach out of a white pedestal, facing the wall with their hands held up. While each differing slightly, all ten are presumably men. Why are their faces obscured? Perhaps it is a lineup (but none of the hands are flat against the wall). They could be at a prayer service (though that is not reason enough to face them away from us). After the Michael Brown shooting of 2014, it would certainly be easy to imagine it paying homage to the activist “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!”
We can only see one’s set of shoulders. The rest are submerged so deeply in the white base that torsos, necks, mouths are sliced off. Some sort of inhumanity has occurred – these are incomplete people; not only have we been cut off from them, but they are have been separated from themselves. In spite of everything, the figures are still somehow active. It is not as if the heads and arms have been carelessly strewn about or arranged in a stilted attempt to unnaturally pose them.
Those familiar with South African Apartheid may not have to guess at all. Thomas based the sculptural work on a famous photograph by Ernest Cole of nude black miners undergoing a medical examination.
But even more than a strategic orientation for Black Studies, it is a pessimistic transvaluation of values. “In Western cultures,” Eugene Thacker argues, “it is commonly accepted that one celebrates birth and mourns death” (“Cosmic Pessimism,” 74). “Wouldn’t it make more sense to mourn birth and celebrate death?,” he proposes. The strange consequence would be that “mourning and living would be the same thing.” Afro-pessimism is thus apocalyptic. It takes seriously Fanon’s urging to bring about “the end of the world,” which he says is the “only thing… worth the effort of starting” (BSWM, 96).