Rae Adeleye, Julia Detchon and Thomas Edwards
Frank Wilderson is an Associate professor of African American Studies and Drama at U.C. Irvine. He is also a filmmaker, critic and writer. He earned his M.F.A. from Columbia University in Creative Writing (1991) followed by a Ph.D.in Rhetoric/Film Studies from U.C. Berkeley (2004). His research interests are in film theory, Marxism, Black Political Theory, Dramaturgy and Cultural studies. He received many awards for his writing as the author of the book Incognegro: A memoir of Exiles & Apartheid (2008).
Afro-pessimism - Wilderson’s website “Incognegro” states “rather than celebrate Blackness as a cultural identity, Afro-Pessimism theorizes it as a position of accumulation and fungibility (Saidiya Hartman); that is, as condition-- or relation of ontological death” (Incognegro). Wilderson says that because “Afro-Pessimists are framed as such...because they theorize an antagonism, rather than a conflict -- i.e. they perform a kind of ‘work of understanding’ rather than that of liberation” (Incognegro Interview). Wilderson’s website has a suggested reading list for those interested in works exploring the ideas of Afro-Pessimism.
The first part of Red, White & Black, entitled “Structural Antagonisms,” is a dense and extended discussion intended to locate theoretical foundation and methodology. Key figures presented in the two chapters, “The Ruse of the Analogy” and “The Narcissistic Slave” include Fanon, Agamben, Ronald Judy, Hortense Spillers, Equiano, Lacan (particularly his analysand), Hartman, Thomists and Spanish explorers, hooks, and Tommy Lott. These two chapters cover a lot of ground, so instead of an exhaustive summary here, we’ll address the concepts upon which we may find the most grounds for debate.
Antwone Fisher (2002) is Wilderson’s case study of a Slave film in the book, where he uses Afro-pessimism to “scrutinize Black cinema’s insistence that Blackness can be disaggregated from social death” (95). Building upon his conclusions in the two prior chapters, Wilderson examines how this film
Bush Mama (made 1975, released 1979) is for Wilderson an admirable depiction of black female suffering transmitted through white institutional oppression qua Dorothy’s experiences in Los Angeles. Wilderson finds Bush Mama an indictment of hegemonic violence. Wilderson identifies this film among a rare cumulative moment in the 1970s where radical Blacks emerged to embrace violence in an unprecedented way. Radical Blacks, he argues, formed a structure of articulation between their “unflinching” political movement (BLA and militancy) and cinematic fantasies (124).
Monster’s Ball (2001) - Wilderson’s interview with Dr. Pamela Brewer on the topic of Fanon, discusses the “need for the world to know itself” and the centrality of the black/white binary to self-understanding. In the hour long interview, Wilderson touches upon Monster’s Ball and just as he does in part 4 of Red, White and Black he discusses black parenting, and locates the failure as a structural rather than a performative problem. In the interview Wilderson says,
“as a parent who is not black […] one of the things Fanon is suggesting is that you can […] offer your child a reasonable framework/schema of how to live life faithfully, which is to say how to incur violence on your body from the institution, and how to not incur that violence. One thing that you cannot do as a black parent, with a black child is how to tell your child how to live life safely.”
From an Afro-Pessimistic perspective the recognition for a black parent, that they cannot keep their children safe in the world in which they live is a bleak and scary one. The world in which they live in one that tells them to “be white or disappear.” The inability for a black body to ever be white suggests they they must do that latter. This is Leticia’s experience in Monster’s Ball.The discussion of the mulatta as the mediation between black and white is discussed at length in part 4 of Red, White and Black.
The construction of the mulatta, neither black nor white, as vacuous as a shadow and as a prop complicates the black/white binary as black bodies are “borrowed” to perform as mulattas. Although Leticia is presented as a “mulatta” she is a “borrowed black body” and thus must be “rescued” from blackness by whiteness; cinema imagines her body as “a corpse with a pulse” (290).
In order to understand her “excess of fear” it is important to recognize the moment of rupture that occurs in the scene where Berry’s “unscripted and unforeseen” rant challenges the scripting of the film by replacing scripted words with her own. This partial clip of the “Make Me Feel Good” scene allows us to listen to/see the “grammar” of her suffering (as both character and actress).