Westside Connection: Meeting Frank Wilderson, III

While in California attending the Ford Foundation Conference in Irvine I met Frank Wilderson, III, a key theorist of Afro-Pessimism. Frank is Professor of African American Studies and Drama at UC-Irvine. I came to engage with Afro-Pessimism by way of my dissertation co-advisor, Alvaro Reyes. He informed myself and a few other students enrolled in his Fall 2013 course on Liberation Geographies about Frank and Afro-Pessimism and instructed us to read his works. Though he is in agreement with Afro-Pessimists’ central tenants regarding anti-Blackness being the foundation of civil society, he disagrees with the way in which, Frank, in particular, foresees changing this structure – which is, in some way, through violence. Afro-Pessimism is a mode of thought (and existence?) which posits that Blacks in the U.S., as the offspring of slaves are non-beings, created via the abyss of the middle passage. Created in concert with the Black fungible object was white civil society – the light to our darkness. Darkness has no place within civil society, as evident by the persistant inequality throughout all sectors of life (i.e. education, employment, housing, health, etc.) and the gratuitous violence exacted against the bodies and images of Black men, women, and children, alike. For Frank, it seems, the only way to change this (un)civil society is to end it, violently. His thinking is influenced, greatly, by Nat Turner, John Brown, and the Black Liberation Army.

Learning collectively. Following our introduction to the term “Afro-Pessimism,” some friends and I, created a reading group where we discussed Frank’s Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid. The book oscillates between recollections of Frank’s middle-class upbringing in an all-white suburb in Minnesota and his time as a propagandist for the African National Congress (ANC) during the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. It is an absolutely beautiful, tortured, hilarious, and honest piece of writing. Throughout the book I simultaneously laughed out loud and shook my head, a judgmental response to his tragic prose. By the books’ end, I was sure this man (as is the case with many of us) was in need of therapeutic intervention. Through Frank – and later via Clyde Woods – I came to know Fanon better. Both writers, equally erudite, come to their studies of Blackness, in some way, via Fanon’s revolutionary thought.

Thinking ahead. Knowing I would be in Frank’s neighborhood, I emailed him to ask if I could meet with him, and perhaps, even, sit in on one of his classes. This was not our first corespondance. I’d emailed him to share the results of The Whirlwind, a zine some friends and I created, last spring, on race and geography. My essay in the zine was a spirited, if not rudimentary, engagement with Afro-Pessimist thought, in an attempt to theorize racial violence as a form of environmental racism. Frank responded favorably. Thus, I was not too surprised when he responded to my request to meet. Classes at UC-Irvine do not begin until the first week October, so my dream of sitting in on a class was dashed. However, Frank eluded to the possibility of meeting in person. He provided his contact number and a good time to call. That, I did, on Thursday, September 25th, the night before the start of the Ford Foundation Conference. The phone rang until I got a recording of his voice. The next morning I recieved a call at 8:00am but did not retrieve it in time. Thus, I was left with the unthinkable – Frank Wilderson left <em>me</em> a voicemail, apologizing for missing my phone call the night prior.

I called again. This time Frank answered and we discussed the logistics of meeting between the rigors of my conference schedule and his need to visit the farmers’ market Saturday morning. In what will seem highly unorthodox to some, Frank and I agreed to meet at my hotel at 7:30am on a Saturday morning. The next morning I arose earlier than usual, went downstairs to get up on that complimentary breakfast and to await his arrival in the lobby of the hotel. With 20 minutes to spare, I made use of the time by chatting, via Viber, with a good friend in Ghana. While in the midst of a serious conversation, I saw, in my peripheral, a Black silhouette emerge to my right. There was Frank, donned in all BlackBlack skin, Black clothing, Black hair and glasses. He smiled and made a gesture, instructing me not to rush my conversation as he took a seat in the lobby.

Call ended. I approached Frank with a smile and an open palm half-cocked and ready to initiate the universal soul brother handshake; the one that proceeds in 3 stages (slap, grip, catch), 4 if you end it with a snap. I snapped. Frank didn’t. We both got cups of mint tea and took a seat at a large wooden conference table in the hotel lobby. Unsure of how to begin the conversation I fumbled through a monologue of how I came to know his work and how classmates and I had conducted a reading group on his memoir. He was equal parts surprised, pleased, and humbled that students were reading his thought, independently of their guided studies. Next, I began a somewhat bumbling soliloquy of what I understood about Afro-Pessism and his writing, in particular. He corrected me where need be. I also discussed the critiques of his work mentioned by members of our reading group, in particular those of a feminist perspective regarding his (mis)handling of gender. He was curious about this challenge, one he admitted getting often. I did my best to relate the astute reactions mentioned in our reading group, which were to the effect that Frank does not account for the differences in domination due to the gender of slaves, particularly the sexual domination of Black women by white enslavers. I also recounted how Hortense Spillers, unlike himself, approaches her studies of Blackness from the position of the Black woman, her sexual domination, and her reproductive capacity. The Black woman, the only parent of enslaved children who “stands in the flesh,” is, for Spillers (1987), the site of a political potential that could counter the modern project of racial-sexual subjection (p. 80). Frank listened carefully and stated that he feels this very position is one of Spillers “weakest moments,” a moment that many people who study the condition of the Black have when faced with the sheer terror of our reality, that which is complete and utter domination. Thus, he feels, rather than accept this reality – that we remain “chained” in the hull of the slave ship – Black thinkers, instead, device ways to produce more palatable futures via impossible political alternatives.

For clarity. I should state that Frank, fundamentally, agrees with Hortense Spillers, Fred Moten, Clyde Woods, and others who have drawn from Fanon to explain the spatial and ontological condition of les damnés de la terre; however, he refuses to give into gendered, musical, or spatial “traps” of logic with the hopes that these imaginative solvents may desolve the current socio-spatial structure of anti-Blackness. As before mentioned, his alternative is the destruction of, not the revolution of, the present socio-spatial structure, via violence – the kind of violence Fanon (2004) stated would embody the freedom dreams of the wretched. This performativity of violence and the resultant jubilee of the Black – let us think back to the estatic fervor among many Black folk following the O.J. Simpson verdict – is a reality, according to Frank, that neither whites nor Blacks have been able to accept, whether inwardly or outwardly.

Frank is a brother who loves his people. And, despite our differences of thought – I am more inclined to walk, willingly, into such “traps” of logic – Frank showed genuine interest and support for my research – a geography of the Republic of New Afrika – and encouraged me to never fear saying I do not know when it comes to my studies and to never feel pressured to provide a rosey resolution to this (or any other) disposition. This, he explained, is why his first academic text, Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms, does not close with a profession of alternatives, but rather, explains, in its epilogue, why he chooses not to do so.

I am grateful to Frank for his time and insight.

Fanon, F. (2004). The wretched of the earth. New York, NY: Grove Press.

Spillers, H. (1987). Mama’s baby, papa’s maybe: An American grammer book. Diacritics. 17(2), 64-81.

Wilderson, F. (2008). Incognergro: A memoir of exile and Apartheid. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Wilderson, F. (2010). Red, white, and Black: Cinema and the structure of U.S. antagonism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

See also:
Hartman, S. (2007). Lose your mother: A journey along the Atlantic slave route. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Woods, C. (1998). Development arrested: The blues and plantation power in the Mississippi Delta. New York, NY: Verso.

Moten, D. (2013). Blackness and nothingness: (Mythicism in the flesh). South Atlantic Quarterly. 112(4), 737-780.

Sexton, J. (2011). The social life of social death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism. InTensions. 5, 1-47.