By Alexandra Brown •
This reflective piece is a summary and critical analysis of a conversation between author, activist, and Afro-Pessimist philosopher, Professor Frank B. Wilderson III and Chairman of ‘Before Columbus Foundation’, Justin Desmangles. The discussion was entitled, ‘Re-Imagining the Black Body: Race, Memory, and the Excavation of Freedom Now’.
I wish to begin this reflective piece by outlining my personal understanding of freedom. I will then critically engage with some of the claims made by Wilderson about the nature and function of freedom. Following this, I will provide some closing thoughts on the further nuances that can be found within my initial understanding of freedom.
‘Freedom is, speaking out against racism and anti-Blackness, talking back to whiteness, whilst holding a mirror to itself and reflecting what Black people see, experience and feel, without the fear of consequence and retaliation. Such a freedom would also necessitate that my conscious and subconscious would center around me and the issue at hand. My first, second and third thought would not be concerned about the repercussions of white supremacy’s, ironic and innate fragility’.
Black suffering, pain and gratuitous violence is often seen as an occasion to rearticulate painful events as a call for forgiveness, love, compassion, education, and peace. Whilst these are all necessary to ensure that humanity can enjoy a richness and fullness that I strongly believe is a divine birthright, Black people’s participation in such a call, precludes an expectation to not speak about their historic and on-going injustices. Such a reality then acts as a constant reminder that, ‘Black speech is always under coercion’ (Wilderson).
Within the conversation between Wilderson and Desmangles, Wilderson elaborates on this point by arguing that the coercion of Black speech exists in both ‘temporal and spatial’ terms. Wilderson then goes on to suggest that ‘there is no point during history, [nor is there] a place on earth where Black people can speak about their experiences without the risk of sudden death’. Whilst I concur with the sentiments of Wilderson’s thoughts, I take exception to the notion that at no point within the Black experience, has our speech and bodies been under this level of surveillance and control. Such insinuations highlight one of the greatest flaws of Afro-Pessimism; it is unable to re-member (piece back together) and thus redefine itself beyond the parameters of white supremacy.
I also wish to further interrogate the nuances of Wilderson’s use of the phrase ‘could not speak about their experiences without the risk of sudden death’. Whilst it is essential that we recognise the mortal danger that speaking out against white supremacy holds, its immediate response does not always equate to the ending of life. Therefore, to create a more nuanced understanding, ‘death’ perhaps, could also be understood as the abrupt and violent end of one’s physical and verbal expression. Consequently, examples of torture, dismembering of the body, exile, false imprisonment, damning public portrayal, silencing and erasure, could be understood as a broader articulation of ‘dying a strange death’. We could consider it as such because, the imposition of the latter would relegate the individual into a zone of non-being.
Another clear example of the ways in which Black suffering, pain and gratuitous violence is often subverted and rearticulated, is through the exploration of Black people’s relationship with grief. Within the discussion, Wilderson made the powerful point that ‘grief saturates us and as a result, we cannot theorize a prior plenitude (a place in time before the grief)’. In many ways, this speaks to the heart of the problem. Due to the ongoing perpetuation of slavery through the structures, institutions and policies that continue to sustain oppressive power dynamics, Black people (as a collective) in many ways are unable to reimagine a lived time, when we were not suffering. We are unable to think outside and return to a reality where ‘grief did not subtend and proliferate exponentially’, in ways that pervade every aspect of our entire being (Wilderson). Wilderson then goes on to suggest that, as a result, ‘Black politics’ is a synonym for ‘anger management’, rather than listening to the discourse of Black demands, suffering and anger. To paraphrase Professor of American studies Jared Sexton, this is because, ‘the demands, [not simply for justice and reparations but the mere] essence of Black people’s demands, are too large to be conceptually grasped’ (Wilderson). Such a powerful and sobering realisation acts as a possible indicator as to why societal and governmental responses, to the cries of Black people, are always innately, woefully and painfully inadequate.
Therefore, it is essential that we see society’s and humanity’s constant need to ‘[impose] forgiveness on top of the trauma and anger of a deeply traumatised people, [as not merely unjust and callous], but more to the point, a form of policing’ (Wilderson). Therefore, the tears and anguish of Black people does not incite the rest of humanity to witness our truth and work in solidarity to change the status quo, but rather, it initiates a reactive response to pacify, neutralize and minimise our struggle for freedom.
In light of my reflection and my initial reimagining of freedom, the following sentiments become a reoccurring thought
When I wish to speak my truth and call out the injustices that in many ways dictates my experience, I should no longer need to internally calculate how much of my feelings and thoughts I can give voice to without anti-Blackness [enslaving me, colonising me, lynching me, shooting me, imprinting its knee on my neck, silencing me and retaliating against my mere existence through murder. True freedom necessitates a ‘level of irresponsibility, that does not leave one feeling bound or anxious to that level of responsibility’ (Wilderson).
As I walk in the revelation that truth can often be told and retold in many ways, by many people at different times. I place this reflective piece alongside the many articulations of how freedom must be reimagined.
This article was originally published on Conversations With, and was written by Alexandra Brown is a secondary school RE teacher with an academic background in Liberation theologies (specialising in Womanist theology). Alexandra also specialises in Islam within the Black American experience and social justice, with a particular focus on race, class and gender. Within her capacity as a teacher, Alexandra both theoretically and pragmatically engages with critical pedagogy and Black feminist theory. She is also a freelance writer, poet and academic. Alexandra is British born of African-Caribbean (Ghanaian and Jamaican) heritage.