Teaching Politically and the Problem of Afropessimism

Nino Brown, Derek Ford
Teaching Politically and the Problem of Afropessimism

The authors argue that the theory of Afropessism is antithetical to the development of political movements.

As teachers, we’re tasked with educating our students, students who are increasingly, like their teachers, becoming politically conscious and called to act. Yet the dominant political theories and forms of action are inadequate for real revolutionary transformation. In other words, the schools and universities in capitalist society are all too ready to accommodate and guide this consciousness and energy into forms it can accommodate. This is not a new phenomenon, but one that’s accelerated since the 1960s in particular.

For example, Charisse Burden-Stelly documents how Black Studies emerged in the 1960s “to fundamentally challenge the statist, imperialist, racist, and Eurocentric underpinnings of the traditional disciplines in westernized universities,” but that it was soon “more or less fully incorporated into the westernized university.”[1] What facilitated this absorption was the erasure of political and economic critique and action with cultural and literary analysis, which “reify the abstraction of Blackness” and divorce it from political struggle, not even questioning its relationship to and basis in the material conditions and struggles of the people.[2] As we wrestle with political pedagogy, then, our guiding orientation has to be one that resists such subsumption within capital.

Yet it’s not only that the “scholastic ideological apparatus” provides its own official pathways for “resistance” and “transformation,” from reading groups to Diversity and Equity Initiatives and intergroup dialogues. Perhaps a more fundamental problem for us–as our students participate in protest movements–are the academic theories and politics that they encounter there and often unconsciously absorb. We regularly hear students say “anti-Blackness” and, when we ask them what it means and what political orientation it comes from and reproduces, they’re not sure. Or we hear students say in regards to protests against particular forms of oppression that we have to “listen to and follow” the people who face that oppression. White and non-white students alike believe they have to “follow and listen to Black leaders” at protests against racist police terror and white supremacy. We’re told to cite Black scholars. In either case, the question of politics is completely effaced, as there’s almost a prohibition against asking: “which Black people?” Yet this is not a defect but a feature of Afropessimism, a feature that opens the arms of white supremacist imperialism.

The happy marriage of capitalism, Afropessimism, and liberal identity politics

We and our students want radical transformation, and so many often jump to the latest and seemingly most radical sounding phrases, slogans, and theories. In education, as in so many other disciplines, one of the increasingly dominant phrases is “anti-Blackness” and the theory of Afropessimism. The two foundational theorists here are Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton. For Wilderson, Afro-pessimism contends that “Blackness cannot be separated from slavery,” and that “the Slave’s relationship to violence is open-ended, gratuitous, without reason or constraint,” whereas “the human’s relationship to violence is always contingent.”[3]

There are crucial problems with this framework that make it perfectly acceptable to capitalism and perfectly antithetical to those who want to change the world. For one, they are completely Eurocentric in that Africa and the African diaspora are flattened into “Blackness” as a condition of the “human.” As Greg Thomas notes, this is “the [B]lackness and humanism of white Americanism, specifically and restrictively, an isolationist or exceptionalist Americanism.”[4] In other words, Afropessimism takes aim at a civil society and takes refuge in a Blackness that are both uniquely American. The U.S. historical and political experience is transformed into a transcendent, static, and universal ontological status or structure. More specifically, the theories of academics in highly prestigious and exclusive institutions in the U.S. are presented as ahistorical and global realities.

As identities, Black and Blackness are, in the U.S., fairly recent developments. The earliest recorded appearances are in Richard Wright’s 1954, Black Power and in 1966 as the first words spoken by Black Panther Stokely Carmichael when he left his jail cell after imprisonment for registering voters. White and whiteness are older but still relatively recent. Theodore Allen writes that he “found no instance of the official use of the word ‘white’ as a token of social status before its appearance in a Virginia law passed in 1691, referring to ‘English or other white women.’”[5] The point here, as Eugene Puryear observes, “is that the ideology of white supremacy emerged not because of timeless antagonisms based on phenotype differences, but in a precise historical context related to the development of racial slavery.”[6] This is precisely the historical context that Afropessimism erases and precisely the phenotypes they use to define Blackness.

Afropessimism addresses an apparent radical omission in the primary theory that oppressed people have utilized for liberation: Marxism. Wilderson’s work, however, is based on a fundamental misreading of Marxism, such as his contention that in “Marxist discourse” (whatever that is) “racism is read off the base, as it were, as being derivative of political economy.”[7] To be sure, there’s an unfortunate history of some Marxist groupings asserting “class first” politics, but Marx and Engels, and Lenin, together with the history of the international communist movement, always asserted the primacy of race.  Marx’s theory of class was a theory of race and colonialism, as was his communist organizing. As a historical-materialist, Marx understood that the base and superstructure of society change over time and are context-dependent. Neither the base nor superstructure are unified, static, or ahistorical. The relations of production in the U.S. are neither unified nor even strictly economic in the sense that they’re structured and divided by hierarchies of race, nationality, gender, dis/ability, sexuality, and other divisions.In an 1894 letter, Engels clarifies yet again the base-superstructure model, what it entails, how it works, and exactly what it’s supposed to do. First, he says that “economic conditions… ultimately determines historical development. But race itself is an economic factor.”[8]

Marx not only supported anti-colonial uprisings in India and China but even said that they might ignite the revolution in Britain. “It may seem a very strange, and very paradoxical assertion,” Marx wrote about the 1850-53 Taiping Rebellion in China, “that the next uprising of the people of Europe, and their next movement for republican freedom and economy of government, may depend more probably on what is now passing in the Celestial Empire.”[9]

Marx fought ruthlessly against racism and national chauvinism, particularly as he experienced the deep-seated racism of English workers against the Irish. He “argued that an English workers’ party, representing workers from an oppressor nation, had the duty to support an oppressed nation’s self-determination and independence” and that “English workers could never attain liberation as long as the Irish continued to be oppressed.”[10] He recognized that the fate of Black slaves, Black workers, and white workers were bound together when he wrote in Capital that “Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the [B]lack it is branded.”[11] Marx even organized workers to support the abolitionist struggle by galvanizing them to oppose a British intervention in the U.S. Civil War on behalf of the slaveocracy, an intervention that, because the British had the largest Navy in the world, could have altered the war drastically.[12]

Perhaps the real problem is that Marx treats race as a dynamic and contingent social production rather than a fixed and abstract ontological category. Black people face particular forms of oppression in the U.S. and elsewhere, as do other oppressed and exploited peoples. These change over time and are in a dialectical relationship with the overal social totality. Iyko Day got it right by equating economic reductionism to Afro-pessimism, insofar as it “frames racial slavery as a base for a colonial superstructure” and “fails to take into account the dialectics of settler colonial capitalism.”[13]

Why the neoliberal university loves Afropessimism

The reason anti-Blackness critique is welcome in schools is because it is devoid of praxis and politics, or, to be more precise, because it celebrates its lack of politics. The impossibility of praxis and the rejection of organizing are fundamental tenets for two reasons. The first is that there is no answer to the question “what is to be done?” and the second is that the mass movements necessary for transformation are “from the jump, an anti-black formation,” as Wilderson told IMIXWHATILIKE.[14] Of course, the only thing to do is to condemn every attempt at fighting oppression and improving material conditions. For example, when a student group at one of our schools staged a protest when Condoleeza Rice came to speak, they were denounced as “anti-Black.” There was no political criteria for such a denouncement, no defense of Rice, and likely no knowledge of the reasons behind the protest. It didn’t matter that Rice was a key figure of the white supremacist imperialist power structure, or that she played a major role in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the torture of thousands of Arab and African people.

Examples of “anti-Blackness” that often come up in organizing are that non-Black people of color are to be met with suspicion when organizing on issues that sharply affect Black people. One such issue is immigration. In the struggle for immigrant rights, which is often overcoded as a “Latinx” issue, some Black activists and organizers point to the fact that 44% of those caged by ICE, for example, are Haitians. Instead of directing their ire towards the racist state that holds many Black immigrants in horrendous conditions, the focus then becomes the irrevocable anti-Blackness that exists in Latinx communities. Ideologies like Afro Pessimism have working class people of color (Black people included) fighting amongst each other, with the same framework as liberal identity politics. They both reduce solidarity to checking one’s privilege and fashioning oneself as the consummate ally of Black people and their liberation. So, instead of building a united front against the racist state, the lack of corporate/mainstream media focus on the fact that there are many Black immigrants, and immigration is a “Black issue” unnecessarily shifts attention to other workers who are subjected to the same “anti-Black” ideology of the ruling class and it’s media apparatuses. Instead of calling out the “Latinx community” for their “anti-Blackness” a revolutionary perspective frames the issue as not one stemming from any said community, but from the ruling class which oppresses the vast majority of immigrants in this country.

Capital in these instances are let off the hook. The problem is no longer that the ruling class owns the means of production and thus the means of ideological production that reinforce anti-working class ideologies such as racism. The problem is the “anti-Blackness”–and the often posited “inherent” anti-Blackness–of non-Black communities. It’s a structural feature of society, but apparently one that can’t be changed. As a result, there’s no need to do anything except critique.

No wonder, then, that Afropessimism is so welcome in the neoliberal university and the increasingly corporatized public school system in the U.S. It’s incredibly easy to call something anti-Black, to condemn anti-Blackness, and to play more-radical-than-thou. It’s more than easy, it’s what academia is about. Moreover, and this is related to the Rice protest mentioned earlier, when “Black faces” do appear in “high places,” they’re immunized from any possible critique from any group that isn’t Black (enough). It doesn’t matter if the head of a school, corporation, or any other entity has the same politics as the imperialist and racist power structure, because they’re black and so to critique or challenge them would be an act of anti-Blackness.

This last reason is why white people love Afropessimism so much. The vague calls to “follow Black people” not only fulfill racist tropes that all Black people are the same (in, for example, their unruliness and “threat” to society) but moreover let white people off the hook for doing any real political investigation and work. The real response to “Follow Black people” is: “Which Black people?” Should Derek follow his comrade Nino or John McWhorter? Should he go to the police protest organized by the local Black Lives Matter group or the one organized by the local Congress of Racial Equality? Should he get his racial politics from Barack Obama or Glen Ford? He certainly shouldn’t get his politics–or take his lessons in class struggle–from today’s Afropessimists.

None of this is to devalue Black leadership in the Black liberation movement, to be clear. Black people have and will lead the Black struggle and the broader class struggle. Nor is it to claim that random white people should show up to a Black Lives Matter protest and grab the microphone. Then again, how much of a problem is that really? Shouldn’t we forget the myth that we can learn all the proper rules before we struggle and instead just go out and struggle? And as we struggle, be conscientious of our actions and how they could be perceived; know that we’ll make mistakes and own up to them; and most importantly build with those whom this racist society has segregated us from so we can unite against a common enemy. Black people will lead the Black struggle and the class struggle. So too will Asian Americans, Indigenous people, and Latino/a/xs. So too will the child of an African immigrant and a Filipino domestic worker. So too will some white people. The key ingredients are unity, political clarity, and strategic proficiency.

Such a recipe entails a necessary risk in that, first, politics are divisive and draw lines between friends and enemies and that, second, achieving unity and strategic proficiency takes hard work without any guarantees of success. Educators who are or want to be radical, however, have no choice but to accept this risk. We need to be rooted in movements and resist incorporation into neoliberal structures, refusing to allow them to guide our political decisions. Only if we have hope and faith in the power of the masses to change the world does it make sense to struggle at all. We choose to struggle! And we hope our students do too.


[1] Charisse Burden-Stelly. “Black studies in the westernized university,” in Unsettling eurocentrism in the westernized university, ed. J. Cupples and R. Grosfoguel, pp. 73-86 (New York: Routledge, 2019), 73.

[2] Ibid., 74.

[3] Frank B. Wilderson III, Afropessimism (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2020), 217, 216.

[4] Greg Thomas, “Afro-Blue Notes: The Death of Afro-pessimism (2.0)? Theory & Event 21, no. 1 (2018): 291.

[5] Theodor Allen, The Invention of the White Race (vol. 2): The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America (New York: Verso, 1997), 161-62.

[6] Eugene Puryear, “The U.S. State and the U.S. Revolution,” Liberation School, November 01, 2018. Available at: https://liberationschool.org/the-u-s-state-and-the-u-s-revolution/.

[7] Frank WIlderson III. “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society?” Social Identities 9, no. 2 (2003): 225.

[8] Friedrich Engels, “Engels to W. Borgius in Breslau.” In Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence (New York: Progress Publishers, 1894/1965), 441

[9] Karl Marx, “Revolution in China and Europe,” in K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected works (vol. 12), 93-100 (London: Lawrence & Wisehart, 1979), 93.

[10] Gloria La Riva, “Lenin and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” in Storming the Gates: How the Russian Revolution Changed the World, ed. J. Cutter (pp. 75-83) (San Francisco: Liberation Media, 2017), 76, 77.

[11] Karl Marx, Capital: A critique of political economy (vol. 1): The process of capitalist production, trans. S. Moore and E. Aveling (New York: International Publishers, 1867/1967), 284.

[12] ​​See Gerald Runkle, “Karl Marx and the American Civil War,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 6, no. 2 (1964): 117-141.

[13] Iyko Day, “Being or Nothingness: Indigeneity, Antiblackness, and settler colonial critique,” Critical Ethnic Studies 1, no. 2 (2015): 112.

[14] Frank B. WIlderson III, “‘We’re Trying to Destroy the World’: Anti-Blackness and Police Violence After Ferguson,” in Shifting Corporealities in Contemporary Performance: Danger, Im/mobility and Politics, ed. M. Gržinić and A. Stojnić (New York: Palgrave, 2018), 55.

Derek R. Ford is assistant professor of education studies at DePauw University, where he teaches and researches at the nexus of pedagogy and political movements. He’s written six books, the latest of which is Marxism, Pedagogy, and the General Intellect: Beyond the Knowledge Economy (2021). He’s also the lead editor of Liberation School’s “Reading Capital with Comrades ” podcast series.

Nino Brown is a public school educator and labor activist in Boston. He is also an organizer with the ANSWER coalition, the Jericho Movement and the Boston Liberation Center. He’s a member of the Liberation School Collective and is an editor of the forthcoming book on Marxist pedagogy, Revolutionary Education: Theory and Practice for Socialist Organizers (2021).