Reflections on black suffering, pain and reimagining freedom
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 consequences 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 to 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 re-articulate specific events as a call for forgiveness, love, compassion, education, and peace. These are all necessary to ensure that humanity can enjoy a richness and fullness that I strongly believe is a divine birthright. But black people’s participation in such a call, precludes an expectation to not speak about their historic and present injustices. This reality then acts as a constant reminder that, ‘black speech is always under coercion’ (Wilderson).
In the conversation with Desmangles, Wilderson elaborates on this by arguing that ‘black speech is under coercion in terms of temporality and spatiality’. Furthermore, Wilderson suggests that ‘there is no point during history, [nor is there] a place on earth where black people can speak about their experience 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 experience 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 experienced - 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 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. 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 speak 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’ for many is a synonym for ‘anger management’, rather than an opportunity to listen 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’. Such a powerful and sobering realisation acts as a possible indicator as to why societal and government responses to the cries of black people are always innately, wholly and painfully inadequate.
Therefore, it is essential that we see not simply society’s, but humanity’s - constant need to ‘[impose] forgiveness on top of the anger and trauma of a deeply traumatised people, [is not merely unjust and callous], it acts 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 my reflective piece alongside the many articulations of what freedom looks like.