Radical Thinker At UC Irvine Spreads Afropessimism Wherever He Goes

Photograph by Ralph Palumbo


Aradical thinker helming the African American Studies department at UC Irvine, Frank B. Wilderson III is an award-winning author, professor, and public intellectual. His third book, “Afropessimism,” a blend of groundbreaking critical theory and moving passages of memoir, comes out next month. It’s bound to be controversial, as this cover blurb hints: “There are crucial books that you don’t agree with, but one still comes to understand the importance of the thought experiment. ‘Afropessimism’ is one of those books,” writes poet and Yale University professor Claudia Rankine.

At 63, Wilderson is used to being at the center of the storm. His father was a college professor, and his mother was a public school administrator. Both were also psychologists who fought to integrate into a white, upper-middle-class Minneapolis suburb in the ’60s to raise Wilderson and his three siblings. His own activism began in middle school, when he led a protest against forced recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. “They almost broke my knuckles to get me to stop, but I didn’t.”

In the 1990s, he moved to South Africa and was one of two Americans ever to hold elected office in the African National Congress. By day, he conducted ANC business and taught college literature. By night, he worked underground in the ANC’s military arm. His journal became the basis of his first book, “Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile & Apartheid.” “I asked the people who I had been in a guerrilla cell with if I could write about what we did. They said no. I was back in the States. I wrote it anyway.” It was published to rave reviews in 2008, won an American Book Award, and helped him win a literary fellowship.

“I came into the profession a lot older because I was a vagabond around the world, so I never had a tenure-track job until I was like 50. When you’re going around lecturing and you don’t have a book, you’re really kind of anxious. Then you come out with a book, your body chemistry changes. As the South African writer J. M. Coetzee says, ‘My books are on the shelf; you can go to war with them.’ ”

Everybody in the world thinks that I started (Afropessimism) because I’m like the used car salesman of this.

While Wilderson—who has postgraduate degrees from Columbia and UC Berkeley—might be the theorist most widely associated with Afropessimism, the field was pioneered by a Columbia professor who coined the term in 2002. Afropessimism argues that society views black people as nonhuman. They are not seen as daughters and sons, but as objects for ownership. Slavery and plantations were replaced by mass incarceration. “Like feminism, postcolonialism, and Marxism, Afropessimism is a lens of interpretation which explains the structure of suffering.”

It gained momentum in 2008 when a debate team from Maryland used Wilderson’s theories in its argument to beat an Ivy League school. “So what that started was a major investment … by kids of color into Afropessimism as a weapon in debate tournaments. My wife and I laugh because we get calls at night, ‘Hi, my name’s so-and-so and I’m in the 10th grade. We’re at debate camp and we’re reading (your book), and we just have a question.”

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